Photography is simpler than ever today: people use cell phones to snap digital photographs, edit via apps, and post images to social media sites. Folks also carry around sophisticated SLR (single lens reflex) cameras for their picture taking. By capturing images digitally, anyone can quickly wean out photos they don’t want, crop the images, and curate endlessly. Traditional photography techniques are long gone.
Reflecting on photographic techniques from the past, one might wonder how people ever survived using film and film cameras. How did we cope with not seeing images immediately? How did we put up with the chemical smells of a darkroom, the weird editing tools, the eerie red or amber lights in the corner?
Surprisingly enough, some artists still engage in film photography processes. I’ve been pleased to see the darkroom setups at SUNY Purchase, a liberal arts college in Westchester, New York, that emphasizes classic techniques. Some other colleges also teach darkroom film courses and New York’s International Center of Photography is a renowned hub for traditional film work.
Even a few public high schools in Manhattan, such as the High School of Fashion Industries, Beacon, and Millenium, still teach darkroom photography: using 35mm film cameras, hand developing film, making prints in trays, and eschewing computer editing programs for hand-cropping techniques.
I studied darkroom photography as a pupil at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn, and loved shooting pictures, printing regular and experimental photos. At Barnard College, I worked on the yearbook one year, snapping and developing pictures of athletic teams and campus-life candids.
In the 1990s, I taught darkroom photography at two public high schools in Manhattan. At Manhattan Comprehensive Night HS, a school aide contacted a non-profit group called Rehabilitation Through Photography. The organization gave us darkroom equipment and supplies for free; a few staff members and I remade an unused nurse’s office into a darkroom I used to teach the class. It was popular, with students of varying academic abilities eager to try their hands at this craft.
Later, at Murry Bergtraum High School, another teacher and I pooled funds known as “Teachers Choice” money and purchased equipment (I even brought in some of my own equipment) and the school kicked in money for paper and chemicals. We turned an under-used storage space into a darkroom. The students who joined our Photo Club included star academics as well as those taking remedial courses. The teens bonded over their enjoyment of photography.
But that was the 1990s; why teach and promote darkroom photography now?
1. Traditional photography techniques stress ‘trial and error’ learning
Teaching darkroom photography emphasizes experimentation and a sense of trial and error. Students realize quickly that they will make mistakes—things can go wrong, but things can also go quite right. There is frustration, to be sure, but there is also the joy that comes with success, and even with certain lucky errors. Darkroom technique brings together artistic and scientific experimentation in an enjoyable manner. Students observe chemical reactions, ponder mathematical ratios, and grapple with physical properties of light and perspective, whether they work with black-and-white or color processes.
2. Students work with their hands, and follow a series of step-by-step procedures
So much of a typical student’s school day involves lecture, discussion, note taking, and other cerebral activities. Gym classes and technology or vocational courses are hands-on, as are art and music classes. Darkroom photography courses are also hands-on, with a series of steps that are a bit like geometry proofs as well as, say, cooking classes. But photography instruction also integrates and encourages a great deal of creativity.
3. Darkroom photography cultivates patience
Students learn to cultivate patience when doing darkroom photography. They take photographs that they don’t see immediately. They must be careful when loading the film onto reels and when applying various chemicals to the film tanks, and they have to wait for their negatives to dry. Students will even make test prints and try out a host of printmaking methods. Although these skills are radically different from digital picture taking, many students find them engrossing and even magical.
4. Darkroom photography work bestows a special sense of accomplishment
The photographs that students create in a darkroom class have a special aura to them, a unique sentiment and depth, compared to those glanced at on cell phone screens or social media pages, or even those printed in the local photo section at the neighborhood variety store. Students can regard their finished products as pieces of artwork. They can hang them on the walls.
5. Students make photographs, as well as memories
Darkroom photography involves different kinds of effort and experimentation from digital picture taking, and the procedures can feel more meaningful due to the time and sweat expended.
Students can learn so much from darkroom photography courses. They discover how to plan out and envision their pictures, and can bring that expertise into digital picture taking as well. The development of planning skills can also carry into other courses, not to mention career pursuits and hobbies.
Students gain an appreciation for the history of photography and preservation of older photographs and equipment. They come to understand how art and craft are integral to science and math. They learn to collaborate and critique. Plus, students are able to experience nervousness about their finished products but also have fun.
Ideally, students come to feel that their efforts are valued in a similar fashion to those undertaken in studio painting and drawing classes, or costume-wardrobing classes. Although darkroom photography does involve expenditures and schools need to allocate space for such classes, the lessons imparted are dearly appreciated, especially by today’s standards.
[I would like to thank the following people for their contributions to this article: Sean, Penny, Kenny, Doug, Michael, Josh, Sarah, Ben L. and especially Ben R. and Ilona, who both taught darkroom photography courses to high school students.]
*The author’s darkroom black & white enlarger is featured in the header image; her cherished 35mm camera, a stalwart of traditional photography techniques. appears on the thumbnail for this piece here.