Whither the School Darkroom?

Written by Jake Shivery


These days, I am frequently asked about the necessity and viability of the traditional school darkroom. As you might expect, I am a vehement supporter of keeping these facilities intact, functional and accessible to students from all walks of life. Working against the conventional wisdom that “film is dead”, I thought it might be helpful to discuss some of my arguments for why schools of all levels have a vested interest in maintaining the traditional educational darkroom.

Budget and Amortization

Let’s get right to the point and start with the money. For the sake of this argument, let us assume that there is a still a line item on a school’s budget for photography. The decision must be made to either initiate a darkroom or replace it with its digital corollary.

Simply put, darkrooms are cheaper to set up. Much of the equipment and ephemera may be had used at very low cost. Even better, there is the donation model – darkroom gear has historically proliferated throughout communities and much of it is currently unused in attics, basements and garages. Equipment of this kind frequently falls into the category of “too nice to pitch, too big to keep” and is often owned by folks very anxious to have it owned by someone else. Many private citizens are very sympathetic to the cause of education, both public and private, and would be thrilled to have their previously used darkroom equipment put to use in a student setting.

Even if donations are not forthcoming or convenient, there is a tremendous inventory of used equipment in stores such as ours, available at a fraction of the price of purchasing their brand new counterparts. Obviously, we’re looking to sell gear, and so are many others. For dealers, setting up special deals for school systems is generally a commercial no-brainer.

Photo courtesy Don O'Brien via Wikimedia Commons

Photo courtesy Don O'Brien via Wikimedia Commons

We respond to questions regarding this issue with some regularity.  Is used equipment viable? Can school systems really make better use of used darkroom gear than they could from new computers? And how about a computer lab on the used (or donation) model?

Used darkroom equipment is almost always a safe bet. Unlike other used equipment, darkroom machines – principally enlargers and timers – hold up very well over the long haul. Remember, these are devices which largely sit in one place and perform repetitive, low-impact tasks. They are simple, easy to fix, and generally built to last.

Computers are expensive to begin with, and the viability of a used computer is very questionable. We are all intimately familiar with the usefulness of a ten (or even five) year old computer system. The technology has changed (and will change) so much, so quickly, that there is little reason to build a computer that will last more than a few years. Computers are complex, almost impossible to repair, and built to be replaced at regular intervals.

Which is a good segue to my next major point:

Amortization: my new favorite word, especially in this context. The fine arts budget of any school system is very precious and must be spent with the utmost care. Setting up a darkroom properly at the beginning of a program can provide students with years and years of steady and reliable service. The cost of this initial expenditure may be amortized over the very long term.

Compare this to replacing digital workstations at very regular intervals, and only being able to amortize the expense of a computer over a few semesters. Not only are darkrooms cheaper to set up, but they have a much longer useful lifespan over which to spread the expense.

But aren’t darkrooms obsolete? No, and this is part of the change we need to make in the thinking of the school boards. Very, very old enlargers do as well today as they did when they were brand new. Again, simple tasks performed by durable machines extend their working life cycles to “indefinite”. Not only do they not become obsolete, but they are actually the antidote to the whole concept of obsolescence.

Photo courtesy Frank Gosebruch via Wikimedia Commons

Photo courtesy Frank Gosebruch via Wikimedia Commons

Much the opposite, the technology which drives computers has always been, by its nature, transitory and fleeting. Trying to instruct a student using a five year computer with four year old software is the actual definition of instruction in obsolescence.

Which brings us to materials. There is certainly an expense incurred with the replenishment of darkroom chemistry and paper. Often times, this may be spread out among the student body, and paid for using a per-use formula. In this mode, the materials expense per student is kept more consistent with the individual student’s actual output.

Even if the school is footing the entire bill, it is still cheaper to fill an order for consumables every semester than it is to replace the entire hardware infrastructure every few years.

There is a broader philosophical argument, as well – permanence. Unlike computer-based output, film-based products are, by nature, much more archival. Many strides have been made towards the permanence issue of the digital work flow, but effectively this is still a game of catch-up with film, which has always had a built-in and provable archival nature. The BW negatives which I processed in high school are every bit as printable as negatives which I produced last week. High school, by the way, was a long time ago.

Accessibility and Craft

Now for the good stuff – Photography is an art form. One of the most important components of any education in visual arts is the actual facility. Students must be allowed access to methods and techniques that they might not be exposed to otherwise. Specifically, nearly every student has access to a computer, probably even in his or her bedroom, but how many have access to a darkroom? How will the student even know if they have a proclivity for traditional printing if they are never allowed to try?

Offering darkroom classes allows for access which is not redundant. No darkrooms means that students are exposed only to computers, both at school and at home. Setting up digital labs, especially to the exclusion of their traditional counterparts, acts to hammer home modern, homogenous technique and puts more distance between the young artist and the fundamentals of his or her craft.

Darkroom instruction reflects a mature technology going back more than a century. While there are things which a computer will do which an enlarger will not, ultimately the bulk of what we are teaching computers to do is how to act like an experienced darkroom printer.

Darkroom work is a “hands on” craft. When asked about the future of traditional photography vs. digital photography, one of my old mentors quipped: “Don’t worry about the future – kids are always going to want to get their hands wet.” A bit flippant, certainly, but not without truth. There is that moment when your first image floats up from the developer solution – this moment is unlike any other. There is no way to digitally replicate it.