You do not need to play a mandolin to play an electric guitar, you don’t need to know how to play a harpsichord to play a synthesizer and you don’t need to know how to load a roll of film and make a darkroom print to be a photographer. The important word here is ‘need’.
Engaging with any form of creative analogue practice is a choice based on enjoyment and outcome. If you enjoy the process and the tool gives you the sound or look you want, then analogue makes sense, but it doesn’t make you better at what you do.
A keyboard is a keyboard, strings are strings and a camera is a camera, whether they need plugging in or not. Despite this many schools, colleges, universities and photography courses still focus on the teaching of darkroom practice. Why?
Is it because they have invested over time in darkrooms and equipment that they need to justify as existing? Is it because the teachers learnt in an analogue world that they don’t want to end? Or is it because it is essential to understanding the photographic medium?
I can find no evidence to support option three, in fact I can suggest more reasons not to make teaching analogue photography compulsory than to teach it. Here are a few.
Client budgets will rarely if ever cover the cost of analogue processing, printing and scanning; darkroom printing is an art that takes time and commitment to reach professional client expectations, it cannot be learnt quickly; you will need space and investment to build your own darkroom and enough work coming in to ensure your chemicals remain fresh and receive a return on investment. None of this is an issue when someone else is supplying the facilities, but it is when they are not. Of course, even if you can set up your own darkroom you will be restricted to black and white image-making, further restricting your client offering. Therefore teaching analogue is not preparing students for the reality of working as a photographer, a claim many make when promoting their courses.
Not all photography is client based I hear you retort! True, but someone still has to pay for your materials, equipment, facilities and time. Making analogue work introduces financial barriers that could easily be removed. What is more important, how you make work or if you make any work at all?
Personal projects will often be self-funded and therefore digital photography has allowed photographers to make work that could never have been made in an analogue world where every frame had a financial consequence. Of course much great work was made pre-digital, but film was relatively cheap and processing and printing available in every town or in many home bathrooms, basements and attics. Those photographers also had rigorous and in-depth five days a week training in the art of analogue, honing their craft and skills. This is not the case today.
I am not anti-analogue photography, I learnt my living between 2000-2006 as a working commissioned photographer with a film based practice, but I have not used film since 2006 and I am writing this article in 2022. That is sixteen years since high quality digital-image–making became affordable.
I often hear students saying that they enjoy analogue and there are many photographers whose contemporary practice is based on film. I have no issue with that as many will have been working with analogue since before the digital revolution and others will be willing to take on the cost implications. The issue I have is with those continuing to teach analogue photography without making students aware of the reality of where their practice will be left once the institutional analogue safety net is removed. You cannot make students ready for industry without doing this in my opinion. I have spoken to two post-graduate students recently who had not had this explained to them by their teachers.
Does analogue make you a better photographer? I don’t think so. Different? Maybe, better? No. Does an understanding of moving image make you a better photographer? Yes, I believe it can. The moving image button has been on our cameras for the last ten years and is more aligned with where image making is today than analogue, and yet it is rarely if ever taught on photography courses as a compulsory element – full disclosure, it is as a 11-week-module on the course I lead at Oxford Brookes University – this cannot make sense. The mysteries and complexities of analogue process, the chemistry and physics of its nature provides a barrier of entry for some young photographers which cannot be good, but it also provides those with the knowledge a sense of technical achievement in being accepted as a ‘photographer’. Perhaps there is a sense amongst some that you cannot be considered a ‘true photographer’ unless you use film, rather than a judgement being made on the images themselves.
We can if we wish make photography as inaccessible and difficult as possible, we can fight to keep it in the past and provide financial barriers to those wishing to make images. We can ignore the moving image functionality of our cameras, dismiss the smartphone as a camera, and say that studios have to be large white painted rooms filled with expensive lighting and containing infinity coves. In short we could judge photography on process and the past.
Or we could embrace the democratic nature of photography as it is today, we could encourage engagement through inclusion and diversity to guarantee photography’s cultural survival, develop image-making transferable skills for employment and welcome a new world of image-making stepping out of the darkroom and into the light, even if it is the light of a back-lit screen.
Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com
© Grant Scott 2022