Darkroom photography still alive at suburban colleges
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In this era of Instagram and point-and-shoot digital cameras, students at Elgin Community College are staying close to the roots of the art that dates back to the 1800s.
While not necessarily stressing darkroom photography over digital, students are encouraged to embrace all the tools available to them.
"Why do we have to get rid of the old process just because we get something new?" said photography professor Travis Linville. "We don't throw out our traditional ovens just because we get microwaves. We understand there are advantages to both."
Beginning photography courses at ECC, College of DuPage and McHenry County College all teach students how to process film in a darkroom; advanced classes also are available for interested students.
A question-and-answer section on the College of DuPage Photography Department website describes why students are required to take introductory courses in darkroom and digital before moving on to more advanced study.
"We believe that, for any serious photographer, knowing the basics of both the chemical and digital aspects of the medium is critical," the website reads.
Programs such as Photoshop for editing digital images are designed based on film's roots. Many of the tools are named for processes used in darkroom developing.
At Harper College, though, the introductory course emphasizes digital.
Patty Bruner was hired to start the Graphics Arts/Technology program at Harper and now serves as its coordinator. There was no darkroom when she came to the college, and she had to decide whether to invest in building one or look to the future of photography.
"Even in January 2005, the industry was moving away from film," Bruner said.
In the interest of preparing students for careers, Harper has continued to focus on digital, though Bruner said the more traditional methods are discussed in classes so students understand the history of their art.
At ECC, it wasn't a question of whether to build a darkroom but whether to keep it. And Linville said the darkroom facilities at ECC are some of the best he has ever worked in.
Charlie Anderson is a 23-year-old student planning to transfer this fall to Columbia College of Chicago from ECC. He spent the summer in ECC's darkroom working on color and black-and-white projects. The Elgin native prefers film over digital for the ability to work with infrared light and do larger format work more affordably.
For Anderson, a year at ECC has allowed him to get a grasp on all the basics of photography. He said his first two months were spent figuring out how to control the exposure and brightness to get good shots in black-and-white. At the same time, he was learning how to develop the film, patiently moving his prints through the developer chemicals, stop bath, fixer and wash.
His growing expertise hardly cost him anything. Anderson has been able to borrow cameras for all his introductory courses.
Linville said ECC's photography department has 70 film cameras for students to check out as well as about 10 digital SLRs. There are also tripods for student use and antique cameras on hand for the students specializing in older photography methods.
"Down at Columbia (College), you have nowhere near the access to these resources," Anderson said.
Anderson will have to sign in for limited access to the darkrooms at Columbia, leaving behind nearly unlimited access at ECC. While finishing his summer project, Anderson routinely spent eight-hour days in the dark developing his prints.
He ultimately plans to go into a career in cinema and hopes to work with film.
For as long as it's around, anyway.
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