Deakin University builds darkroom as students click with film photography

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Student April Brown in the recently opened darkroom at Deakin University’s Waterfront campus in Geelong. Photo: Jason South Students working in the recently opened darkroom at Deakin University’s Waterfront campus in Geelong. Photo: Jason South


Student April Brown: ”Going out into the industry, people like to see you using analog or alternative methods.” Photo: Jason South

A Geelong campus has built a darkroom to help it keep up with student demand for black-and-white film photography skills.

Deakin University’s Waterfront campus opened the facility this year and has dozens of fine-arts students learning the value of a single, well-composed shot.

It’s not quite a return to cooperage and quill pens, but it is about learning the building blocks of a digitised art form, according to photography lecturer Daniel Armstrong.

He was around  when digital photography was becoming mainstream and Deakin staff debated whether to knock down the darkroom at its Burwood campus. That darkroom survived and students have always been keen to use it. Deakin wanted to offer the same basic black-and-white film skills at Geelong.

“Finding new equipment was difficult, but there has never been a better time to get hold of second-hand equipment,” Mr Armstrong said. It can be difficult to find replacement parts, but 3D printing may solve that problem, he added.

“Some of our students have set up their own darkrooms at home and have said it isn’t difficult to find equipment,” he said.

Student April Brown, 23, said her father was thrilled when she started learning how to use a Mamiya C330 medium-format camera, the same model he once had.

“He sold his medium format [camera], but had a 35-millimetre camera that I now use,” Ms Brown said.

She is studying creative arts at the university with a major in photography. She hopes analog technology will differentiate her artwork and skills when looking for a job.

“Going out into the industry, people like to see you using analog or alternative methods,” she said. “If you have an analog camera, it has a bit of a novelty factor.”

She said developing her own pictures had improved her skills with digital cameras.

“You have to be considerate of the tone that you are photographing,” she said. “Seeing the process that you need to take to get the perfectly exposed photograph on analog probably makes you more considerate in digital.”

Many tertiary schools that kept their darkrooms have found renewed interest in manual photography.

“RMIT has popular darkroom facilities at two campuses,” an RMIT spokeswoman said. “The number of students using them has been increasing and there are no plans to close them at this time.”

Photography is taught for fine art and scientific photography, she said.

According to Mr Armstrong, one big difference with analog photography this century is the absence of heavy metals.

“Selenium toning was a popular practice in a lot of darkrooms,” he said. “It warms the print. [But] there is no way we would let selenium in now because it is a toxic chemical and can poison you. Some of those things now are lost arts.”

Today’s students use a machine for all the fixing, washing and drying, although they do use trays for enlarging and developing.

Students use a multi-grade plastic-based paper, but supplies of original photography paper occasionally pop up on eBay.

Mr Armstrong believes students will always be interested in analog photography, but the biggest hurdle will be finding supplies of materials that are no longer made.

“I think the interest is indefinite, because as time goes by there’s a different interest in it – from the technical side to the historic aspect,” Mr Armstrong said. “We think the interest in it will be ongoing, at least into the next 10 years, when it may come down to a lack of equipment and resources.”

Students in Geelong go to a local cafe called Analogue Academy to buy second-hand analog cameras, Ms Brown said.

Most cameras come from “grandpas cleaning out their garages”, who sell them on consignment for about $100, Analogue Academy owner Dan Horvat said. The old 1970s metal models such as Minolta SR-T 101, Pentax K1000 and Canon AE-1 don’t stay on the shelf for very long.

“We are not really in it for the big profits; we just want to enable a film community,” Mr Horvat said. “We believe that film teaches people to slow down and think about what they are photographing and consider what their artistic abilities are.”