Photography’s future is, in many ways, in the hands of today’s photo students, and it should come as no surprise that photographic education has been profoundly changed by the coming of the digital camera. College darkrooms still exist— especially in the fine arts, where the desire to retain darkrooms is stronger than in applied photographic fields—but the majority of applied photographic careers available to students upon graduation require digital photography skills.
Newspapers abandoned darkrooms years ago and won’t hire a photographer who is unable to work with a digital camera and Photoshop. While there may be isolated exceptions, most wed- dings and portraits are photographed digitally for speed and convenience. Film retains some life in commercial photography, but digital backs for large- and medium-format cameras drive the high-end of the market serving ever-impatient art directors and clients. In commercial photography, film has mostly become a special effect reserved for an unusual campaign or a different look.
This new reality has forced many institutions that teach photography to reexamine their curriculum, their facilities, and begin equipment requirements for entering students. Of course, all this mandates new classroom skills for the educators themselves. The past 10 years have brought a whirlwind of change to photographic education, and these winds of change have brought both blessings and curses.
On the positive side, digital provides many advantages in photographic education. One obvious example: there is no need for a dedicated darkroom used solely for photography classes. A lab full of computers running Photoshop can be used in the morning by a photo class, and a mere double-click later can be used by a page-design or copywriting class. Savings and environmental benefits can accrue from a switch to a digital curriculum. With digital, local chemical disposal is no longer an issue. The large quantities of water that once flowed in school darkrooms are not needed. Associated plumbing woes also disappear.
It’s not all a lab full of roses, however.
In a digital lab, the computers themselves may last five years before they reach the end of their life—and then another couple thousand dollars per seat is required. Software is updated every 18 months on average, and the accumulated upgrade costs over the years vastly exceed that of a traditional dark- room. The days of buying a $700 enlarger and having it last for 20 years are not remotely possible with digital. “You buy a darkroom only once,” as Bob Thall, chair of the photography department at Columbia College Chicago quipped.