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Close the door behind you on the way in. Give it time. Your eyes will adjust to the absence of light.
Welcome to SAIT’s darkroom, one of the last of its kind in the city. It’s been here in the basement of the Senator Burns building for more than 40 years. An unassuming space, partitioned off from the rest of the world by a long, colourless cinder block wall. Every day, passersby outside the wall flow along the continuum of the fluorescent hallway, blinded by the light. But inside, those who know about this darkroom, those who have experienced its enchantment — they just can’t seem to stay away.
People like Darcy Jordan, who’s been taking the same SAIT Continuing Education class — PHOT 210 Black and White Darkroom Techniques — an average of twice a year for the past 12 years.
“It was one of the electives I needed back in 2007 to finish my Photography Certificate of Achievement,” says Jordan. “I just became completely enthralled.”
Another darkroom devotee, Kristin Duff (PHOT ’77), ventured into the same subterranean sanctum for the first time in 2013. She had already completed the certificate program, but felt she might have missed out by not having chosen the darkroom elective. “I’ve been back to take the darkroom class many times since,” says Duff. She’s taking it again right now.
“No one has to take this rudimentary course,” says Jim Slobodian, Interim Academic Chair for the Graphic Communications and Print Technology program and the New Media Production and Design program. It’s an elective aimed at giving students an opportunity to learn new techniques in an old-fashioned way.
“Once you learn the terms and techniques in the darkroom, you can easily translate them into the digital realm.”
With increased access to all things digital, the initial assumption was that students would take the darkroom class and move on.
“But students are taking PHOT 210 again and again,” says Slobodian. It’s developed something of a cult following.
It’s really no wonder. Registration in the class provides access to the darkroom, its resources, expert personalized instruction in foundational photographic techniques, experimental autonomy, and ongoing exposure to courageous ideas that inspire, incite and incubate creativity.
The course instructor, George Webber, is a renowned professional photographer and long-time LINK contributor. His knowledge and passion for analogue photography (the term for using a film camera rather than a digital camera) are authentic. His respect for each step of the traditional process involved in bringing negatives to life — it’s infectious.
“Traditional printing is a magical but laborious task,” Webber says. “The process is not slick or modern. It is slow and wet and somewhat unpredictable. The effort yields a reward in its own time, not according to my schedule.” The way he talks about it, you can sense there’s a certain sweetness in the delayed gratification.
Developing this kind of intimate relationship with their work is a big part of the artistic experience for everyone in the darkroom. This is definitely an all-in, hands-on, heart-and-head-in-the-game endeavour. Students are encouraged to focus on honing their technique. The adventurous are emboldened with creative licence.
“The darkroom holds the illusion of being completely apart from the world,” says Webber. And yet there’s an incredible sense of connectivity here, with the art form and with like-minded artists.
It’s only natural that an entire creative community has evolved around this dark little nucleus.
“The darkroom is quite ripe for ideas to be thrown around, shared and inspired,” says Duff. “There’s quite a camaraderie between those of us who keep coming back, and with new people too. As artists we all grow and work off one another, which is really neat. Every time I go back, there’s something else that I learn.”
And that growing community of people intrigued by the darkroom experience has sparked a second Continuing Education offering.
About a year ago, SAIT introduced Black and White Lab Time — PHOT 001 in response to countless requests from students wanting continued access to the darkroom — and to Webber — after they had completed the certificate program. Lab time of 4.5 hours once a week for six weeks allows students a concentrated period to focus on their craft.
“This lab time was 100% driven by the community,” says Slobodian. And since being introduced last year, it’s been full.
There is definite demand.
Cerys Davies became curious about analogue photography after graduating with a fine arts degree from the University of Calgary in 2016. The next year she stumbled across SAIT’s darkroom class in an online search, but registration was closed because the class was full. So she waited another year, applied to have the program prerequisite waived (her art degree made her eligible), and successfully registered. Turns out it was well worth the wait.
Davies is now taking the darkroom class for the fifth time. And she’s already registered for the upcoming lab. Her appetite for this stuff is insatiable.
“I used to focus on a lot of painting, but now I’m pretty much just doing analogue photography and the darkroom,” says Davies. “I’m surprised by how much room there is to be creative. It’s just been a great experience.”
Beyond flexing her own artistic instincts, there’s this inherent connection to the larger creative community. “That’s something I really missed after finishing my degree,” says Davies. “Just being with like-minded people who inspire you when you see their creative work each class. Being involved in this creative community is one of the many reasons I keep coming back.”
It’s more or less the same for everybody. Remember Darcy Jordan and her ongoing 12-year history with Webber’s 12-week class? Her love for the art form and her deep-seated desire to learn and grow aren’t the only reasons Jordan takes the same class over and over.
“The darkroom community is a very creative, inspiring group of people,” she says. “We all have different likes and dislikes, and different things we photograph. We may see the world differently, but we share our love for creating that image. I really appreciate everything that everybody does. It’s all so amazing!”
Creativity can be incredibly difficult to sustain in a vacuum. Inspiration relies, in part, on input from one’s circle of influence.
“I do have a darkroom at home,” says Jordan. “But George isn’t in it, and neither are the rest of them.”