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The Importance of the Darkroom In Photographic Education

By: Tim Rudman

In education one should never underestimate the importance of drawing on the past in order to prepare students for the present and the future. The temptation to discard the old in favour of the new should be tempered by an appreciation of the wisdom and perspective that is to be gained by both understanding and experiencing the older technologies and processes that led to the newer ones.

This is particularly important where art and craft are involved, as is the case with silver-based black and white photographic printing. Silver halide technology will no more be replaced by digital technology than black and white was by colour, or painting was by photography. Both these predictions were famously made in the past and as history tells us, both were famously wrong. As educators we cannot - must not - fail to learn the lessons of history.

Nobody would deny that digital technology is changing the world of photography at an unprecedented rate. It offers amazing opportunities, and of course challenges too. It will undoubtedly dominate many areas of photography completely. Historically, photography did much the same with painting, particularly with regard to portraiture for the man in the street, for example. It did not however relegate painting to history and fortunately for Art painting skills were retained, passed on, refined and developed.

Black and White has always had a special place in photographic fine art and it always will have. The making of a fine print with silver is not the same as making a print on a computer. Both have a place of course, but should never be considered mutually exclusive. Silver-based printing has a vital craft element which can be really important to the artist. Physically handling a print through the sometimes many stages of processing that can be involved in fine art printing keeps the artist manually in touch with his or her work, crafting it bit by bit from a blank sheet until finally satisfied with the finished artwork. This physical contact provides an essential tactile and emotional engagement for the photographic artist that working on a 'virtual' image on a computer does not.

Our students will develop their photographic pursuits according to their own motivations. Some will move into areas that will be totally digital. Some will certainly move into fine art and print with silver. Others may pursue it as a hobby and of these some will welcome a manual craft after working in front of a computer screen all day at work. We may not know which path they will take. As educators we have a duty to make both digital and analogue processes available for our students to experience, as many of them will also not know what their future direction will be - and this cannot be determined by just reading about it in old books. It must be experienced.

Tim Rudman
Dr. Tim Rudman is well known as an accomplished photographer, master printer and authority on darkroom techniques as well as a regular writer and lecturer. He has conducted workshops on printing and toning techniques in Britain, Spain, Australia and USA. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, The British Professional Photographer's Association and of The Royal Photographic Society in Great Britain, where he sits on the Society's Distinctions Panel for Visual Arts and is the Chairman of its Distinctions Panel for Photographic Printing.