The Importance of the Darkroom In Photographic Education

By: Alan Ross

My sixteen-year-old daughter is just finishing up her second elective term in traditional photography at her high school. The school also offers adventurous classes in digital photography, but she and many of her classmates chose the "silver" brick road for their imaging adventure. Why? Well, in these times, the computer is as much a part of everyday education and life as pencil and paper was even in my time growing up in the dark ages of the 50's and 60's. Nothing special. But she averred that what we call silver-imaging IS special: "With digital, you pretty much just push the button and the camera and computer does the rest. It's pretty brainless. With doing a roll of film, you have to learn something. If the pictures don't come out you have to figure out why. It's fun to work in the darkroom; it's a place away and different from anyplace else."

And it's not just sixteen-year-olds who feel this way. I have students who are corporate and professional executives at the highest levels who spend much of their lives at keyboard and monitor - and that's just exactly the last thing they want to do to express their personal vision and creativity.

In realistic terms, the digital world of imaging may make the most sense from the standpoint of immediacy and everyday practicality. A photojournalist can now cover breaking news and within minutes the images can be on her editor's monitor. An advertising Art Director can leave a photo studio without wondering if the film will come out of the Lab OK - it's either on a CD in his pocket or already uploaded to his Agency computer.

But permanence and visual and cultural qualities are essential elements in this perceived "battle" between digital and traditional. In my view, there IS no battle. Digital is a clear choice for issues where immediacy and convenience are fore-front. Where image permanence counts - even from the viewpoint of a family photo collection - digital is on very tenuous ground: a shoe-box of "drug-store" silver prints will last much longer than any contemporary computer media. And then there's the "look" and "feel."

It all comes down, now, to balancing practical technology with feeling and Art. The practical technology will always win out in terms of support for the masses, but where would our culture be without art and feeling? Do we abandon support for dance troupes when robots might replicate the movements? A computer might be able to mimic most any sound we can think of, but can it really sound like a Stradivarius?

I think these are the differences between digital and silver.

Alan Ross
Alan Ross has earned an international reputation as a specialist in the art of black-and-white photography: as an artist, educator and printer. He was Ansel Adams' Photographic Assistant in Carmel from 1974 to 1979 and was integrally involved in Adams' books, teaching, and production of fine prints. He has been the exclusive printer of Ansel Adams' Yosemite Special Edition negatives for over twenty-eight years.