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Darkrooms have a place in digital world, photography instructors say

Senior Cole Oeste works in the darkroom during a Photography I class at St. Charles East High School.
Senior Cole Oeste works in the darkroom during a Photography I class at St. Charles East High School.

Every semester, Elgin Community College assistant professor Travis Linville asks his photography students how many have used film.

“Many of my students have never dealt with film in any way,” he said. “It presents certain new challenges as a teacher to explain what film even is.”

Despite the prevalence of digital photography, Linville and photography instructors at Waubonsee Community College, Batavia High School, Geneva High School, St. Charles East High School and St. Charles North High School teach students how to develop negatives and turn them into prints.

Students like the magic of the darkroom, of seeing an image appear on white photo paper when bathed in a chemical solution, Geneva High School teacher Danica Fahmy said.

“The kids, they’re intrigued by it,” she said.

Schools nationwide, however, are struggling with how to teach photography, Waubonsee art professor Martine Stuckey said. Based on information shared at the Society for Photographic Education conference, she said some schools have gotten rid of their darkrooms, regretted it and brought the darkrooms back at great cost; some are teaching digital before traditional photography; some are teaching traditional first; and some are mixing the two.

“Everybody’s scratching their heads,” Stuckey said. “We’re just trying to stay current, but there doesn’t seem to be a unified movement yet in photo education.”

Photography teachers here say there’s value in maintaining a traditional darkroom and teaches such skills as problem solving, patience, time management and responsibility.

“Working with film is a complex art form that becomes very personal because of the need for extreme attention to detail and control,” Batavia High School teacher Andrea Schindlbeck said in an email.

“There is an appreciation that comes from the complexity of the process that doesn’t always translate to the instantaneous character of the digital world we live in.”

Tuesday morning, about a dozen beginning photography students at St. Charles East listened as teacher Nathan Shackelford explained why such numbers as f/16 and 125 are relevant to the photographs they eventually will take. The numbers control the size of the camera’s aperture and its shutter speed, he said, explaining the settings can affect a photograph’s depth of field and whether motion in a photograph will be blurred.

He told his students he wants them to know how to control each aspect of a photograph.

“This is why we’re in a class,” Shackelford said.

His beginning photo students started the semester learning the properties of exposure with pinhole cameras – “the kids are always shocked they work,” he said – and will learn the processes before producing a portfolio.

Shackelford and Linville said they appreciate the slower nature of film photography because it leads to more critical thought.

“When each frame has a value associated with it – and not just financial value but the time invested in developing the film and photographs – they tend to ponder a bit more what they’ll capture,” Linville said.

ECC, Waubonsee and the Tri-Cities high schools offer digital photography instruction, as well.

“Teaching film first is a great foundation to teaching digital,” Schindlbeck said. “It sets them up to explore the photograph and develop their voice in the work instead of relying on the preset functions of Photoshop.”

Linville said there’s room for both forms of photography, just as there’s room for different kinds of paints.

“We shouldn’t have to choose,” he said.

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