Shedding Light on the Darkroom

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Issue 16, Volume 109

By Veronika Kowalski 

In the digital age, film photography is a dying art. Stuyvesant offers an accessible way to explore this waning craft.

Stuyvesant’s original darkroom and photo studio in room 336 have been a part of the current building since its creation in 1992. Over the years, they have been used for semester-long classes and independent student projects. Until June 2020, room 336 is guaranteed to remain as it is. After that, given funding, the administration plans to clear out its equipment and use the space as an environmental science lab to combine the disciplines of engineering and sustainability.

The way the photo studio at Stuyvesant was put together is unlike that of any other studio. Unlike most photo studios, which use a large sheet of paper as a backdrop for pictures, the builders of Stuyvesant’s photo studio spent $60,000 on a custom-made one. They also purchased a supply of strobe lights that “could have lit Madison Square Garden,” according to photography teacher Joel Winston. The room actually requires only 12 times less light than what was originally in place. Winston replaced the more powerful strobe lights with studio lights. “There are a lot of things that I thought they wasted their money on when they originally built it,” Winston said. “They used the finest computer timers, darkroom, enlargers [...] they could get for the money, which I thought was overkill.”

The photo studio is connected to the darkroom via a tall, tight, and black cylindrical door. The door is designed this way to block outside light from reaching the darkroom. Passing through this door is like going into a different dimension.

The principal use of a darkroom is to develop and enlarge pictures from a roll of film, which is a long strip of plastic. A darkroom typically contains several enlargers, which produce the prints in the absence of extraneous light. The darkroom at Stuyvesant contains approximately 30 enlargers, half of which are broken. The room was initially set up to process color film. However, if Winston had been the one to design it, he would have set it up to process film in black and white. Now, it is difficult to garner interest in reinvesting in the materials. As a result, students in Winston’s class partner up when operating the usable equipment.

Developing photos is a truly remarkable experience. By the time one has put the negative (or the “before” image) in the enlarger, taken it out, and bathed it in a tray, weeks could have passed since the time the picture had first been taken. “It’s like giving birth,” Winston testified. “It’s like, oh my God, I haven’t seen this in a week. I forgot about it, and here it is. It’s coming alive. And it’s just a magical feeling.”

No experience is required to take Winston’s class, which spends a few weeks in the darkroom. Students create photograms, images that are negatives of a collection of objects exposed to light. They also build their own pinhole camera from cardboard, take pictures from them, and have those pictures developed in the darkroom. “And they love that,” Winston said, smiling.

For senior and Photography Club Co-President Danny Jiang, photography is an outlet to recreate the vivid descriptions he found in books when he was younger, and to document city life with all its little details. He might capture someone crossing the street, a father with his daughter on his shoulders, a child in Williamsburg on his balcony, a driver sleeping in her car, restaurant workers on a smoke break, or a bird resting on a branch. “I think these are just all moments that people don’t notice,” Jiang said.

Jiang joined the photo club at the end of his freshman year. Prior to joining the club, he had no experience with film photography. “I remember my first ever roll of film turned out so terribly because I had no idea how to properly expose the camera. It was definitely a learning experience,” he mused. “For a lot of sophomore year, my hands always smelled like developer.”

In his junior and senior year, though, Jiang did not have as much time (or developer) on his hands. He put his duties as president of the Photo Club “on the backburner,” which is one thing he regrets as his time at Stuyvesant is coming to a close. “The photo room is somewhere I used to just hang out twice a week every week in sophomore year,” Jiang admitted. “I wish I was able to do that for the next generation of photographers at Stuy.”

In addition to participating in the Photography Club, Jiang has also taken Winston’s class. “Being in the darkroom again was actually my favorite part of the class, because my favorite medium has and always will be film,” he said.

Senior and Co-President of the Photography Club Ting Ting Chen agrees that Stuyvesant’s darkroom deserves more attention. “I like to call it Stuy’s hidden gem because not a lot of people know about it,” she said.

Juniors Khandaker Ridwan and Eugene Seo are slated to be co-presidents of the club for the upcoming school year. Ridwan expressed enthusiasm about making meetings more consistent. He would like to make the art of photography more accessible by taking members of the Photography Club on field trips. These trips would allow members to take pictures that raise awareness of current issues and injustices.

Given funding, Principal Eric Contreras would like to put the space to another use in the future. Stuyvesant has limited space for full-time courses, but the darkroom is a place that has not been programmed for a full-time course in over five years. “As principal, you have to make difficult decisions in regards to space utilization,” he said.

Utilizing the space in the darkroom would be one step in a multi-phase process, initiated by biology teacher Marissa Maggio with the help of biology teachers Aimee Hill, Stephen McClellan, and Jerry Citron, that would gear Stuyvesant students toward engaging in environmental issues within the school day. The first step, which has already been enacted, was to create an Advanced Placement Environmental Science class for ninth graders. The second step would involve using the space in the current darkroom to create an advanced learning lab to support environmental studies. The third step would be to add a rooftop greenhouse and student space on the fifth-floor balcony. Finally, a new class would be introduced that would combine environmental science and law. All of this would only be implemented if Stuyvesant has the capacity and necessary funding in years to come.

If feasible, Contreras plans to make the current darkroom into an environmental science lab where students can explore aquaponics, hydroponics, and possibly methods of sustainable energy such as solar, wind, thermal, and tidal power. Stuyvesant would still have a class for digital photography, but this new environmental science lab would serve 34 kids for 10 periods a day—340 kids per year. “This generation will have to solve the problems past generations have caused and ignored,” Contreras said. “Our current generation can no longer hand it to someone else. We only have one planet and we need to be good custodians of this earth.”

The fact that Stuyvesant has a darkroom is notable, and it has given many kids the joy of witnessing their photos being developed. Its future, though, also has big plans. Interested students should use the darkroom as is before the space is put to another use.