The Importance of the Darkroom In Photographic Education

By: John Sexton

I will never forget the first time I saw print emerge under the dim amber glow of a safelight in a friend's makeshift darkroom more than thirty years ago. It was an unforgettable experience, and one that I found intoxicating. I am still "addicted" to that experience today. In retrospect, I now understand how important that experience was in my photographic career. What I saw that evening, and continue to see today in my own darkroom, is indeed MAGIC! Every photographer I've ever spoken with remembers seeing his or her first print emerge in the developer tray.

I think it is essential for photographic education to include instruction in "traditional" photographic processes, along with the newer and quickly evolving digital technologies. The word photography means "writing with light." Having the opportunity to expose light sensitive silver emulsions - both in the camera and in the darkroom - gives one an understanding of the ethereal material light we use in creating our images.

Just as a music student today learns on instruments from centuries ago, then applies those techniques to modern technological advancement in producing sound, so too the serious student of photography needs a solid foundation in the traditional methodologies of silver halide photography.

It should not be a situation of one or the other - traditional or digital - but rather photographic education today should be a blending of the two approaches to photographic imaging-something I've heard called "tradigital" photography. The most exciting work I have seen with new technologies has come from photographers whose experience is grounded in the traditional methodologies of silver halide image making. That sensitivity and creative potential can be transposed to the latest technologies, and in rare instances can create imagery that is inspirational and goes beyond the techniques or procedures chosen by the artist to produce it. Such a photograph - traditional or digital - can be an inspirational and unforgettable experience.

John Sexton
Mr. John Sexton of Carmel Valley, California is a respected photographer, master printmaker and workshop instructor. He is best known for his luminous, quiet, black and white photographs of the natural environment and he has recently been exploring the aesthetics of humankind's technology. His photographs are included in permanent collections, exhibitions, and publications throughout the world. His work has been featured on the CBS "Sunday Morning" show with Charles Kuralt, and on the MacNeil Lehrer News Hour.