Film, Darkrooms, and Analog: My Open Questions to Academia

Writer and photography / Peter J. Blackburn

Peter asks: Why are the academics are removing the darkrooms from education and replacing them with digital technology?

A vibrant darkroom once thrived behind this door. I went through it on many occasions. Today it just leads to another very ordinary classroom.

Listen. It’s quiet now. Strangely quiet. All the commotion and noise have finally ceased. Mercifully, all of the glass shattering, all the bottle smashing, and all the debris shoveling have stopped. The bulldozers have merrily chugged back to their government road work, none the worse for wear.

Look. Look around you. Do you see? All gone. They’re all gone. Every last one. Sadly, regretfully, every-last-darkroom.

In continuation from my previous blog, I wish to voice a nagging question or two to my all-wise, much respected colleagues in the academic fine arts arena, cordial questions among friends mind you, but much to the point. Here’s one that readily comes to my mind. Why, oh why, was there such a determined, resounding, unstoppable surge by so many educational facilities to swiftly pull the plug on every film enlarger, drain each and every print tray, and trash every last developing tank just because digital technology became the primary delivery system for photographic imagery? And here’s another one. What prevailing wisdom believed it was a good idea to gather up every last roll of film with all the accompanying workflow and summarily jettison photography’s most recent link to its illustrious past from virtually every classroom like a spent booster stage of an aborted rocket?

Some exclaim with noble intention,

“Look, son. Look at the money we save by not buying nasty chemicals, unwieldy film, and cumbersome equipment.”

Others stretch out their arms and point like some haunting ghost of photography future. “Face it,” they warn. “We’ve latched onto the DSLR, 64 gigabyte memory cards, and stylish media presenters now, kid. Jiminy, we’re up to CS5 already! Film? What are you, nuts?” Still others eloquently pontificate in a manner quite like Mr. Poe at Briny Beach.* “Children, through a very unfortunate event we cannot support two systems—analog and digital. That one simply had to go.” For some inspired, or rather, insidious reason, it wasn’t enough for silver analog to head to the back of the bus—it had to get off the bus! Not at the next stop, mind you, but right here. Right smack in the middle of the road, in the dark of night, in the pouring rain.

Oh, I’ve heard the reasons, most of the alibis and every petty excuse. Perhaps some reading this essay might wish to add their own reasoned rationalization to the ever growing laundry pile. If you don’t mind, just open the door and let in the crickets. I’d much rather listen to them scatter and chirp on the floor of this barren and forsaken darkroom.

You see, since its beginning film had the inherited burden of being all things to all people. Shoot that portrait! Film that birthday! Grab that sunset! Capture that riot! Record that family outing! Snap that circus clown! Document that war! Frame that building fire! Get that picture of the kid holding a grenade! Oh, and while you’re at it, photograph that exquisite, ever so elegant drop of water coming out of that faucet. The blending and blurring of art and commercial, of utility and the sublime, of the pretty and the pretty awful was, and still is, an irreconcilable tension in this complicatedly simple medium we call photography. Except now that dubious double-duty, that multi-headed albatross sits squarely in the lap of digital capture. Hurrah! The gigabyte gadgets can now assume all the headaches and heartbreaks of everyone’s whims and wipe each and every runny nose as it strangely morphs from dedicated camera to the ubiquitous cell phone to who knows what. How funny. It’s become the digital world’s turn to run away and find itself—you know, hitch a ride on a freight train and live off the land to develop some character instead of just being one. It’s well past time to get away and reconsider your identity while in the process develop a smattering of modest manners. A healthy measure of gentle humility wouldn’t hurt, either. Anyway, have a nice trip and send us a tweet once in awhile.

My dear Watson, film has been there, done that—oh, has it ever done that— and wears the well-earned and much tattered T-shirt. Ironically, instead of being in a prime position to further grow and mature as an art form much as painting has continued to do so ever since it was pronounced dead at the dawn of the Daguerreotype, silver analog has found itself briskly swept out the classroom door as if it were one of those confounded crickets. Brilliant, just brilliant!

For the love of Rodinal, just why has analog been dropped and left behind in many a campus so quickly, to be forever forgotten? But will it be forgotten? Can it be left behind without so much as a second thought? Amazingly for the very first time in its history, film, our newly accepted member in what we embrace as alternative techniques, can today explore a wide and rich world unhindered and unencumbered by the evil albatross. That the digital Stephano (he is an Italian man*) has long since fled out the door yanking the screaming masses with him, the resourceful Klauses, inventive Violets, and visionary Montgomery Montgomerys of this world, of which I dare say there are thousands, can peacefully have at it, continuing to enjoy the tactile pleasures of film and bring the unique aesthetic worth of silver processes to new levels of thought and imagination, rightfully standing them alongside the likes of clay, canvas, and yes, the computer. If it happens, most likely academia will not be the one to thank. Rather, it will probably be accomplished in spite of—not because of the university. It will be a tribute primarily to web sites such as this and dedicated artists around the world who appreciate and understand what analog in all of its forms can continue to bring to educational instruction and visual expression.

Already, the creative wheels are smoothly turning in fascinating directions for analog virtuosos and hybrid aficionados. As for the future, may the doors of the bright yellow bus someday open wide to them, and to us all, once again.

*Reference from the 2004 Paramount motion picture, A Series of Unfortunate Events, starring Jim Carey.

9 thoughts on “Film, Darkrooms, and Analog: My Open Questions to Academia”

  1. First of all, I have to agree with Andy and say that I dislike the term analog. Much of the time when I hear someone using this term, they do so in a very derogatory way as if to infer that the technique, apparatus or person using said technique or apparatus is somehow of the Ice Age or not “with it.” I once heard someone refer to an artist drawing illustrations by hand as an “analog” artist because they didn’t use a mouse and fancy software to produce their “art.” This person was obviously a product of the ignorance that comes from teaching technology without teaching its origination.

    One day while subbing for the advanced yearbook class, I was excited to find that a local high school, established just 12 years ago, had a working darkroom and, according to the students, they actually do use it, but rarely. The students even said they enjoy working in the darkroom. I got to see it, and it has a really nice setup, but how sad that they don’t use it but for one week out of the year! It is also becoming a place for the janitor to stash supplies, which isn’t a good sign at all.

  2. Analog is alive and thriving in the art department at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon! I offer film the first quarter, digital the second, and then alternative processes the third. I run two black & white darkroom sessions to each digital session in order to meet demand. Students who study darkroom first have a much deeper understanding of basics like camera settings, since, of course, they cannot review their images right after shooting. Students who study analog also learn to be better image editors before the shutter release is tripped.

    And those who study analog and then move to digital learn that digital doesn’t necessarily mean faster (cue evil laughter…).

  3. Wonderful comments so far and I really appreciate them. This is good discussion. Thank you, Andy, for reminding us of the “chemical photography” term and adding it to our repertoire. I use analog out of habit, but your reminder to other valid terms in the lexicon is most welcome! Robert, I enjoyed reading your post. My article really addresses higher education where providing a small wet space for photographic instruction and pursuits should not be that big of a deal for most schools (my response to your point #2). Like you, I consider myself blessed for learning photography while still in the age of film. It has served me well, even to this day. Great list you posted, too, Clive!

  4. I loved darkroom work and film BUT!
    1)Depending on where you live the availability might be slim to none
    2) you actually need a place to set up(I know you can use your Bathroom)But for a lot of people with work schedules and daily life it might not be feasible
    3)Unfortunately we have become a society that wants everything fast (hence the onslaught of digital)BETTER? for me no,but for the general population YES!
    I am Happy I learned Photography with film,because I personally feel I learned so much more.
    I know people look at the reasons for disappearing darkrooms and film and say weak or flimsy excuses BUT! in the end those are the reasons so it doesn’t really matter does it?

  5. Glen Echo Park just outside Washington, DC maintains a nice wet dark room. Open to the public two days a week for a modest fee. I don’t know if it pays for itself or not, but there are quite a few regulars. The dark room is part of a larger art school, which is a good idea.

    Chemical photography (I hate the term “analogue”) is now a niche market and adjustments will have to be made. Don’t give up the ship. Appeal to the human desire to set oneself apart from the mainstream.

  6. A number of reasons:-

    1)Digital is more Health & Safety friendly.

    2)Managers of these institutions believe (wrongly) that chronological progression automatically produces technological advancements that makes analogue no longer valid.

    3)Marketers have hijacked digital photography for commercial gain by updating new functions on cameras that are superfluous to the original aims of photography.

    4)Photography did not kill painting in the same way digital will not kill film as another form of printmaking.

    5)Within the context of Art & Design, they do not understand the value of different media and experimentation.

    6)Camera manufacturers are not photographers.

    7)An ignorance that what happens in the camera is more important than what is seen through the viewfinder.

    8)Digital makes it easier to jump through exam criteria hoops.

    9)Lack of analogue knowledge as to what can be achieved.

    10)They are not artists.

  7. The disappearance of dark rooms is a little like the difference between adoring “Princess Dianne” who died at the hand of the media circus she fostered for her own personal edification, and not adoring Mother Theresa who abandoned a life of wealth to serve the masses ultimately dying in poverty.

    “Princess Di” was easy and enchanting and had little to do with anything other than immediate gratification.

    Being Mother Theresa was a commitment to a higher calling based on a willingness to sacrifice and work hard.

  8. I share your concerns, but film is not dead, or dying! Ilford support a network of Community Darkrooms here in the UK; I am aware of similar networks around the globe, which can be found via APUG. I’m aware from friends in Australia that schools teach both analogue and digital techniques there.

  9. The wet darkroom is alive at the Colorado College. Many prospective students love the fact that we still teach photo in the dark. They are also wanting to learn the older techniques.

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