Darkroom photography, Digital teenagers

POSTED ON: November 7, 2017

Every fall, the Cooper Outreach Pre-college program offers a darkroom photography class to 16 lucky (and talented) teenagers from the New York city area. Nowadays, when it comes to taking pictures, teenagers are more experienced and have more access than ever before. Just think about it – at least in the NYC area, it seems like the vast majority of teenagers have smartphones, and are adept at taking selfie after selfie and posting them to the requisite social-media site for their peers to review. But beyond knowing how to take a really well-styled arms-length self-portrait, and having a camera at their fingertips nearly all the time, are they aware of the mechanics of photographic reproduction? Or the possibilities for experimentation with light, coated paper, and chemicals in the traditional b&w darkroom?

Back when I was growing up (in the 90s), I was obsessed with taking photos. My first camera that was not actually my family’s camera was a thin purple plastic rectangle – a Mickey-Mouse branded 110mm point and shoot with a braided wrist strap. I LOVED my little camera, and the only thing more exciting than shooting photos of my cat, clouds, or views of the Pacific Ocean was getting the film developed and seeing what I had captured in the frame. Eventually my purple rectangle broke, and I moved on to a 35mm point and shoot hand me down from my parents. The stream of photos continued, as did arguments with my mom about the expense of getting photos developed and printed – back then you did it at the drug store.

And then, the summer of my 7th grade year, I went to a photo day camp at the Harvey Milk Photo Center (Part of the Parks&Rec Dept. of San Francisco). Within a few weeks, I had learned how to develop my own black and white photos. Even as a kid who had grown up obsessed with snapping away on a film camera, it was mind blowing to do the printing myself. There is an art to working with negatives, an enlarger, chemicals, and paper. We shot black and white 35mm film, worked with light and objects placed on photo paper to make photograms in the darkroom, and made pinhole cameras that took photos with a teeny hole projecting light directly onto a piece of photo paper stuck in the back of the camera.

In our photo class every fall, we use the same basic curriculum: the goal is to give the students hands-on experience with an art form that is not easily accessible to them in a high school art class. It sounds like it’s working – Amy Buckley, our photo teacher, has told me she’s had a hard time getting the students to leave the darkroom at the end of the 3-hour morning session so they can grab lunch before their afternoon classes! After my first darkroom photo class, I decided to save up and buy my own manual-focus 35mm camera. I still have and use that camera to this day.

Though teenagers today have the freedom to snap endless pictures on their phones without worrying about of the cost of developing the photos at Walgreens, and can develop their eye without getting into fights about the cost of prints with their parents, there is nothing that can substitute for the depth of understanding that comes from working hands-on in a darkroom, manipulating light on chemically treated paper. There is a magic in the darkroom that can’t be replaced with a computer screen and the latest version of Adobe. The Fall Outreach exhibition opens on November 14th, and will be on display in the 5th floor lobby of the Foundation building through the 17th. I can’t wait to see what our students have created in the darkroom!

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.