The darkroom, a.k.a. the photo lab, at USM may be in the final days as it has been scheduled to be shuttered soon. As a photographer who switched from film to digital fully after the owner of Southern Camera in New Orleans disappeared in 2005 with my Nikon film bodies, including my treasured F5, I must say that I have not made great use of the darkroom. I do, however, see great value in keeping the existing darkroom for both art and photojournalism students.
While I do realize that university decisions often come down to money and making the best use of limited space, I personally feel the diversity in programs has great value as well. While black & white film development and print making is not what it once was, the space and equipment already in place has great value to these programs and the students who use them. Photography as an art should be supported by the university and that includes keeping the dark room in place.
Among the greatest educational experiences at USM was my time spent in the darkroom. Professor Ed Wheeler, my fellow students and late nights in that dark photo lab saved me. There's little else I took from my time from Southern Miss of equal value, other than the long-lasting friendships I made through the Photojournalism program.
When I arrived at USM, I had a desire for photography, but I was concerned that I could never make a living doing what I loved. I was more concerned with money. Ed Wheeler was a driving force in my life during my college years, as well as today. With the tool of photography and that photo lab as his workshop, Ed got my attention. He planted the seeds and nurtured their growth in my spirit by encouraging me to ignore my fears, to follow my heart and pursue my dreams of being a professional photographer - a photojournalist. He saw something in me that I could not see for myself. With great patience and an occasional ripped print, he got through.
Before my senior year at USM, Ed had succeeded. While my degree was in Advertising as a matter of convenience, my heart is in photography. It's how I make a living. It's how I identify with the world and communicate how I see it. Photography is the means by which I am able to share countless stories of subjects around the globe. It's my lifeline when there is no other way to communicate what I'm trying to say. Without the darkroom at USM and my time spent there, I would very likely be working a miserable job doing something I would hate. Instead, every day, I have the challenge before me to make good pictures, to tell stories, to give individuals a voice to the world who may not otherwise have one and a chance to follow my dreams with my only limitations being those that are self-imposed.
While technology has shifted to the digital age, there is still great value in the basics of photography. Many lessons are lost on the current generation of photographers who do not have darkroom experiences. In that dark space, we have the unique setting in which to give great thought to what we're trying to create, what we're trying to say. It's challenging to explain this to someone who doesn't understand it. You have to experience it. To take a vision of what you see, capture it on film, to set aside time without cell phones or other distractions, and get into the darkroom where you give life to the image you have created and to then print it for the world to see…nothing compares to that feeling, that sense of self accomplishment.
I owe a great deal to the roots I have in the basement of Southern Hall. I hope the administrators find a way to keep this valuable resource available for future generations to come; that other students would have the same opportunities to find themselves as did I. Education does not only come in the form of books and classroom time. Sometimes, for some of us, we need opportunities to express ourselves in a way that only the photo lab at USM can provide.
An effort is underway to build support for keeping the darkroom in place. Your support for this effort is greatly appreciated. Quoting Chris Payne's comment on the page, "One of the most important things I learned through film photography was to slow down and to really see what was in the viewfinder, on the enlarger and on the print."
To join the group: https://www.facebook.com/SaveTheUSMDarkroom?fref=ts
Photos by James Edward Bates.
More images from the USM darkroom last week:
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It's a sad day as digital technology replaces the age old art of darkroom development at USM's Southern Miss School of Mass Communication and Journalism in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. While I appreciate many of the advancements the digital age has brought, such as the ability to share an image with the world in real time, a part of me dearly misses the peace and tranquility of the darkroom.
During my days as a photography student under the direction of Professor Ed Wheeler at the University of Southern Mississippi, the darkroom was a place of refuge from the burdens of academic study, a necessary evil to obtain a college degree. All I wanted to do was make photographs. I spent many long nights in the basement of Southern Hall, eagerly processing the film I couldn't afford, but had somehow managed to find a way to purchase. I ate a lot of cheap pasta, so I could afford to buy bulk film. I'd roll it myself before taking it out into the world to find photographs that told a story.
Few photography experiences match the sense of accomplishment that came from the days of film, as you rushed back to the darkroom from a shoot, developed rolls of film and watched the magical process as light streaming through your enlarger and a chemical bath process brought negatives to life in the form of a print.
I still own a darkroom enlarger. It's not in a functioning darkroom, but it's there. Waiting. Available. Ironically, it was given to me by a friend when a newspaper darkroom was shuttered. It's too bad the darkroom at USM can't be supported as a form of art, an important means of expression to many. Some photographers are reinventing themselves through the early photography processes like the tin type, giving new appreciation to a long lost art. It's often difficult for universities to support the arts when times are tough financially.
All of this makes me think of the Model T I once owned. I loved that truck, a Model TT, one ton Ford truck, specifically. A 1923 model constructed of a solid wood cab and bed, it was the kind of vehicle you had to use a hand crank on the front of the engine to start before being modified with an electric push button start. The truck was antiquated. It had no doors and a single windshield wiper you had to operate by hand - while driving. Built the same year my grandfather James Marion Bates was born, the truck would go no faster than 17 mph downhill and the overwhelming gas fumes drifting into the cab made it difficult for passengers to have a pleasant experience. The gas throttle was on the steering wheel and reverse was the far left of three pedals. As old and difficult as it was to drive, there was something I really loved about it. It was unique. It was a challenge. No one else around me had one. Typically, it was just me and the truck, cruisin' down the street. It was a genuine head turner.
I think I'll dust off that enlarger soon, and make some photographic art just for the sake of keeping it going. When I'm done, I'll have to go track down that Model TT Ford and see if the fella I sold it to might take me for a spin down memory lane.
From left, my great uncle Jerry Harvey, grandparents Kathleen and James Marion Bates (seated) and me with my 1923 Model TT Ford truck shortly after purchasing it. My grandfather was born the same year the truck was built and he seemed to be the only one who knew how to drive it despite suffering from dementia. That truck brought a smile to his face that day, making it well worth the experience.