Why it’s worth keeping a darkroom in your high school photography program.
Darkrooms and analogue photography are increasingly being excluded from the photography programs at high schools across the country, usually under the blanket sentiment that they’re old fashioned. I disagree, passionately, and rather than refute the flimsy reasons school districts use to push for darkroom exclusion, I want to highlight their benefits to the secondary education environment and experience.
Analogue photography is directly tied to math and science. The process of developing film is an exploration of the scientific method, as each roll is an experiment where time, temperature, and ratios must be methodically controlled in order to achieve success. Ignore any step, lose focus, and the experiment will go wildly off the rails. At the end, there are tangible results that indicate how rigorous the student was when executing the experiment.
Evaluating the developed roll of film is an exercise in critical thinking. Why is the image faint? Why is it so dark it can hardly be seen? Why is it perfect? The answers vary widely and can only be found by following clues like a forensic investigator — there is no correct solution in the back of a book or on the internet, only general information that can be synthesized and applied to determine the specific answer for the student’s success or failure. This is the very definition of critical thinking, and it’s valuable, as students generally have a high level of personal investment in their photographs coming out properly.
When they move to the darkroom to make a print, they’re in for more scientific exploration and the physical experience of mathematics in action. The light sensitive photo paper requires a given amount of light to make a proper print, an amount of light that varies with each negative. The instructor does not know the right combination any more than the students do. To discover it, the students must methodically test their exposure to determine the ratio of time and light required. There is a set of basic criteria they use as a guideline, but the specifics are totally up to them to find. In more advanced printing, they have to understand proportion in this process as well, since some regions of their prints may need more or less exposure, depending on the negative. This means they are constantly adding, subtracting, dividing, multiplying, and searching to attain success.
The traditional darkroom also requires students to navigate a shared environment — it’s a daily exercise in large group work. They have to share enlargers, developer trays, and navigate multiple people in what is usually a small, dim space. Students have to take turns, be mindful of those around them, and share responsibility for keeping the working environment safe and clean. They have to acknowledge those around them and participate in their community.
There is also something deeply satisfying about seeing a black and white image slowly appear in the developer tray. Darkroom photography is a hands-on process. Dodging and burning require the students to wave their hands like magicians; the print must be physically moved from tray to tray; negatives must be wiped clean; print defects must be retouched by hand. As each successive generation is more and more engaged in electronic devices, a creative classroom that leaves digital technology behind is an important — and rewarding — break from screen time.
High school is about learning to think critically. Students are frequently challenged with tasks that do not appear to be relevant to their lives, but are in fact teaching them how to think. The quadratic equation may appear esoteric, and I can’t personally remember the last time I used it, but it is a means to scaffold students into more complex algebra problems, introduce new topics and applications of mathematics, and ultimately keep them thinking and problem solving. That is its value, not whether or not the students have used it, let alone even remember it, two years after high school.
The same is true of darkroom photography. It is completely irrelevant whether or not a given student will ever make an analogue print in a darkroom after high school. What is relevant is that they were challenged to think critically, problem solve, and manage social interactions with limited resources. The way these experiences shape their ability to learn, know, and grow intellectually and socially is what matters, and this is what can change a student’s life for the better.