Photo finish

It was a pleasure to spend some time with Jonathan Worth following his ALT-C keynote in Manchester last week. We got on just fine because we discovered that we have a lot in common, not least of which was that we both did formal training as photographers, in the pre-digital age. And so we took time reminiscing over all the tasks we needed to perform as we learnt photography in the studio and the darkroom to produce our work and remarked on how much more involved and difficult it was to make images then than it is today. The skills we had to acquire back in the day were different to the skills now required to manipulate and produce photographs in the digital age.

I recalled my first time in the darkroom, about 3 days into my photography course. I had already been out that morning capturing my images. I had then processed my 35mm black and white FP4 film and had dried it. Using a light-box, I then carefully selected a negative to print, and used an enlarger to expose a 10 x 8 sheet of photosensitive paper. The magic moment occurred for me when with tongs, I submerged the exposed paper in a shallow tank of developer fluid and gently agitated it. For a few seconds nothing happened, and then slowly, as if by magic, I saw an image begin to appear on the paper. It really did feel magical. Within minutes the image was fully developed, and I placed the paper in the fixing fluid.

I had discovered the power of images, and also the secrets behind how they were made. I had produced my first photograph, and it was all my own work. It was a huge sense of achievement, and I had been involved at every step of the creative process, from start to finish. I shared my memory of this with Jonathan, and he agreed with me that producing his first photographic image in the darkroom was a magical moment for him too.

Although time has moved on, and we are now in an age where one click of a button will produce a high resolution, full colour digital photograph on your smartphone, there is still something very special about the longer process by which we used to create our images. It took time, effort and a lot of forethought to get those images. Sometimes it went wrong, and we had to start again. But this was part of the old school charm of developing your film and printing your images yourself. You understood how images were made. You played a part in the creation of those artefacts. Some photographers still adhere to these old way of creating images. Many others rely on digital image making, where the art comes in the composition, cropping, and digital manipulation of the image using Photoshop and other software.  

Whichever way we learn, whether it is photography, or some other skill, being involved in the creative process retains its magic and is hugely important for the learning experience. Learning by making is again becoming something we consider to be very powerful. In fact in never really went away. The rise in popularity of maker spaces and fab labs is an indication of its importance in today's learning. Making, creating, fixing and designing are all processes we need for education now and in the future. With them, we can turn our hands to just about anything.

Photo by Vladimir Agafonkin on Flickr

Creative Commons License
Photo finish by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Unknown said…
Steve, developing my first roll of black and white and making that first print for a magical moment for me, too. I haven't given away my enlarger, yet. Someday, I would like to go back in the dark and play around again! I was new to the newspaper business at that time and only 22 years old. It is an experience I will never forget.

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