Originally published May 1, 2011
The current crop of college students grew up with digital cameras. Some may have a vague memory of a film camera from their childhood, but chances are digital is what they’re familiar with.
Digital photography courses have replaced “traditional” photography courses – that is black and white pictures shot on film and developed in a darkroom – in high schools throughout the country. Newspapers and magazines print black and white photographs less and less.
Yet colleges still maintain working darkrooms, complete with enlargers, chemicals and running water, where students can develop negatives and print black and white enlargements.
“I think that students in an academic setting learn an enormous amount by working with their hands and their eyes and the chemistry in a darkroom, and I think they learn more about light and shadow and more about composition and how to create a beautiful image when they’re really hands on,” said Professor Janice Mehlman, interim art department chairperson at Kingsborough Community College.
However, she also believes digital is part of the process. “It’s very essential that you have both. It’s a lot like learning to walk before you learn to run,” she said.
She added that photography majors at KCC understand that some images need to be made digitally and others need to be made on film and printed in the darkroom.
KCC has the students take photo one, the black and white darkroom class, followed by photo two, either with darkroom again or with digital. That’s followed by independent study and each student chooses either darkroom or digital.
“I think that having had the black and white before the digital, the digital is that much better,” said Janice.
There are about 200 students each semester at KCC who make use of the darkroom in 10 classes with five teachers and one darkroom technician. One of those teachers is Maureen Drennan, who teaches photo one.
“The first assignment is aperture, so it’s very technical,” she said.
That’s followed by landscapes, “So we’re moving a little bit away from technical but I want them to think about design and where you put the horizon line,” she said.
The third assignment is shadows, textures and reflections and the fourth assignment is portraits of strangers and family and friends. The purpose of shooting strangers is to make the students feel more confident.
The fifth assignment is a self portrait and the last assignment is “A Day in the Life of You,” where the students are to shoot what goes on in their day, all day.
Some people may argue that these assignments could be given in a digital class and there’s no need for the darkroom.
“I think that with this process you learn good habits and you learn how to be exact,” said Maureen. “Because if you’re not exact, you can’t go back…. If you mess up the developing process, that’s it.”
Both Janice and Maureen believe the slower, meticulous effort needed to produce a quality photograph in the darkroom is actually a blessing.
“They get more and more focused. They get more obsessed in a good way. And compulsive, which you should be,” said Maureen. “You have to be neat and tidy, and you have to have a system in the darkroom,” she said.
Dante Hutchinson is an 18 year-old, first-year photography major who had some experience with digital before college but is brand new to the darkroom. He feels shooting a roll of film with 36 exposures, as opposed to a memory card with a huge capacity, has made him a better photographer.
“I’m precisely choosing what I want to shoot and I’m being very tightly focused,” he said. When it comes time to choose a route for independent study, he thinks he may choose digital, but will still continue to shoot on film and work in the darkroom.
Samantha Pietrunti has been undeclared for four years but now that she’s halfway through her first darkroom class she’s considering making photography her major. She’s also considering going into crime scene photography.
Kingsborough isn’t the only community college in the area that maintains a darkroom. Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester and LaGuardia each have one, as does Brooklyn College and Adelphi University.
LaGuardia Community College’s darkroom houses 26 enlargers, including one for 8×10 negatives. There are six classes for beginner photographers and each class is half darkroom and half digital.
But it’s not just the beginners who use the darkroom there; other classes such as the commercial photography workshop, the studio lighting class, the intermediate photography class, the photojournalism class and the alternate process photography class all make use of the darkroom.
At Westchester Community College Center for the Arts, there four instructors who teach six photo one classes which utilize the black and white darkroom. Additionally they have six color enlargers for printing to a Kreonite KMIV color processor.
While the number of students voluntarily taking classes that involve working in a darkroom is impressive, there’s always the cloud of termination hanging over the art departments.
Talk of phasing out darkroom classes at KCC started in 2007. When administration said everyone else is getting rid of their darkrooms, Janice’s reply was, “Great! It’s an opportunity to buy enlargers real cheap!”
“There’s a magic about that darkroom,” said Janice. It appears students all over the region get spellbound by that magic which keeps the classes full.
So for the time being colleges will keep darkroom classes part of their photography curriculum. The day may come when they’re ancient history, but for now photography students still get to do it in the dark.