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Darkroom vs. Digital as Art


From: Marvin Bartel (marvinpb_at_TeacherArtExchange)
Date: Tue Jun 22 2004 - 11:14:07 PDT

For many years, I was a photography instructor. Twenty students had
to sign up to use a gang darkroom with six enlargers. Chemicals were
conveniently placed on a peninsula sink in the center of the room.
Advanced students were hired to help beginners learn to use the
equipment. It was great fun. Gradually, the course began to
incorporate some digital printing and Photoshop skills. In my own
work I no longer use the darkroom, and I only use film if actual
slides are required for submission to a publication or exhibition.
As the technology has gotten better, I have sold or donated five
digital cameras. I currently own my sixth digital camera. I love it
because it can use all my old lenses from my old single lens reflex

Digital photography is different, but that does not make it less of
an art form. It is another art form. As such, it is no more or less
important than wet process photography. For students, digital is
less expensive, safer, and more needed as a job skill in the future.
Learning is facilitated because no film is wasted and many trial
images can be compared in order to learn how to improve the
composition. Assignments can require many comparison images before a
print is ever made.

Evocative work comes from good artists. It is not often dependent on
a particular technology.

In my opinion, darkrooms and chemical photo processes will persist as
a separate art form in much the same way that printmaking persists as
a separate art form. There may even come a time when artists who
elect to use wet processes for photographs will need to make their
own papers and film, but they will persist. At the time of Durer,
printmaking provided picture postcards for the masses (nothing else
was available), but much more efficient printing methods have
replaced etchings for picture postcards. However, for those artists
that love the printmaking processes, nothing else matches the
qualities they can achieve with etching, engraving, linoprint,
blockprint, etc. There are collectors who appreciate and pay for the
quality of limited edition numbered and signed prints. Film and wet
darkroom processes may have a similar future. Platinum and gold
printing is already being done by artists who have to make their own
photosensitive papers. I can no longer do beautiful archival dye
transfer color printing because Kodak no longer provides supplies.
They did not sell enough to make a profit on the supplies. I can,
however, look forward to using new computer printers that have
beautiful archival inks.

Since digital photographs are so quick and inexpensive, whole new
avenues of visual study become possible. I had a student teacher
that assigned her students to photograph examples of the visual
elements and principles in their immediate environments. She posted
them as inexpensive black and white laser prints, numbered them, and
asked other students to say which element or principle they felt was
being illustrated in each instance. Naturally there was some
thoughtful disagreement and overlapping of visual concepts. It was
great way to learn to relate art and their immediate environment
while becoming aware of how elements and principles often interact
and overlap.

My niece, Katherine Bartel, uses her digital camera, her scanner, and
Photoshop to produce exhibition quality photomontage work. Using
darkroom processes to produce the layering, negative/positive images,
and transparencies, that she creates would be very hard to do in the
darkroom. She also creates sculptural installations that can be seen
at this site.

One of my best classroom assignments has been to have each student
use a digital self-portrait and use Photoshop layers to create a
self-portrait collage that is autobiographical in nature using a
collection of images that are scanned in from actual objects on the
scanner as well as other photographs that have special meaning to the

for other photo assignment ideas:

Marvin Bartel