Teen photographers keep darkrooms in focus

Is film photography a dying art? Not according to some students in photography programs at public high schools...

Even in the age of the digital camera, the magical quality of film photography continues to enchant teenagers today.

On a recent Saturday morning, the darkroom at the Cooper Union School of Art was nearly silent, except for the trickle of running water and the occasional click of a timer.

Under the dim orange glow of safelights, a dozen high school students watched breathlessly as images of city streets and trees emerged on photographic paper immersed in a chemical bath.

Many of the students in Jennifer Williams’ eight-week photography class, part of the Saturday outreach program at the Cooper Union in New York City, have never shot on film before. After all, nearly everyone has access to digital photography-even on cell phones.

But these juniors and seniors from New York City public high schools are spending their Saturday mornings learning time-honored photography skills-experimenting with handmade pinhole cameras and learning how to shoot film manually. They also work in the darkroom, developing and printing the negatives they’ve shot.

“We’re trying to teach them that photography’s not really about the technology,” Williams said. “It’s about learning how to create an image.”

Theirs is just one of the free high school programs around the country that are still dedicated to teaching the art of traditional photography with manual cameras and darkrooms. And although some students come into the classes thinking they know how to take pictures, they quickly learn there’s much more to creating images on film.

Students like Tess Thomas find that learning how to take black-and-white photographs has changed the way she takes all pictures-even though she took digital snapshots before. “It’s not the same now,” she said. “I think more about why I’m framing something and think about what it might look like on paper.” The 18-year-old acknowledged that traditional photography isn’t easy, “but it’s fun to learn from my mistakes.”

Robert Tagliani, 16, stood patiently by the enlarger as he timed his third print of an image of the corner of a pool table, which he hoped to display in the upcoming student show. “It’s fun,” he said, even though it took so much trial and error before he achieved the results he wanted. “I love printing and watching the negatives come alive.”

For Kevin Mageski, a soft-spoken 17-year-old, the most challenging part of learning photography has been developing patience. “You just want to see things immediately,” he said.

But even as students learn to put aside their desire for instant gratification, they are becoming more attuned to looking at the world around them. The young photographers marvel about how they’ve learned to see new details in light and shadows. “It’s amazing that you can take a great picture of almost anything,” Mageski said.

Like other students, Luke Bower, a senior in the advanced photography class at Ithaca High School in central New York state, has already learned that the digital revolution means that traditional film and developing are less available. Even the once-ubiquitous one-hour-photo counters in grocery stores are shutting down in favor of digital-printing services.

“It’s rather difficult to get black-and-white film now,” the 17-year-old said. And when he shot a roll of Tri-X black-and-white film between semesters and sent it off for processing, he was frustrated that it took over a month to receive the prints and a photo CD.

His photography teacher, Judy Cogan, said that students learn to appreciate a carefully composed image by grappling with traditional techniques. “I really believe it’s the way to go as the most effective introduction to the elements and principles of art and how images are created through the use of light and shadow,” she said.

In Chicago, a group of students at Curie Metropolitan High School delve into an intensive after-school program called Picture Me that provides access to 35 mm cameras and the school’s darkroom. The program, run by the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College, draws dozens of applicants for about 20 spots each semester.

The students spend nearly 10 hours a week in the program, learning everything from how to focus a manual camera to how to manipulate their images by burning and dodging when making prints from underexposed or overexposed negatives.

“I think as a beginner, the hardest thing to do was focusing the lens,” of a manual 35 mm camera, said 17-year-old Sergio Zavala by e-mail. “At times I didn’t know if I was doing it right, but through practice, I learned to maneuver and work my way around it.”

For students like Gabriela Lopez, 16, watching their images develop can be a magical experience. “I like to go in there and make the pictures come alive,” Lopez said.

She finds the pictures she’s taken with her digital camera just don’t have the special quality that black-and-white film provides. “I like using film because it seems more old-fashioned. There is something that attracts me to that, maybe knowing how photography started out.”

Sandy Rodriguez, 17, agreed that the work she puts into creating a good image on film makes her appreciate it more. “With digital pictures, the camera did all the work for me,” she said. “I love working in the darkroom and being able to do whatever I want to my picture and making it look the way I intended it to.”

But these students are among the last that will have access to Curie’s darkroom. After next year, the school will close it down, and the Picture Me program will switch to digital photography.

“Once you get over the initial cost of setting up a digital environment, it will be cheaper to run a digital program,” said Corrine Rose, who manages Picture Me.

“Analog is becoming prohibitively expensive.”

The program spends more than $2,000 on supplies like chemicals and paper each semester. Additional expenses, including teachers’ salaries, cameras and field trips, are paid through grants from organizations like Chicago’s After School Matters.

Even programs that are committed to maintaining their darkrooms are having to become more resourceful. Some of the big companies aren’t making paper or chemicals anymore, for example. At Cooper Union, Jennifer Williams said they had found smaller manufacturers to fill the gap.

“And they’re sometimes more environmentally friendly,” she said. “But who knows how long they’ll be around too?”

At Ithaca High School, Cogan’s program has grown from one class to more than six sections that have a waiting list. And now she feels her students should also learn digital techniques.

“So next year we may begin looking at incorporating digital photography,” she said.

“Although I think the strength of the program lies in teaching the basics of film.”

If you just put a digital camera in students’ hands, “they just take snapshots,” Cogan said. But students will continue to be enthusiastic about learning the techniques of composition and capturing images if they use manual cameras.

“It’s the difference between taking a photograph and making a photograph,” she said.