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The Wet Darkroom Lives!
Frank Van Riper on Photography

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."

Argues Leena Jayaswal: "I firmly believe that you have to be doing both (digital and analog). I would never want to send a student out, graduated with a photo concentration, without knowing Photoshop for sure...but if we are sending out someone who wants to be shooting and producing and working in photography they have to understand how to do both before they get to a digital camera that kind of does a lot of that stuff for them... It's quite different. It's like shooting film and video."

The whole question of digital's automated powers troubles people like Bruce Barnbaum, a master large format photographer whose work is regularly featured in the most prestigious photography journals and magazines.

"To be fair," Barnbaum writes, "this is not a problem of digital methodology, but a pervasive misuse of digital by users. I refer to this widespread misuse as 'digital abuse.'"

Most notably, he says, this abuse is "acceptance of initial sloppiness with the thought that it will be corrected later [in Photoshop, or with some other digital editor.] It is a syndrome that has few parallels in traditional [film] methodology...People caught up in digital abuse often forget to see light as it is, or often count on Photoshop to do more than it can to remove unwanted objects...and even change poor lighting into desired lighting."

It hardly needs mentioning that this approach rarely works--the breathless yelps of digital gearheads notwithstanding. "Poor initial seeing will not be corrected by Photoshop," Barnbaum declares, noting that "photographic artistry starts with seeing, not with manipulating the mouse at your computer."

So consider, if you will, the fountain pen. Or the radio. Or, more aptly here, that drawing or painting on your wall.

The obituary for each of these--and who knows for how many other things--was written as soon as new technologies such as the ballpoint pen, television--and photography--were invented. And yet each of the aforementioned items or disciplines has adapted to fill a niche in the lives of humans all over the planet. The same thing is happening right now to analog photography: adaptation forced upon it by the emergence of a strong, new and, in some ways irresistible, digital photography technology.

But adaptation is a far cry from extinction. In fact, it is just the opposite.

American University is now undergoing a wide scale renovation that will move the photography department to a newly refurbished location on campus. "Right now we just going back and forth with the architects and with the people who are in charge of technology on why we should keep the darkroom," notes Jayaswal. "We're small, we don't have a major in photography--you major in visual media [but] basic photo, darkroom photo, shouldn't be lost. It's a requirement for the gaphic design students as well as our students..."

But this is proving to be a hard, perhaps even impossible, sell, especially in a school of communication that has no real need for a vigorous fine art curriculum in photography.

"I think we are probably going to downsize, but now I'm not sure if we are even going to have any [wet darkroom]" Jayaswal laments. Despite the enthusiasm for film photography and the chemical darkroom in other schools and workshops around the country, Jayaswal's superiors at AU have decided to "revisit" the issue of any darkroom at all on the AU campus in light of the decision by Nikon to retrench--and by Konica to stop making any cameras--film or digital. [Does Konica know something about digital that we don't?] "I think we would be lucky to have a small darkroom that has maybe five enlargers," Jayaswal told me, "but that is if we are lucky. They might say the cost is too much and let's just convert it to a digital darkroom."

One concern at AU, Leena concedes, is that the school invest big bucks "for what will be antiquated in ten years. Will we be spending all this money (on a darkroom) and not be able to buy paper, not be able to buy chemistry?" Noting the photo industry's public commitment to continue manufacturing paper, film and chemistry--if perhaps on a smaller scale--Leena says "I keep telling my division director, 'I'm in charge of photography; I'm head of photo.' Do you think I want to be head of a program that is antiquated? ...I have done a lot of research. In putting together our five-year plan for the new building, I called the other local schools like George Mason and GW, and called RISD [the world renowned Rhode Island School of Design.]. Somebody told me that RISD had gotten rid of all their darkrooms so I called them and they said, 'no, we just bought 30 new enlargers, maybe three years ago.'"

Still, take away the apocalyptic warnings about film's demise, factor out the views of those who think the photo world is digital or nothing, and you are left with a commonsensical middle ground in which each medium--analog and digital--is free to flourish, each playing to its unique strengths. Notes Craig Stevens:

"If you look at the Antiquarian Avant Garde work being done by people like Tom Baril and Sally Mann, among others using wet collodion as a capture material, or Chuck Close doing Daguerreotypes or the legion of people shooting with Holgas, we see it is far from a slam dunk for digital. That said, some administrators are so frightened by the liability issue that they will run from chemical to digital in a heartbeat. It is Chicken Little in a fashion [but].technology has always changed photography and will continue to do so.

"Personally," Craig declares, "I have never been more excited about the medium than I am now."

For further information:

Savannah College of Art & Design

American University School of Communication

Santa Fe Photography and Digital Workshops

Bruce Barnbaum

Frank Van Riper is Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His current book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

Frank's Picks

An occasional feature with Frank Van Riper's recommendations of current shows, exhibitions, etc. that are worthy of a look. They concentrate on--though are not limited to--photography and the visual arts.

Southworth and Wheeler, et al at Strathmore Hall through Feb. 18th

Barbara Southworth and Clifford Wheeler share more than their home and a passion for photography. Each is loaded with talent too, as their current show at Strathmore Hall Mansion on Rockville Pike attests.

Southworth's beautifully composed and beautifully produced panoramic Iris prints represent some of her finest work to date. She is fast garnering a reputation as a superb landscape shooter, and these lush views of forests and streams are well-composed portraits that make harmonious sense of what too-often can be green and brown chaos.

Wheeler, whose color work is strong as well, makes his biggest impact with his black and white images, including a simply magical print of a light round rock against its darker companions. A simple thing, to be sure, but in Wheeler's capable eye, it is eloquent as well, calling to mind both Steichen and Weston.

Their joint show dominates the main ground floor galleries at Strathmore. But also worth a long long upstairs is "Poetry of Random Moments," including the work of Lillian Fitzgerald, Peggy Fleming and Mark Isaac.

Barbara Southworth and Clifford Wheeler; and Poetry of Random Moments.

Through Feb. 18th. Strathmore Hall Mansion, 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda, Md. For information, directions and hours:   Strathmore - Directions and Parking

Documentary Photography Class with Frank Van Riper

 For those who missed the chance to take Frank Van Riper's popular 6-week evening workshop in documentary photography and project printing this fall, it will be offered again this winter at Glen Echo Park's PhotoWorks studio. The Thursday evening classes will begin February 16th and run from 7pm to 10:30pm each week. In the class students will be expected to initiate or continue a project of their choosing, with the goal of producing a finished picture story by the end of the session. Course includes basic location lighting instruction and practical hints on both assembling a picture story and approaching people in order to photograph them. Students wishing to accompany their photo essays with written text are encouraged to do so. Class size is limited. Early registration is suggested. [Note: Though the class offers hands-on bxw darkroom instruction, students who prefer to work digitally may do so and are welcome.] For information: 301-320-7757. Or see website: Glen Echo Park

Frank Van Riper columns before 2005 -->

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