Old School…


Crop Rows, Photograph

We just finished our first of two weekends of the Sonoma County Open Studio event, ARTrails – overall it was an interesting, rewarding and exhausting time! Above is one of the pieces I sold over the weekend, printed large on canvas. I was happy to see that my new “textured” work was well received.

Of course, in an event like this inevitably you get into some interesting conversations with people. I had a couple of teenagers come by from the local high school art program who were photography students. I asked them if they were still being taught to shoot and develop film and print in the old fashioned darkroom with chemicals – the answer was yes, the instructors felt this was a worthwhile discipline to learn.

I wasn’t surprised but I was disappointed – for the students. Having done lots of printing the “old” way as well as the new, digital way I believe there is no inherent advantage in teaching them to print using antiquated, vastly inferior tools. It would be like going to medical school and learning to perform surgery without anesthetic and modern instruments. What’s the point? No one does it that way anymore and there isn’t anything to be gained from wasting time using outdated techniques.

I believe that the reason things are still done this way in academia is twofold – first, there isn’t money to buy the equipment needed in all cases to use the latest and greatest techniques. Though, I must say, my son’s high school does have an impressive computer lab and it would be easy to add here and there to create a first class digital photo and printing lab.

I suspect the main reason is that the instructors themselves have not adopted the best practices themselves and are more comfortable teaching what they know and have taught for a long time – the old school way, as it were. Many teachers are not comfortable teaching something they themselves are still learning and there is so much new emerging development in the photography world these days it is hard to not be in a continuous student mode yourself.

To teach our new young photographers techniques they will never use in the future does not serve them well. We want to excite and inspire them, not demotivate them with how their parents had to do it.

11 responses to “Old School…

  1. First of all i love your photographic image– I can see the textures in the sky especially.
    Second, I agree with you– they probably don’t have the knowledge or equipment to teach digital– I know I don’t know much so I still cut, tear, glue my collages.

  2. Can’t say that I agree, even though I do almost all my photography digitally. Digital and film are different. Traditional wet darkroom prints have a distinct character that is worth maintaining. Also it costs a lot more to get a digital camera of with the same control over aperture and shutter speed as a film camera of comparable quality. As for ‘no-one’ does it that way, sorry but just not true. I still use my Bronica and I know many other people who have worked in both but actively chosen to go back to film

    Ideally of course they should learn both, but at a high school I doubt if they would have time.

    It is like acrylics and oils – acrylics haven’t replaced oils, just added a new tool.

  3. Ian

    Thanks for the comment – it’s true, there are still people shooting film and doing wet darkroom printing. So I did exaggerate when I said “no one” does it that way. But the overwhelming tide is in the other direction and film/wet darkroom printing will go the way of vinyl records and turntables. There will always be a coterie of fans of older styles.

    But at a certain point I don’t believe it’s a good use of time to continue to teach those techniques to everyone – interested parties can pursue those skills on their own.

    I know in the US it is becoming increasingly difficult to find labs that still process film – many are going out of business. I wonder whether there will be a tipping point where the economics will render that service extinct to all but those who do it themselves.

  4. Bob – interesting dilemma. In music, many artists, searching to distinguish themselves from the crowds, go back to old school equipment, if not techniques. Lenny Kravitz collected a vast array of 60’s guitars and amps because the new stuff just didn’t have it. Brian May from Queen uses a whole stack of tiny Vox AC30 amps from the 60’s for his sound also.

    As with all things, perhaps the students need a balanced appreciation of both? Then, they can decide on the merits, in relation to where they want to take their craft.

    BTW – I think I mentioned to Susan – I’m stunned that it’s been a year since the last ArtTrails! Where does the time go?

    • Yes, a challenge to determine the right balance. A lot of these academic programs require students to take only “old school” technique classes for 1-2 years before beginning to learn the newer methods. This just seems excessive to me and beyond what is needed to have an appreciation. I would prefer to teach them mainstream methods with one or two optional classes to learn how it used to be done if they were interested.

      I still maintain that these academic programs are run this way primarily because of lack of knowledge and funding.

  5. I must admit, I do find it surprising that they begin them on the retro methods, and for so long. It’s almost like ‘we’ve advanced two steps forward, but, as a learning experience YOU’VE got to take one step back!

    I suppose that’s why academia and I are such uneasy bedfellows…well, that and a misspent youth on the bass guitar!

  6. I just want to say that you are my newest favorite photographer, and I am critical!

    In response to your comment: What you said about your experience and observations about photography and school is a valid observation for all subjects in pulblic school in general. For instance, I’ve taught physical science for many years, and the curriculum begins a couple hundred years ago and and ends around the 1930’s…right when stuff was getting interesting, and right when we had to begin thinking about science with far less limitations and rules. School is hardly reflective of real life.

    • Micelle

      I am truly honored by your comment! Thanks so much.

      I visited your website and really like your work! You’re doing some really creative things – I especially am drawn to the abstract gallery (perhaps because abstract subjects is a self-assignment of mine at the moment).

      I’m amazed to hear what you say about the science curriculum, that’s even more disheartening than the state of photography in the education system.

  7. Hmm, I’m a bit late to the party here…. but I have to put in a word for Ian. Who are we really to say what constitutes an “advance”? Or to say what’ll be the next trend? Think about all the things people wrote off as “old,” only to find them new again. Like food–when I was a kid, it was all about canned and fast foods, few people wanted to take time to grow their own or cook from scratch. And in art too, we often go back and rediscover old methods. Not to mention that our museums are still full of works done hundreds of years ago!

    • I would be willing to bet everything I own (don’t mention this to my wife!) that the vast majority of photography and photographic printing going forward will remain digital, that we will not reverse this direction. Just as I don’t believe music will go back to vinyl records and cassette tapes.

      Let me know when you are ready to give up your word processor for a typewriter! 🙂

      There will always be people in the art world who enjoy doing things using antiquated techniques. And I applaud them in their distinctive and creative use of these. But the majority will adopt the newer, pervasive methods (for very good and equally creative reasons).

      Since we have to make a choice of what to emphasize in a curriculum, I simply recommend teaching the newer methods unless someone can show me that they produce inferior results or that these methods are truly a short lived fad.

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