The Wet Darkroom Lives!

By Frank Van Riper
Frank Van Riper on Photography
Monday, January 23, 2006; 2:06 PM

It is worth noting, now that Nikon has made the not-really-startling announcement that it is drastically scaling back its production of film cameras, that the wet darkroom--given up for dead by the zealous and growing digital photography community--is alive and thriving.

But not for lack of effort by those blinded by digital's surface appeal and seeming ease to consign all analog photography to the dustbin.

I have to concede that traditional photography--film photography, with images produced by darkroom chemistry, especially in black and white--is becoming the exception, rather than the rule, at least as far as the all-important amateur mass market is concerned. And, to be fair, it also must be said that for those photojournalists covering breaking news, digital has become both a godsend as well as a terrible master, demanding to be fed with new images around the clock. Simply put: to get pictures moved as quickly as possible from point A (Iraq, for example) to Point B (the front page of Washingtonpost.com, say) there is nothing to compare to digital's lightning-fast means of photo transmission.

Finally, to dig myself deeper into a hole from which I plan to magically emerge, commercial applications of digital technology--if not actual digital photography--are growing rapidly. Art directors and clients, who used to be content to wait a few hours for slide film to be rush-processed by a lab, then messengered back to the studio for a hurried same-day edit, now routinely expect to see immediate digital results of their fashion, or food or interior shoot. And wedding clients who used to humbly wait weeks, even months, for their wedding proofs, now expect--even demand--almost immediate turnaround, in the form of digital CDs or online posting of their wedding photos to a separate server.

Everything, so it seems, needs to be done yesterday, lest one's Blackberry chirp with the dyspeptic burp of a client who absolutely, positively needs to see digital images--perhaps even uploaded to the damn Blackberry--so that he or she can have something to do while enjoying the next venti no-foam mochaccino.

And yet, and yet...

...for all the hype and hoopla over digital photography, why is it that some of the nation's most prestigious and popular visual arts schools, workshops and colleges report unflagging interest and enthusiasm for the wet darkroom, especially among their youngest students--which is to say the next generation of our commercial and artistic image-makers?

For one thing, it is the appeal of something so old that it is new, notes Prof. Leena Jayaswal, head of the photography program at the School of Communication at American University in Washington. "They are the digital generation. They have Photoshop they have Final Cut Pro, they have all of these things in their high schools...or in their home desktops, so when we show them this (film photography and the wet darkroom) this is really something different and new.

"Most of them have already played around with some form of (electronic programs) but this is really getting them to the bare basics, and we actually find that this is where we convert them, that they want to end up becoming photo majors, or take the photo sequence because they have access to this (darkroom)."

Or put another way: "Digital is part of [younger photo students'] everyday lives," says Reid Callanan, founder and director of the Santa Fe Photo Workshops, where there remain no fewer than five courses featuring work in the wet darkroom. "[Students] will routinely e-mail digital pictures to their friends from their camera phones. That's part of their world, but not the chemical darkroom."

And more to the point of why film photography and the wet darkroom remain vital, Craig Stevens, professor of photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design--not to mention a hell of a shooter and longtime teacher at the Maine Photographic workshops--argues that, aside from the curiosity factor, even the most committed techo-geek can benefit from getting his or her hands wet in the darkroom, while also studying all aspects of digital.

"We think that a student develops a sense of tonal taste and/or color sense when working in the analog medium so that when they sit down in front of a monitor they actually have an idea of what they want and where they want to go. Our administrators are actually in favor of maintaining the wet aspect while paying full attention to the digital aspect--for example we have Hasselblad digital cameras and a bunch of Canon10D's, 20D's and a couple of 1D's. We also have 80 MAC G-5 stations in the building as well as Imacon scanners and a full Digital Printing Lab. Our Alternative Process and Platinum Printing classes are always fully subscribed, so the interest is there among the students."


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