Black-and-White Film Photography in Middle School
What do you see when you slow down?
Working in the darkroom makes you feel more attached to your photo and see the whole process better.
- Sadie Hammarhead, 9th grade
This quote perfectly captures the essence of why we teach our seventh and eighth grade film photography and darkroom printing course during middle school project time. This is an approximately ten-week, once-per-week course where students learn about film and manual film cameras as well as experience printing photographs in the school’s darkroom facility.
The course is broken up into several parts. First, we introduce students to photographic film and the workings of the camera itself. In this digital age many students have never even seen film or a negative. They learn about the mechanics of the camera, particularly shutter speed and aperture. What is the relation of speed to light? How do they see an image? Particularly, how do you see in black and white?
Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
We explore and look at some of the work of masterful photographers such as Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Annie Leibovitz and Sebastiao Salgado. Each photographer has his or her own style, composition and use of light. This is a good time to look at different photographs and talk about composition. We ask students, “What strikes you about an image?” We also ask, “What is your best tool in photography?” The answer is, of course, their eye!
Getting off campus
After two weeks or so, we are ready for some fieldwork. One of the main goals of this course is to get out and off campus to explore Germantown and to see what it offers — the people, buildings, monuments, etc. Since this course was started a couple of decades ago, near the same time as the formation of the Middle School, we have wanted the students to experience this urban city environment they spend a third of their day in. This experiential education gets them in touch with their surroundings. With our limited time period we don’t get far, but Market Square, Maplewood Mall and Cunningham Piano in Germantown are good locations for our budding film photographers to start from. We encourage the students to speak with people walking around, those that both live and work in the neighborhood, including shopkeepers, restaurant workers, social service providers, musicians, and artists.
I learned more about what is around the GFS community and it was really eye-opening.
- Annie McLaughlin, 9th grade
In the first weeks before we actually leave campus, in addition to teaching the students how their camera works, we strive to teach the nature of the relationship between speed and light. Students jump off picnic tables while other students try to stop or blur the action. Students work together, posing for each other and double checking their camera settings. Here is where having a camera that is more mechanical than automatic is advantageous. Students begin to have more of an understanding of how they can control the outcome of their image.
The film experience
Due to limited time, we sometimes feel we are rushing the students. If students feel comfortable we have them finish the roll of film on their own. Having a single roll of film with 24 or 36 exposures presents a bit of a challenge compared to the infinite number of shots you can take with a digital camera. Every shot has to count.
A word should be said here about instant gratification. With digital work, you can see the shot you took immediately and possibly make a correction. Using film does not offer that luxury. You have to wait, possibly a week or so, to see your results. Patience is required while shooting a roll to get the best shot and while waiting for the film to be returned. Students must slow down and think about the composition of their photograph. At this point, the focus of our lessons on setting up, composing and shooting the photograph; we don’t jump right into processing the film. Fortunately, there are a few places in the city that still develop black and white film and get the results back to you in a reasonable amount of time, about one week. This is much different than a decade ago when we could get film developed overnight. Presently, we take film into Center City to the Photo Lounge. In a pinch, the teachers develop it themselves to have it ready for the next class.
Into the darkroom
Finally, by week four or five, we are ready to get into the darkroom and introduce the students to the printing process. The darkroom is presently the domain of our Upper School photography teacher, Michael Koehler. Michael has been an avid supporter of our Middle School photography program. We hope that in return our program encourages students to continue with photography in Upper School. The collaboration between Michael and the middle school teachers is wonderful. Students see this collaboration and it rubs off. Michael introduces the middle schoolers to the darkroom, explaining the ground rules and how the chemistry is used.
The darkroom is a little dark and confusing because you have to be careful of what you do.
– Alexa Hanson, 9th Grade
Once students start to use the darkroom, they are able to see the difference between the film/darkroom process versus how a photograph is produced on the computer and printer. Processing and developing film in a darkroom is a much more tactile process than working on the computer. The negative goes into the enlarger and students have to manipulate that image, learning how to focus, crop, enlarge and decide how much light needs to be used (using the aperture and timer to let in the right amount of light). With the cropping and enlarging they are once again composing their image, which might be quite different from what they saw when they first shot the photograph. For their first print, there is a good deal of guesswork involved. For that reason we use test strips, small cut-up strips of the light sensitive photographic paper. Photographic paper is expensive, which is why we cut the strips. The strips are used to evaluate the negative and to try to determine the correct exposure without using a full sheet of paper. The strip is exposed to light from the enlarger to different times using an opaque piece of cardboard.
Printing photos in the darkroom is in my opinion much cooler than using a computer. I really liked being able to do everything myself with my own hands, and it’s fun to see the photo start to take shape. Printing photos using a computer is easier and uses less equipment than a darkroom. You have to be less careful of making mistakes.
– Isabel Riley, 10th Grade
Now we come to the “wet” part of the process. The test strip is put into three chemical baths; developer, stop and fixer. The magic of watching an image come up on this blank piece of white photo sensitive paper is thrilling to us and to the students. After they go through the entire process of develop, stop and fix, students take their work into the adjoining room to see which exposure on the test strip will give them the best photograph. We encourage students to make their own mind up about what exposure they like best, and not rely entirely on the teacher’s opinion. This is their work. Once they have chosen the best exposure (they may have to do one or two more test strips before they actually have the correct exposure), they are ready for the “big” print. We start out with 5 by 7 photographs and move up to 8 by 10 images By this time, students have also explored the use of contrast filters to use with their final photographs. Black and white imagery allows you to see differences in texture, contrast and light. The contrast filters enhance this. At this point, students are more comfortable and capable and they finish the course creating exciting eight by ten inch images.
Students have come to see that every photograph printed in the darkroom is unique. Once you have the perfect photograph on a computer and the printer is set, all of the prints will be the same. With the darkroom process there are so many variables that could alter the photograph — the exposed time, the time in the developer, the chemical makeup of the developer, the temperature etc. While not always noticeable, there are subtle differences that make each print unique. Students understand they have a one-of-a-kind photograph of their own.
Working in the darkroom makes you feel more attached to your photo and see the process better.
- Sadie Hammarhead, 9th Grade
Exploring your style
In this year’s classes, we decided to add a second shooting day to the schedule, about half-way through the class. We took the students to Maplewood Mall, a pedestrian shopping corridor just a few blocks from our campus in Philadelphia. Unlike the first shooting day — where students were consumed primarily with the mechanics of the camera and how the settings work — the students could begin focusing more on the art of photography: framing their shots, composition techniques, and exploring different angles and lighting situations.
Collaboration and reflection
Throughout the course students are always collaborating — in the darkroom, during shooting days, and while critiquing one another’s finished photos. Students compare notes and techniques with their classmates while working in the darkroom, and reflect on their own work and offer constructive feedback at group critiques. At the end of the course, we schedule a lunchtime meeting to review all the work produced during the class. Students make their own selections for what will go to Graffiti, the middle school literary magazine, and which pieces to include in the all-school art show in May. There is a good deal of feedback going back and forth.
What surprised me about this class was how much we all worked together. People were always telling each other the shutter speed and aperture they were using and everyone was helping other people get the best photographs.
— Isabel Riley, 10th Grade
All too soon the ten-week project time is over. We feel we are just getting started and students feel this as well. The fast pace, however, is complemented by a “slowing down” of the creation process. Quality is emphasized over quantity, and we encourage students to take their time, make more conscious choices, experiment, and reflect on their work. Today’s students are used to the efficiency and speed of the digital world; using film, they are forced to slow down and really think about the images they are creating. Students learn that their decisions and experience offer them a level of control that they don’t often find with a fully-automated camera and one-size-fits-all photo editing apps.
Analog black and white film photography is alive and filled with potential in the middle school.
by Sarah Detwiler & Will Terry
Sarah is a Computer Science & Digital Media teacher at Germantown Friends School.
Will Terry is a retired English teacher at Germantown Friends School who continues to support students as they find their voices through creativity and self-expression.