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The Importance of the Darkroom In Photographic Education

By: Brent Wood

The Victor Valley College Art Department is intimately knowledgeable of what happens when an overzealous administrator looks for ways to "save money". The Art Department building was reconstructed to abate asbestos is 2001. The administrator decided to save money by not building the darkrooms; in his words "film is dead". No amount of documentation from industry would change his mind. After the darkrooms were removed and computers put in their place the student enrollment fell by 50%. Next, the serious students transferred to our competition; the local community colleges.

A small darkroom has been replaced; after beginning photo the students have the ability to choose whether they want to be digital or conventional. 90% of all students chose to be film-based. Most of the film students also want to learn digital; however few students would be in the program for digital-only curriculum.

The computers only attracted fine art students, not photography students. The fine art students only take beginning photo; they do not move through the photo program like the film-based photography students would. This means the photo certificate program and the degree program is completely dead. Because of the small darkrooms we are just beginning to recover; however our retention rate, student success rate, and number of transfer/certificate/degree students are at an all time low.

A college is a business; students are our customers. Our customers have spoken. No darkroom, no students. We were the first in the state to go completely digital; the department almost collapsed. Digital is here to stay, and we should all be teaching it, but film is not dead. The photo industry is still using film for any number of reasons; film is still the highest quality capture medium.

Any college should fight to the death for their darkrooms. Student success, retention, and number of enrolled students depend on a wet-based curriculum. If the administration is attempting to save money by closing the darkroom, then I would ask one simple question: Is the school willing to lose 50% of the departments full time enrolled students? The true cost of Victor Valley College's darkroom removal is still being calculated. Once again, our students have spoken loud and clear: they absolutely want to learn wet based photography. Our current administration has listened and is attempting to honor our customers' needs and desires. We have built a small darkroom; we are working on a much larger one. Yes, in this day of instant gratification we are spending large sums of money on enlargers, sinks, and a room to keep the dark in.

Brent Wood
Brent Wood started his photographic career in 1978 as the chief photographer and studio manager for O'Connor Photography located in Santa Barbara California. In 1982 he changed his focus from studio portraiture to industrial photography. From 1982 to 1993 he was the Photo Department manager for General Dynamics Air Systems Division located in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.