Ryerson’s dark rooms fade to black

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By Matthew Braga

For decades, Ryerson’s photography students have learned to dodge, burn and develop their own film. But as of next year, the darkroom is finally going digital.

The university’s photography program is planning to move away from film-based teaching, in favour of modern day techniques. Introductory film courses will be phased out and focus will be shifted instead to digital SLRs.

“There are many wonderful and magical qualities to film, but it has always had many limitations,” said Robert Burley, photography program director. “Digital imaging … is simply faster, cheaper and more flexible. In most instances these are the qualities creative professionals are after.”

The move is unsurprising, considering both professional and consumer photography is now largely digital. However, some feel newcomers to the program will miss out on the unique and arguably more involved experience that film photography demands.

“I think a lot of people these days are just picking up digital cameras and shooting as self-proclaimed photographers,” said Yasmin Alsamarrai, a second-year photography student. “With Photoshop it’s so easy to make a picture. Film is the root of photography and I don’t think it needs to be forgotten.”

Jeff Harris is a 1996 Ryerson photography graduate, from a time when digital was nearly nonexistent. His most recent project is a collection of self portraits, taken every day over the course of a decade and all shot on 35mm film.

“I think the nice thing about film is it ties you to the history of photography. It sort of helps you explain the nuts and bolts of an image,” Harris said. “With digital you’re indebted to Photoshop to help you make an image. Whereas, when you’re working in dark room, you feel connected to the people a hundred years ago who used to do it too.”

While first-year students will no longer start with film-based processes, the plan is to offer such classes in later years — albeit, in a reduced capacity. Higher level students can potentially take courses in traditional film development, and a new graduate program called Film Preservation is in the works. But as Burley points out, cost is always something the school is looking to minimize, and film no longer made sense financially.

In the old program, photography students would spend hundreds of dollars each year on chemicals, prints and other equipment. As more users move to digital, the cost of these supplies his risen dramatically, making their continued use impractical.

“They were putting more money into maintaining the machines and chemicals than people who were using them,” said Jonathan Hutchinson, a second-year photography student. It’s a fact even photographic giant Kodak has realized — the company plans to leave the film business by 2015.

But beyond cutting costs, DSLRs posses an excellent capacity for teaching new students. Burley calls the cameras a “wonderful pedagogical tool” for their ability to provide instant feedback and said they are much more forgiving than their filmbased counterparts. Students will be encouraged to purchase either a Canon or Nikon model for the start of term. Moreso, the digital shift of the last decade has drastically changed the way in which photographers operate. Tools like Photoshop and web design have become industry standards that can no longer be ignored.

“When they leave the program, they shouldn’t be encountering things they’ve never learned to do,” explains Burley. “This is where everyone else is going, so it doesn’t make sense not to switch.”

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