The Darkroom is a STEAM Lab

I am proud to work in a district where we have thriving photography programs that includes darkroom photography. With today’s broad use and easy availability of digital photography, many secondary and post-secondary programs are allowing the darkroom to go the way of the dodo, but this is misguided in a time when schools are also putting significant resources toward developing STEM or STEAM labs.

Silk Spools by Susan Silva

Silk Spools by Susan Silva, art teacher

STEAM is an interdisciplinary instructional model that combines Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics disciplines to deliver meaningful project-based learning. Some aspects of delivering STEAM instruction vary widely, but much of what happens every day in art classrooms (including photography) is a prime example of project-based-learning that should be at the core of any STEAM instructional model: Students are presented with a problem, use creative and critical thinking skills to develop possible solutions, practice and apply skills needed to create a product, and present the product to others. When the math, science, and technology of darkroom photography are layered onto this approach, there is little denying that the photography classroom is a STEAM lab.

Here are just a few of the things photo students study that relate to science, technology, and math:

  • Physics of light including how light interacts with lenses and filters
  • Science of the vision and the human eye
  • Mathematical relationships of adjustable aperture and exposure time
  • Use of meters and other tools to measure light and exposure
  • Physical and chemical makeup of various light sensitive materials used to capture an image
  • Positive and negative imagery including processes to reverse them
  • Historical photographic practices including the early use of the “camera obscura” in the renaissance painting
  • Familiarity and use of current digital technologies for image capture and output
  • Image enlarging processes
  • Image manipulation processes both in the darkroom and digitally
  • Chemistry of using acids and bases to develop film and prints
  • Chemical developing processes and how they can be manipulated for alternative photo processes
  • Relationships between the concrete darkroom processes and more abstract digital tools meant to duplicate them
  • Parts and functions of cameras including designing and building a functioning pinhole camera of their own

This list doesn’t even begin to address the artistic and communicative considerations that a young photographer must develop.

The mathematical, scientific, and technological content of photography classes represents a significant curriculum all by itself. When combined with the communication, creative and critical thinking skills that are applied cumulatively to create photographic artworks, photography programs represent a STEAM education worthy of notice.

A word to the wise principal: Embrace your darkroom as an active and vibrant STEAM lab. Don’t let it go away, and don’t be tempted during construction or renovation to omit this learning space. It may be one of the most authentic STEAM labs you will ever encounter.

True Romance by Andrew Watson

True Romance by Andrew Watson, art teacher

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