the magazine of the columbia daily spectator
May 1 2013
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Red Bull and relaxation
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April 5 2013
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To those not well-trained in photography, the mysterious space known as the darkroom may seem like something from a 1930s film noir. The lighting is, as the name suggests, practically non-existent. The sound of chemical solutions lapping against the edges of plastic trays provides a calm soundtrack to peering at the rows of film splayed across tables and hanging from the ceiling. There’s an uncanny sense of calm in this room, one that changes dramatically as photography students enter and, as if participating in some sacrament, carefully set about developing their photos. As if by magic, the faces of people and facades of Morningside Heights buildings come into focus.
It’s a kind of alchemy that many have forgotten in an age of grainy cell phone photos and simple digital shots. But here at Columbia, traditional analog photography is alive and thriving.
On a recent Wednesday morning, the darkroom and development studio housed in 212 Dodge Hall was filled with students hard at work on their projects. Every student who takes a photo class at Columbia pays a lab fee and is trained in darkroom techniques—in fact, the University currently has no digital photography courses offered. Despite the 15-minute average for development time, many young photographers see the value in this part of the process and embrace it openly.
“It makes you appreciate the pictures more,” says Maddie Fisher, a sophomore at Barnard and a student in Thomas Roma’s Photo I class. “When you develop pictures [using analog photography] you’re more into what you’re doing and you’re more conscious and aware of what you’re doing.”
This year, though, it won’t only be photography students like Fisher working in the darkroom. Campus photo-fanatics Columbia University Photography Society have decided to open the darkroom to students not enrolled in photo classes—provided that they meet with the manager of photography facilities at the visual department, undergo training, and pay a $125 fee.
While the cost may seem steep to some, it’s important to note that the University does not cover the cost of the darkroom’s upkeep. Thus, the department looks to student fees—as well as the work of student volunteers—to ensure that the University’s sole darkroom continues to operate at its best.
Undoubtedly, some may ask why today’s photographers should bother to go through the trouble of using the darkroom at all—considering the time, effort, and money that it requires—when digital cameras electronically perform most of the work that used to be done by hand. To Roma—a photographer for over 35 years, a teacher for 25, and director of photography at the School of the Arts—such questions miss much of the spirit of photography altogether.
“The act of making photographs is physical, gestural, but the photograph isn’t made until it’s realized through this process,” Roma says. “It’s all about the constant interplay between the subject and the art. You need a darkroom. Otherwise there’s no photography.”
Such sentiments are echoed by students like Alon Sicherman, a sophomore in CC, who is an avid photographer with a passion for the traditional.“I think it makes photography more of a practice,” Sicherman says. “With a digital camera, you don’t have to commit anything. You don’t really have to do anything beyond having a camera. Developing a picture in the darkroom really completes the experience.”
Besides time, photographers also have to be willing to compromise the comfort of tools like auto-focus and auto-exposure and be more selective about the shots they take.
“There’s a difference in the effort it takes to get a good photograph,” says Photo I professor and manager of SoA photography facility Kai McBride. “When a family goes on vacation, they make a couple thousand photographs—all they need to do is upload them onto their laptop. But with the time and effort associated with a darkroom photograph, photographers have to be more selective and aware of their surroundings. It changes things around for photographers when they don’t have the luxury of things like auto-focus and auto-exposure.”
It’s an art form reliant on time, effort, and a careful eye—and, according to those in the know, it’s the heart and soul of photography in an age of digital, Facebook-ready ‘pics.’ Darkroom photography sounds complicated and time-consuming—and it is. But at Columbia, as well as at schools around the world, it’s an art form that remains very popular among photo enthusiasts. The campus darkroom is consistently filled with photographers young and old, developing their art and helping insure that the space be maintained for years to come. McBride notes the increasing numbers of students hoping to be trained to be darkroom monitors, as well as the half-dozen requests in recent weeks for darkroom training. It looks like the darkness won’t be lifting anytime soon.
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