Is digital forcing out photography’s roots? |

Is digital forcing out photography’s roots?

Summit Daily News
Summit County, CO Colorado
SDN illustration/Jason Smith

Since Ansel Adams developed the zone system of manipulating the lights and darks of a photograph at the turn of the 19th century, darkrooms have been facilitating the production of this mainstay of popular art.

But in the name of digital, the art of photography is undergoing a revolution.

As the techniques formed in the wet lab darkroom are translated into computer applications like Photoshop, can that sacred space, the darkroom, survive?

It’s not looking good if you consider the movement of college education. The new consolidated Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge, set to break ground by April 2009, will not include a darkroom.

“Our numbers in wet lab are way down, as they are everywhere in the country,” said division director (and up until recently interim dean) Dave Askeland. “The market for photography ” everything is moving to digital.”

CMC classes of Photo I and Photo II, which both utilize and teach the use of a darkroom, formerly were able to fill up two classes of 12 students each. But in the last four years, the tides of change have become evident. Filling up just one class is not always a given.

The darkroom at the current CMC Breck campus may remain, but it is up the Town of Breckenridge, which will likely take over the building according to a Memorandum of Understanding between the two entities. However, when the Town assesses the building once CMC moves out, Town purposes will come first.

According to Breck Town manager Tim Gagen, no decisions have been made, but he said the Town is committed to supporting the arts, and if the darkroom can’t stay where it is, there may be a desire for one elsewhere in the Arts District campus.

I recently sat down with CMC photography instructors Matt Lit and London Schertzer to talk about the importance of the darkroom.

“I started working in the darkroom in ’77 and it still amazes me to watch a print come up in a tray,” Lit said. “Young photographers that haven’t done the wet lab don’t know all the Photoshop tools come from the darkroom.”

They cite the experience ” the tactile process of getting your hands wet and working with the chemicals and film.

“It’s very meditative,” Schertzer said. “It’s the only place I can go and focus and am not thinking about anything else. Students say that too ” that it’s not the same as sitting at a computer.”

They also talked about how learning darkroom procedures applies in the world of digital.

“You can see the way the light hits the paper and improve your understanding of light and how exposure works,” Schertzer said.

The two can name about 10 students off the top of their heads who’ve been influenced by the CMC classes involving wet lab darkroom.

Ginny Griffin, a student of Lit’s who will present an art show beginning Saturday at the Breckenridge Theatre Gallery, said, “In the regular Photo I class you learn all those basics, light and shadow and aperture. It’s still relevant even if using digital.”

Another CMC photography student, Nicole Zador, said in an e-mail, “Despite the increasing move toward digital photography, traditional methods I learned while in the CMC darkroom continue to illuminate my understanding of the medium and inspire me creatively.”

For others, like nature photographer Linda Lee Mirro, the darkroom is obsolete.

“I’ve taken three trips this last summer and the digital capability is so easy ” using the computer to correct anything or review everything,” she said. Mirro said she had never been in the darkroom before, so couldn’t speak on whether she was missing something.

Local photographer Bob Winsett said he hasn’t been in the darkroom in 25 years.

Although he finds the control afforded by digital to be a benefit, he laments the hours he must now spend in front of the computer.

“I spend 10 times more time at the computer than I ever did at the light table with film,” he said.

He opined on the two forms of photography.

“The beauty of the darkroom is that every print that comes out is slightly unique … whereas when shooting digital, I think you destroy some of the romance. You can make two or 5,000 in the exact same way. Some of the art is lost.”

According to CMC’s Askeland, he’d like to continue the class, if students were signing up.

“Personally, as a professional educator, I think it’s a bummer that the wet lab is going away, but I can’t create the demand if students don’t want to go that way.”

Schertzer and Lit hope the college can find a transition which includes digital and darkroom classes.

“The darkroom is not outdated, it’s just different,” Schertzer said.

She said she is finding a fit for the darkroom arts in the lifelong learning classes offered at CMC. Schertzer will offer several not-for-credit photography workshops, some involving darkroom and others not, in the spring.

Leslie Brefeld can be reached at (970) 668-4626 or

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