Darkroom over digital: Film photography still popular at some local schools

Photo by Newton South student Harrison Chebac.
Photo by Newton South student Harrison Chebac.

In the age of camera-equipped smart phones and inexpensive digital cameras, the odds are good that most people in high school or younger have never seen a roll of film or used an “analog” camera — much less developed film and paper prints in a darkroom.

But film photography isn’t dead yet, at least not in New England. Plenty of local people, in fact, are still teaching, learning, and doing “analog” photography.

“We have at least 40 accounts with schools buying film, chemicals, and paper for classes,” said Laura Roberts, public affairs liaison at Newtonville Camera in Newtonville, who handles photographic supply accounts at the store.

According to Roberts, those still teaching film-and-darkroom photography include high schools in Andover, Belmont, Burlington, Cambridge Rindge & Latin, Dover, Framingham, Needham, Newton (North and South), Wellesley, and Winchester. Others include Buckingham Browne & Nichols in Cambridge, Beaver Country Day in Chestnut Hill, Phillips Academy in Andover, as well as colleges, including Babson College, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and the New England School of Photography.

natalie_self_portrait Photo by Natalie Schmitt-Nardin of Cambridge Rindge & Latin.

“I found film and darkroom photography really challenging in the beginning,” says Yanka Petri, a sophomore at the Cambridge Rindge & Latin high school. “We have to develop and process it all on our own, rather than having the camera do everything. But I love it now, and think it is way better than digital.” Petri said she now spends about an hour every day in the darkroom.

Archy LaSalle has been teaching photography at Cambridge Rindge & Latin for more than two decades, and said the classes involve more than just learning to use the camera. Students also learn the importance of composition and how to envision an image as you take it, he said.

Cambridge Rindge & Latin has two black-and-white photography labs, two digital labs, four levels of classes, and two photo teachers. Photography is actually the most popular class at Cambridge Rindge & Latin, according to LaSalle. “There’s a maximum of 15 students per class, and classes are always full,” he said, adding that the wait list for classes is usually in the hundreds of students.

“I chose to do photography because I wanted to express my artistic side in a different way,” said Cynthia Eliacin, a junior at Cambridge Rindge & Latin, who has been taking Photo 1 during this school year.

Using a film camera, she said, “allows me to concentrate on the image that I’m trying to capture, as opposed to a digital camera where you see it more instantaneously.”

Photo by Kailah Korsch of Newton South. Photo by Kailah Korsch of Newton South.

Newton South high school in Newton offers a four-level photography program, allowing students to study photography throughout high school. The first year is predominantly analog, “which is how I like it,” said Robert Bouchal, who has been teaching photography at the school for 23 years.

Second-year students can choose analog or digital, but the interest has been primarily analog. “They feel they can do digital photography on their own,” Bouchal said. “If they want to move towards digital, I allow them to do that, but insist they produce more images.”

Even then, Bouchal says, “I have students who switched over to digital who feel that working with film and the darkroom taught them the discipline, the patience, the desire to capture the best image of the subject matter.”

Bouchal currently teaches 10 classes of 18 kids each. A number of his students have gone on to be professional photographers, Bouchal said. “One is shooting for the New York Times, another is doing head shots for Hollywood actors.”

And, Bouchal noted: “18 of my students won a total of 33 awards in the Boston Globe’s 2014 Scholastic Art Awards, for a mix of digital and analog photography.”

Jay Epstein, who graduated Newton South high school in 2009, now works at Newtonville Camera. He recalled that he’d been using digital cameras before high school. The school’s photography class, Epstein said, taught him “to use film cameras, including black-and-white film developing and paper printing, along with more general photography and camera skills, like how lens aperture and shutter speed help determine the photo you’re taking.”

Meanwhile, at Technique, the MIT student yearbook (where I was one of the photographers from 1969 to 1974), some students still use the darkroom regularly, said  Technique film editor Aaron Baumgarten.

“We find that if students appreciate the process of shooting analog, they will put it to good use when they pick up one of our digital cameras,” Baumgarten said. “In terms of output, I know of two students who shoot upwards of 50 rolls per year. As an editor at Technique, this year I had to go through approximately 6,000 negatives.”