Seeing Life in Black & White: Fayette's photo class 2007.11.28

Written by David Green.


When Fayette art class students head into the darkroom with a roll of film to process, they’re taking a step into the past.

Developer, stop bath, fixer, water wash—hardly anyone follows that routine anymore.

Instructor Ryan Colegrove knows he’s teaching the proverbial dinosaur, but it’s still a good beast to have around. Even in Fayette’s art classes, however, film is probably heading toward extinction. When classes move into the new school, digital photography will take over.

photo.class.colegrove.jpgFormer art teacher Tom Spiess remembers starting up the school darkroom in 1971.

“We had a Yankee enlarger, three trays and a developing tank,” he said.

At the time, the darkroom wasn’t at all a permanent fixture.

“We used the girls rest room across the hall from the boiler room,” Spiess said.

During the class period when the darkroom was in use, a student would be posted outside—both to warn a visitor that she might want to use another rest room and also to prevent an open door from exposing film or photo paper to light.

Spiess has the satisfaction of knowing that over the years a few of his students took their basic skills with them and went on to use photography after graduation.

It wasn’t a class for everyone, but many students found it fascinating.

“Some of them would get intellectually involved in the process,” he said. “Even kids who were generally considered trouble-makers were paying attention.”

The magical process of watching an image appear on a white sheet of paper captured the imagination of most students, but not everyone was comfortable in the darkroom.

“I used to tell them, ‘If you go into the darkroom, your hands are going to smell like feet,’” Spiess said.

Spiess remembers that Fayette was the first school in the county to have a darkroom and Colegrove figures it’s one of the last.

By the time he took over as art teacher from Spiess in the 2000-01 school year, a permanent darkroom was in place in the art room.

Colegrove was pleased to continue the tradition. He learned about photography in Spiess’s art classes and he studied the art further when he earned his teaching degree at Defiance College.

He appreciates how the photo class can offer an art experience to a wider range of students.

“It’s always been nice for kids who wanted to be in art but weren’t really artistic,” he said, referring to the drawing skills used in art class.

As far as processing and printing goes, it’s more of a technical process where a prescribed set of steps is followed. Still, a student needs an eye for capturing the image before the darkroom work begins.

Colegrove offers a variety of class projects, ranging from sports action shots to portraiture to landscapes. Darkroom techniques include sepia toning, solarization and high contrast printing.

When students move on to his advanced class, they’ll learn about the electronic darkroom using Photoshop software.

“Photoshop has made some of the more difficult techniques a one-click process,” Colegrove said.

And in the ever-changing world of digital photography, some processes, such as sepia toning, are now done right on the camera.

Photoshop opens up a new world of darkroom control, yet something is lost that a few students miss.

“Some kids who go on to digital still want to do some darkroom work,” Colegrove said.

But for most students, the instant gratification of a digital camera wins them over for good.

“In this day and age, people want to look at the back of a camera and see the result instantly,” he said. “Black and white photography is going to be a thing of the past.”

In the new school, Colegrove expects to  expand on the digital work and bring web design into the curriculum, but he can’t let the dinosaur die off completely.

The darkroom has to be approached with a different attitude now, Spiess said. It can only be taught as a historical process.

“We were on the leading edge when I started it,” he said, “and when I retired it was on its way out.”

On its way out, but not yet extinct.

There’s a closet in Colegrove’s new art room that could serve as a temporary darkroom and he’s going to bring along one of his enlargers.

“We’ll still do some work with film,” he said. “Some of the kids really enjoy it.”

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