In previous years, I had always taught photography as part of the art curriculum at LSUA. Film photography that is, because I am speaking of the days long before the digital image age. We had a primitive but workable photo lab and darkroom where the art students had a chance to hone their skills and learn to produce a beautiful print. For several years in the recent past, we were unable to offer photography because the facilities were no longer workable. With the new MPAC building on campus, home to our art department, we are again teaching film photography with the latest and best equipment possible. Most anything relating to photography can be done in our studio. This fall, we will offer two courses. FIAR 2995 is the beginning film photography course. This is the course in which students learn all the basics of working with a film camera from taking the initial photograph to the final production of developing, matting, and framing the print.
FIAR 2996 is a continuation of the first course and carries the 2995 pre-requisite. In this advanced course, students explore various techniques of film photography, such as hand coloring and pinhole method. While 2996 affords greater freedom in style, both courses are designed with the student’s own creativity in mind. A variety of subjects are utilized to create the themes of the photographs. Now why, in this digital age, would courses in film photography still be included in the curriculum of an art student? After all, it’s the photographer not the medium that defines the quality. It raises an interesting question.
Photographer Ken Rockwell compares film to digital as one would compare a wife to a maid! I wouldn’t begin to go there! However, let’s look at some of the differences between the two media.
Film photography takes more work. There are simply more steps to move from the initial taking of the picture to the final print. There are more things that can go wrong. Film photographers really need to print their own work. Film labs often mess up the final print simply because they have not seen what the photographer has seen. Film mimics the eye far better than digital. Huh? The eye of the photographer is looking at the scene with all of the mental and emotional trappings of that personality. Large format film still rules for serious landscape photography. It simply provides more and better resolution in enlargement. On the other hand, hobbyists get better results from digital. There are fewer steps and less can go wrong. For the quick shot of friends and family or while traveling, nothing can beat digital. It’s instant, relatively inexpensive, and provides a clear record of the moment, the place, or the person.
To talk about photography as an art form, we have to turn to those outstanding artists who have captured our homes, our lives, and our times through the film camera’s lens. Perhaps best-known and loved would be Ansel Adams, whose black and white photographs of the American West are known worldwide. Adams, along with Edward Weston, founded the Group f/64. This informal association of seven San Francisco photographers stressed sharply focused images with the clarity and depth that was a signature style of Adams. The contrasting style of photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz formed the opposing Pictorialists who sought to create an image rather than a detailed recording through manipulation of the subject. Adams developed the Zone System to determine the exact exposure so that contrast in the final print could be adjusted. Everyone is familiar with those spectacular views photographed by Adams in Yosemite National Park. He also did work in the mountains of Northern New Mexico. Years ago, when I was taking Boy Scouts to the High Adventure Base Camp at Philmont, I visited the Seton Memorial Library in Cimarron. Knowing that Adams had photographed the area, I asked the cordial librarian if they had any of his prints. She invited me back into the office area for coffee and produced a large 16mm film box filled with original Adams prints. She related that he had left them with her and said that he would come back by sometime and pick them up. I have no idea if he ever retrieved those photographs, but it was a rare privilege to be able to see them.
On a different but equal plane is the work of Dorothea Lange. Lange was a documentary photographer, what we now call a photojournalist, who captured the tragic American Depression era. Her work for the Farm Security Administration produced some of the most captivating yet disturbing images. If Lange had produced nothing but Migrant Mother, it would have been enough.
Clyde Butcher is familiar to Floridians and those who love its Everglades. Using large format cameras, Butcher has photographed the large cypress swamps of the Florida wilderness. He freely expresses his personal bond with the environment in a sympathetic and empathetic expression of love.
These photographers have given us so much through their work. Images that could not have come from a digital camera express a true art form. And it is their inspiration that we take in our classes when we study and explore the use of the film camera to create our own art. As we move from the basic knowledge of being a thoughtful photographer to the methods and techniques that manipulate the photograph, we remember their contributions to this art medium. And we are able to look at their work in view of our own photographer’s eye and see a new form of creativity within ourselves. This is what sets apart the academic environment. This is what makes it the purest form of study.
Even with film photography, there are differences. Amateurs generally use only 35mm film. Pros do not deal with “film” as such, but with format, 120, 4 x 5, etc. In fact, magazines like Arizona Highways do not accept 35mm photographs. Only 4 x 5 or large formats are accepted for the magazine. And don’t even try to submit a digital image to them! They will tell you that the quality is not good enough, no matter how many megapixels, to print a 12 x 18 image in the published magazine. Truth be known, only the 4 x 5 camera remains unsurpassed for landscape photography.
There are many and varied techniques that more advanced photography students can explore. Hand coloring has gotten a lot of attention of late and has become very popular. But there are tricks to this method that we teach in the hand coloring unit. Paper must be selected that will take the color and the colors themselves must be chosen for the specific project. Hand coloring can produce a finished product that possesses the realism of a photograph with the subjectivity of a painting.
Pinhole photography is another popular method. Pinhole method is ancient. From very early on, images could be viewed through the pinhole. Viewers just didn’t know what to do with the image until the French developed the concept of the camera obscura, and pinhole technique was on its way. I became interested in pinhole photography on a family trip to Florida some years ago. We met Bob Willis, a Jacksonville photographer who specializes in pinhole. The outcome of our visit was that I bought a very expensive pinhole camera! Bob came to Alexandria for an exhibit and workshop in our University Gallery. It’s important to stress, however, that you don’t have to spend a lot of money on a pinhole camera. In fact, you can make one! All it takes is a cheap pie pan. Of course, you have to take the class at LSUA to find out how to do this! A 35mm camera can also easily be converted into a pinhole by removing the lens and purchasing a pinhole body cap.
We explore so many different aspects of film photography in the classes. Through trial and error (or success!), students reach a level of creativity and competency in the use of film to produce lasting, archival quality prints…“suitable for framing” as they say. We invite you to consider taking film photography this fall at LSUA. Members of the community are always welcome to take classes. You support and honor us with your presence. If you are an interested high school student, please talk to your art teacher or guidance counselor. Our courses can be taken for dual credit along with your high school program in preparation for college. You can contact Teresa Seymour, LSUA Registrar, about how to do this. The classes will meet on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the afternoon. Morning classes will feature art history lecture classes and two courses in ceramics, again with a complete and up-to-the-minute studio. Why not join us for a fun and enriching experience with art at LSUA? For more information, please contact me at (318) 473-6449 on weekday mornings this summer.