The Importance of the Darkroom In Photographic Education

By: Ford Lowcock

Santa Monica College firmly stands behind all methods of photography, traditional wet darkroom with film and digitally produced studio or computer touched imagery.

SMC has 30-black & white printing stations with 6-film processing rooms; 22-individual color printing rooms with nitrogen/air burst, deep tank hand lines for both C-41 (color negative) and E-6 (color transparency) film development. The photography department enforces strict requirements for all photography majors to first complete the basic (wet or traditional) black & white and the color printing classes prior to entrance into the beginning Photoshop class.

Photoshop's beginnings came out of traditional methods of image control. Photographers have always been compositing multiple images, changing color, saturation and sharpness in prints. Digital imaging through a computer's monitor makes image control more technical and thus requires a steeper level of understanding for beginning students who do not already posses the basic levels of control that are more simply and are cheaper by learning in the traditional wet lab situation. We find that we are able to teach digital imaging in a more direct fashion, with an easier learning curve for the student, if they already have a working knowledge of basic printing concepts of burning & dodging, contrast control, correct print density, how to see unwanted color in a color print and how to correct for it.

We have interviewed and studies many schools that have elected to discontinue the traditional wet labs, because we were not convinced in the beginning of the digital age that this was the correct method for teaching photography to students who wanted to become working professionals in the photographic industry. We studied the other schools because we did not want to be considered "industry dinosaurs" resisting change for reasons that parallel "because this is the way we have always taught it." We studied the other schools, because if they were correct, where would that leave SMC in quality photographic education. Our conclusion was that discontinuance of the wet labs was not the right thing for Santa Monica College Photography Department.

We put together a survey for the graduates we were able to track since their graduation. Here is one of the questions asked and the average level of importance from 80 responses:

In your opinion, rate the importance of teaching the following items.
(1 is least and 5 is a must)

Question:

Black & White film 1 2 3 4 5
Average Response: 4.7
Color negative film 1 2 3 4 5
Average Response: 4.1
Transparency film 1 2 3 4 5
Average Response: 4.3
Direct digital, 35mm DSLR 1 2 3 4 5
Average Response: 4.8
Direct digital, 35mm DSLR 1 2 3 4 5
Average Response: 4.4
Direct digital, medium format 1 2 3 4 5
Average Response: 4.0
Direct digital, 4x5 format 1 2 3 4 5
Average Response: 4.4
Scanning film 1 2 3 4 5
Average Response: 4.5
File management software (i.e. Aperture, Lightbox) 1 2 3 4 5
Average Response: 4.6
Printing on Epson 1 2 3 4 5
Average Response: 4.5
Printing on Lightjet 1 2 3 4 5
Average Response: 4.3


Client List
1 student has published 9 books since leaving SMC in 1998 Liz Claiborne Eyewear
20th Century Fox Los Angeles Cathedral
A&I Digital & Photo Lab - Hollywood, Ca Los Angeles Magazine
ABC's "American Inventor" TV series Mattel Toys
Asahi Breweries MCA
Associated Press MTV Network
AT&T Nash Editions
Avex Records - Japan Next Models Agency
Bikini Magazine NFL Network
Boeing Satellites Systems Nikon
Century 21 Insurance Paramount Studios
Century Club, Century City, CA Paris Photo Lab - LA
CESD Talent Agency Pedigree Dog Foods
City of Hope - Pasadena, CA Photoline AS - Norway
Click Models Agency Photomic AB - Sweden
Elle Japan Pioneer Electronics
Elle Magazine (Europe) Pixel Pusher
Fame Fotografene - Norway Playboy Magazine
Farmers Group Purina Dog Foods
Fender Musical Instruments Ripley's Believe It or Not, TV series
Foley's Ritz Carlton Hotel's
Fox Broadcasting Robinson's May
Fuji Films Rolling Stone Magazine
Gamma Press Samy's Camera
Genics Modeling Agency Sprint
GQ Magazine Stuff Magazine
Gucci Sunset Magazine
Hannibal Records Surface Magazine
HBO Target
Henry Fonda Music Box Theatre, Hollywood, CA. Time Magazine
Ikea Tokina
Iams Dog Foods Travel Plus Magazine - India
Kaiser Permanente Tyr Sport
King Al Faisal of Saudi Arabia USC
L.A. Models Walt Disney Company
L.A. Times Warp Magazine - Japan
LA Gear Whiskas Cat Foods
Little Brown Co. - UK World Economic Forum - India

This client list is far from being complete. Our graduates and students are also employed in dozens and dozens of businesses in and around the LA metropolis and all over the world that simply do not have the name recognition that most of the above listed names do.

The following are quotes from SMC graduates on what they thought they needed to comment on.

Eva Kolesko -
Graduate 1994 (currently in LA)
I still consider shooting the traditional film the best way to learn lighting, exposure and printing. Too many times I hear from new photographers: Oh, I can fix that in Photoshop! How about shooting it the correct way in the first place instead of spending hours in front of the computer retouching photos? But there is no question that digital is taking over the market and that it's the future.

Lucinda Wedge -
Graduate 2004 (currently in LA)
All the basics still need to be taught in order to be a successful photographer. Without the basic B&W, basic color classes, how to light in the commercial classes, you will never make it to the caliber expected by today's working world. The foundation must be there to build on.

Maureen Ford -
Graduate 2004 (currently in Boston, MA)
"In my opinion, I feel black and white film/darkroom knowledge is still as important as digital, because it is the essential foundation that's your launching pad into knowing what is going on with an image and how to create it and manipulate it. Those same darkroom concepts are translated in Photoshop tools and techniques as well. All the tools acquired in a photography program are interrelated and essential to today's market. Having a strong foundation makes it easy to translate all formats into knowing how to make that final image and where film can marry digital output, but as the film photographer you are well versed in both techniques. You can't be left behind the curve!"

Calvin Coloma -
Graduate 2004 (currently in Los Angeles, CA)
"I'm sure you are happy to see that my workflow has completely changed from film to digital. Remember how I was adamant about only using film? Well, I got into the real world and found that almost all my work now is completely digital from beginning to end.

I have also used digital to my advantage by learning scanning techniques and using it as another "art" tool. All the scanning that I learned in digital class I still use in my photography. I still shoot film for my own personal projects, (I am now venturing into the old square Polaroid's and incorporating it into my fashion book) and scan, but most of my scanning is for non photo media, i.e. handmade papers, stationary, gift wrap, anything with texture to overlay on my photo images.

I still think that scanning should still be taught in class although captures are going digital. I think black and white printing and color class should still be taught to get an understanding of the genesis of photography and film--to grasp photography completely.

While I was at SMC I was on the fence on which media to use (film vs. digital) for many reasons: expense, having to learn new equipment, and application in photography. Now that I am in the field, I know that the photo world is digital as is music and television. There is no question that I will follow the trend, or else I will loose business, hence my switch. I have to remain competitive. But I value the time that I learned in color and b/w printing class, because I was able to learn color, composition, and technique. Sure you can learn color, composition, and technique in digital, but I was fortunate to learn both and apply my learning into my own photography.

Digital is the new photography and it is my forethought that film photography will be taught for purely artistic reasons, whilst digital will be taught for artistic as well as pursuing a career in photography. I foresee the photo program being split into two--film photography and digital photography; although I don't think that it's a good idea. I see students debating the importance of film photography in the current state of digital photography and want to bypass all film and just learn digital. These are just my thoughts.

I have come across some photographers out there that are making it, but have no clue as to what they are doing with their lighting, f-stop, and, and aperture. They shoot crappy images and then correct everything, and I mean everything in post (Photoshop). That just makes me cringe. But hey, he's networking, and that's why he's getting the big jobs--not because he's an amazing photographer, but getting his name out there. No one sees his work flow; they just see the final retouched image. And the final product is what the client wants. Still I think a good photographer should know the basics in lighting regardless if you are shooting film or digital.

Which brings me to the business of photography? That should be incorporated in the curriculum. That one Saturday class helped me a great deal in itemizing my tax forms. If there were a semester class of business it would maximize my business instead of learning on my own."

Stefano Paltera -
Graduate 1999 (photojournalist based in Los Angeles, CA)
"When I came to SMC even if I did considered myself experienced in photography I did not know (Really!) what digital photography was. I kind of felt it was important to learn about it and with that in mind I wanted to learn how to use a computer, but I really was not aware of the impact that it was going to have in my professional career. Over the past 6 years since graduating I went from taking photos for the Corsair (the campus publication) with film cameras and scanning the film to get a digital file, to being 100% digital and seeing my photographs all over the world on the internet within minutes of pressing the shutter release of my camera. I'm still amazed! At least in my field (photojournalism), being able to deliver photos within minutes and not hours or days from when the event took place really made a difference. Also all the software (Photoshop etc.) classes I took they really helped me deliver a product that is the closest to reality as possible. I still believe that students should learn about traditional photography. That is the base for understanding the power of photography in communicating their vision to the world.

Having said that, if a school wants to give a real chance of success to a student they should prepare her/him for the real world and the real world is mostly digital. Given also the speed to which the digital technology advances I really believe classes with the newest equipment/software MUST be taught. SMC and the amazing docents in my experienced have really made a difference. I went from my last semester at SMC shooting with the campus newspaper to my first assignment for the Los Angeles Times few months later.

Many times, in conversations among other professionals we ask each other were we went to school and while the names of same of the most prestigious universities in the country come out I smile and I say: "I went to Santa Monica College."

Ford Lowcock
Ford Lowcock is a Professor of Photography at Santa Monica College, Santa Monica, California teaching everything from beginning 4x5 and studio lighting techniques, to advanced studio work using professional digital capture backs, to zone system, to portfolio development and business practices.