Digging through my closet, I came across some old 35mm film strips from a photography class I took back in college. While I scanned these old slides onto my computer, an idea to help fight off the winter doldrums came to me. The result is a two part series on my experiences with film photography. Enjoy!
A New Experience
Second semester of my sophomore year at Virginia Tech I was accepted into the Studio Art program. Finally being free to take classes that didn’t involve the words, “Drawing” or “Painting” in the class description, I found the class “Intro to Film Photography.” Seeing as how I had a very strong interest in photography, I naturally jumped at the chance to take the class.
As it turned out, this was going to be the last semester this class was taught at Virginia Tech. The art departments main darkroom (which was under a dining hall oddly enough…) was going to be torn up and turned into office space. As a result the teacher let in just about everyone who signed up for the course. She couldn’t stand to turn away a student from experiencing the joys of developing your own pictures.
As you might imagine, we were required to have a film SLR camera for this film photography course (shocker I know). I’m not sure what other people in the class did, but I was lucky enough to be able to grab my mother’s old camera. It was a Minolta SR T 101! She used to be more serious about photography, and bought this camera in Vietnam along with a few interchangeable lenses.
Despite my lack of knowledge as to anything spec wise or detail wise about this particular camera, it was, and still is, a beautiful camera (it’s still sitting on a shelf with all it’s accessories in my closet). I had no idea how to use it, since I had never used a film SLR camera before, but that’s why I was in this class! Learn to use the camera I did. Learn to develop the film in the darkroom? Well…not so much…
A Lack of Experience
I appreciate film photography. Seeing an image fade into existence on a blank piece of paper in a darkroom is an experience that I think every photographer should have at least once. It’s important to see where the art form came from to really understand where we are today. Shooting film for people in my generation is somewhat of a shock at first. We grew up with either disposable film camera’s when we were very young, or digital camera’ where we could immediately look at the picture we just snapped. Instant gratification! To all of a sudden not only have to work the camera manually, but not be able to see what we were capturing…that took some time to get used too.
Film also made me appreciate digital photography. I remember the first time I screwed up developing a roll of film. All those pictures gone, forever. That alone made me appreciate the digital age we live in! I finished this photography course with an appreciation for the old. I can’t say, however, that I was sad the world had moved on to digital. That being said, I can only help but wonder if my takeaway from this course would of been different with a different teacher…
To say my photography teacher was bad at explaining things would be an understatement. To say she was in over her head by allowing a ton of students to take this course at the same time would be a disservice to the truth. This woman was a mess. What I learned later in my college career was that this film photography class wasn’t an isolated incident. She was just a bad teacher (and the only photography teacher in the art program sadly).
I will not turn this post into a “trashing my old photography professor” rant, but this fact needs to be stated so you can understand how lost I was in this class. She did a good job of explaining how to use a SLR camera. Having never shot a camera in manual before, of any kind, this was a lesson that was thrilling and incredibly beneficial to me and my life in photography. The moment we went through that revolving door into the red tinted darkroom, well, that’s where things get less beneficial…
My professor had a haphazard way of explaining things. She would kind of throw things out there as she rambled along. For example, this is how she went about explaining the process of developing your film:
“Open the film in this bag. Don’t let it hit the light! Wash it in this liquid. Once it’s developed you enlarge it on this machine here onto the paper. This is where you can apply contrast filters or dodge and burn the image. Move the paper from the enlarger to these bins of chemicals. Then hang your picture up here to dry.”
That may actually be more detailed of an explanation than she gave. The basics of developing film aren’t hard. Google it and I’m sure you’ll find some very detailed explanations of not only the process, but incredibly in-depth explanations about the chemistry involved.
Obviously I didn’t even get the very basics of film developing from her. She would be incredibly vague and rush through the basics, then slow down to give more detailed explanations of things that were more advanced and that we didn’t need know then (like dodging and burning, not that she did a great job of explaining that either, but you get the point). Since the class was over-booked, you had next to no chance to talk with her one on one to ask questions. The end result of this? I was lost in the dark.
A Light at the end of the Darkroom
I went home for spring break with an assignment in hand. The assignment was simple enough, “Play with light.” I was terrified. I had been taking this class for a month and I understood nothing. I could set my camera and take a picture that would, in theory, be close to correctly exposed, but that was it. Getting these images from my camera to paper just wasn’t happening.
That was when I turned to the best film photography teacher I ever had.
Christina was a friend I had from back home. At the time, she was a freshmen at a different college. She had been into photography throughout her entire high school career (well before I got interested in the art), and as a result knew quite a bit about it. Her high school had a darkroom and Christina was still close with the photography teacher there. Since our spring breaks coincided. she agreed to help me out with my project, from start to finish.
All the pictures you have seen/will see in this post (with the obvious exception of the picture of the Minolta camera) were taken for this “Playing with Light” assignment. One night I went over to Christina’s house and we staged all the various pictures. A day or two later, we went over to her old high school to use the darkroom.
Going to this high school darkroom with Christina was eye opening for me in a couple of ways. The first thing that blew me away was how nice this darkroom/photography classroom was! This was a high school mind you, and the actual darkroom itself was probably twice as big as the darkroom I was using at a college university. Outside of the darkroom was an even bigger space with computers and scanners to edit pictures with. It was a legit photography classroom, and I was immediately jealous. Now to be fair, I went to an engineering and research university, and proceeded to go into the art program. If I knew I was going to get serious about photography and art, I probably wouldn’t of gone to Virginia Tech. Still though for a high school to blow the photography program at a college university out of the water is sad on many levels.
The biggest thing though was that not only did Christina know her stuff, she could also teach it. After commenting on how little I actually knew about the whole darkroom process (I guess she thought I was exaggerating), she proceeded to explain everything to me in complete clarity in about 30 minutes. The light went on in my head, the knowledge sunk in, and I finally got it! I finally understood how to use a darkroom!
A New Appreciation
I went back to school after my spring break with a new vigor about this class. Everything was so clear to me now. Everything made sense! I had such a grasp on this darkroom stuff now that I was able to teach a couple of my friends in the class who were also lost what to do. From this point on I was able to really appreciate the art that is film photography. It’s incredible, yet peaceful, to meticulously work in a dark, red tinted room, carefully handling film and light sensitive paper, so you can see an image that you captured slowly fade into existence. It gives you a great respect for not only the famous photographers of old, but also for how far we’ve come in photography.
When we sat down to critique each other’s work from this light assignment, the teacher remarked at how the last three pictures in this post (the one of the candle, Christina lying on a couch, and the wine bottle below), told this ambiguous story about a date that maybe didn’t happen, or a failed relationship of some kind. I sat there silent, laughing in my head, because I completely didn’t intend to tell this story with my pictures (this is why art is subjective…and why I don’t read much into the meaning behind art). In hindsight, however, these images do tell a story. They tell the story of how I finally emerged from the darkness and into the darkroom. They tell the story of when I was finally able to appreciate the art of film.
A freelance photographer serving the Northern Virginia, DC, and Maryland area, I specialize in weddings, portraits, and event firstname.lastname@example.org