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Is a Photo a Photo Without the Darkroom?

by Sarah Cameron

Although I question the school’s decision to stop teaching traditional darkroom techniques in Intro to Photography classes, I openly accept that there is a strong case for emphasizing and improving digital education at the school. Much contemporary photography is moving in the direction of digital output, as photographers and photographic supply companies alike are reducing their production of traditional darkroom products and supplies.

So the question is not one of whether darkroom is “superior” to digital photography (though some may argue that it is), nor should the argument be a romantic, nostalgic desire to hold onto the methods of photographers gone by. Rather, the question is whether students can really learn photography, and how to produce aesthetically pleasing, technically sound and conceptually interesting images, without first learning the basics of photography as they have been taught and practiced for decades.

Given its relatively recent development into a viable means of professional image-making, there is little precedent for the study of digital photography. In every photo class, especially introductory classes, students will sit through a (digital) slide show of work by influential photographers. While some of the more interesting contemporary work has been produced digitally (Anthony Goicolea), much of the work that they will see will have been produced using traditional darkroom technology (Cindy Sherman). Although students do have access to digital study resources, there remains the problem of having over 100 years of highly influential chemically-produced photography.

I would not attempt to suggest that Photoshop prevents a beginning photo student from experimenting and taking influences from a variety of sources. However, working with the same techniques as those photographers that one is being exposed to does create a certain capacity to better understand and appreciate the photographic medium.

While working with images digitally could be thought to be a time-efficient form of studying the conceptual side of photography, it denies that computers are unreliable, temperamental creatures, especially when over-extended. The school does have excellent digital facilities, though it does not yet quite yet have the digital equivalent of two full black and white darkrooms. Intro to Photo is one of the most heavily in-demand classes in the school, and during the semester the black and white labs themselves often find themselves stretched to capacity.

There is, perhaps, a fiscal benefit for the photography department: the money saved by not having intro students using costly darkroom chemicals could, and should, be used to improve digital faciilites.
Even allowing for a student to shoot in the traditional manner—on film—it is difficult to imagine how a student could properly learn photographic manipulation on Photoshop in such a way as those skills could be translated from the mouse and monitor to the enlarger. Photoshop references the darkroom process in its interface in such a way that the digital commands make fairly immediate sense to someone from a traditional photographic background.

And allowing just a moment for nostalgia: the first time one opens up a RAW file in Photoshop doesn’t have a dime on the first time one places a blank sheet on exposed paper into developer and watches the image to appear.

Digital is appealing, and its benefits cannot be denied. However, surely there must be some middle ground. The FVNM department at the school faces similar hurdles as to how to teach such radically changing media, yet still encompasses traditional cinematographic methods and contemporary videography in its introductory classes. By removing the darkroom process entirely from the introductory photo classes the school makes a significant statement to incoming students about the future of photography, while the medium itself is still in an unclear transitional stage.

To see Sarah Cameron’s photographs, visit


September 2006