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|| News Item: Posted 2011-03-14

I Miss Working in the Darkroom
More accurately, I miss teaching in a darkroom.

By Brad Shirakawa

Photo by Brad Shirakawa

Photo by Brad Shirakawa

Left:The Evergreen Valley College darkroom housed 25 Beslar enlargers. Right:Evergreen student Richard Vitale spots a print, a process that Shirakawa says many students actually enjoyed.
The State of California’s current budget crisis killed off my 14-year career as a photography instructor at Evergreen Valley College in San Jose as of December 2010. I was teaching both the darkroom and digital class. And I can tell you it was way more fun in the darkroom, for the students and myself.

As great as Photoshop is, students aren’t that easily impressed with digital. While I taught them to be better photographers first and P’shop jockeys second, give them a chance to remove a wrinkle or bad background and they will.

But the first time a student sees a print come up in the Dektol is still a magical experience for them. I know because they told me so every semester.

After teaching digital for just a few years, I realized how much harder it was to make the class really fun and cool for them and in turn, for myself. The computer lab is great if all you want to do is to teach software. It’s a terrible place to teach them to be better photographers. But the traditional classroom with a chalkboard and 25 working Beseler enlargers? That’s where students would become friends while waiting for the film to fix or making a print. There was a sense of community that the digital lab never came close to generating. Seat two students side by side at computer stations and sometimes they never talk to each other...the entire semester.

The first time the students learn to load film might have been my favorite class session. I would open the infamous “drawer of shame,” which was full of old film that had been ruined by previous classes, and they would practice loading T-MAX 400 onto a plastic reel. Easy enough with the lights on. Then they did it with their eyes closed, and finally they would have to load in the complete darkness of the darkroom.

There were no individual film loading rooms at Evergreen. Just one big room where everyone had to load all at once. So you can imagine the laughs as they dropped their film on the floor and literally had to crawl around to find it. Or walk out and not bump into a fellow classmate, or me, for that matter.

It didn’t take long for the floor in the darkroom to be covered with chemical stains, or my clothes, for that matter. Those damned chemicals were getting harder to find, too, as local stores like San Jose’s Kamera Korner recently went out of business. My favorite printing paper, Kodak Polymax II RC-E surface was discontinued years ago. 100 sheets of the stuff was getting upwards of $70. Heck, those old film SLRs with fast 50mm lenses are becoming like gold now. A lot of students had a hard time affording the class.

But they kept coming, they kept taking the darkroom class. Why? Somehow, I think they knew that there was something special about taking a photography class in college. Anyone who has taken a darkroom photo class says the same thing. They loved it. My digital class never had the numbers, or the vibe that the darkroom class did.

Photo by

Brad Shirakawa's continues to see value in teaching traditional darkroom techniques in the age of digital photography. Shirakawa's 14-year run of teaching came to an end due budget cuts.
At the end of the semester, I would hand out a questionnaire. I asked them what they didn’t like about the class. One student said, “The chemicals tend to give me a headache.” Another commented that they didn’t like the class because “The f stop on the enlarger…because I would forget to change it.”

Of course, I asked them what they liked about my class, too. “I like the fact that I was able to create my photos from start to finish,” a student wrote to me in 2009. “Taking the photo, developing the film and printing to create a finished product. It was so much fun. Thank you.”

I like digital like everyone else, but man, do I miss cool college students who love black and white film, teaching in the darkroom, and the magic that has since died with it.

In 1997, Brad Shirakawa quit the Hollister Free Lance Newspaper after seven years as Chief Photographer, and then assisted at a San Jose studio for three. From 1996 he worked at Evergreen Valley College teaching photography. He continues to freelance very part time, work at a Palo Alto church where he produces their newsletter ( and now collects unemployment. His current project is a historic photography and document database, that he hopes to have up and running sometime later this year.

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