Johann van Tonder

Film is dead

2004-11-11 12:31

An American photojournalism student visiting our media organisation reacted strongly at my suggestion that there is very little reason for keeping wet laboratories - darkrooms - in journalism curricula.

The standard argument in favour of darkrooms is that the experience in film serves as a good background for practising photojournalists, even those who will work with digital technology exclusively.

I couldn't agree more.

Technically, I probably learnt everything I know about exposure in the darkrooms at UCT. Staying off lectures, I monopolised the facilities for hours, trying to perfect my black-and-white prints under that feint red light.

The uncontrollable locks of hair on the side of my head went yellow from hanging in the developing trays as I leant forward, impatiently watching pictures forming in the chemicals.

The new generation digital photographer would definitely benefit from this discipline.

To really understand photography, nothing can replace the study of how light triggers the crystals, how these react with the chemicals, and all those valuable lessons learnt from shining a light through your negative onto photo paper.

So yes, I would also prefer any aspirant photojournalist to stink of chemicals and have yellow hair-ends. I would also like them to take drawing classes to learn about composition and light. And make How to win friends and influence people compulsory reading.

From history we know that new developments are always accepted with difficulty. It's hard to think that, not too long ago, the debate was about the newly-introduced colour film threatening to contaminate the legacy of black-and-white.

I happened to be watching Singin' in the rain on the classics channel with one eye. In the movie, "talking pictures" is the new fad, and those studio's who are resistant are soon enough forced to adapt. "You do what you always did," instructs one manager, "you just add sound to it."

In the arena of still photography, the onset of the digital era triggered a very serious question: "Is photojournalism dead?" (With the time we saved by dumping the darkroom, we had time for debates.)

Today we know the answer. Film is dead and there's nothing more to it.

Unfortunately, given the limited teaching time, Adobe Photoshop has replaced darkroom tuition. If technology should fail students in the industry one day, they won't be able to draw pictures either as time doesn't allow the luxury of art classes.

And, in reality, I'd settle on getting students to read anything. If only they would read.

I'm waiting for the manager to run in telling us to "just add sound to it". Sure, that might signal the death of photojournalism, but it might just help the laggards to embrace digitalisation.

Send your comments to Johann

  • Johann van Tonder is an award-winning news and conflict photographer, and was previously photo editor at Die Burger. He lectures in photojournalism part-time at the University of Stellenbosch and Rhodes University. He is currently finishing a book on how to break into the exclusive industry of photojournalism.

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