A Discipline in Development: Focusing the lens on the University's photography scene

By Jacob Axelrad, Daily Community Culture Editor
Published September 19, 2011

Over the years, it has become commonplace for photography-minded students in the School of Art & Design to take two classes in the Residential College: RC Arts 285 and 385. These courses, taught by RC instructor Michael Hannum, are open to any University students who is interested in the process of film photography — Hannum’s students work in the only remaining darkroom on campus. The RC’s darkroom is traditional: a room completely enclosed in darkness, with the exception of a safelight, so the light-sensitive negatives can develop without the danger of exposure.

In the rush to be digital, the School of Art & Design removed all darkrooms eight years ago, leaving little opportunity for budding photographers to learn about wet process. As Hannum explains it, the last five years have witnessed a spike in the number of students attracted to the prospect of film because they already know digital photography techniques like Adobe Photoshop and Bridge. The darkroom access that comes with Hannum’s classes has become a valuable commodity for students looking to expand their photographic horizons.

A close examination of the University’s two photography classroom environments reveals what could be seen as a striking difference in pedagogies: Hannum’s teaches using traditional technology, while the School of Art & Design has a more forward-thinking approach.

Ultimately, though, they both provide a curriculum that permits students to decide the best means of expression for themselves. The tools are secondary.

“It’s not the camera and it’s not the tool. It’s the guy behind the camera,” Hannum said. “A film class makes it much more about what you choose to take a picture of, how you do it. What you use to get there doesn’t matter so much.”

Camera lucida

Hannum’s office is located in 21 Tyler House in the basement of East Quad. An Ansel Adams image of Yosemite National Park hangs immediately to the right of the door, and black-and-white portrait prints from former students adorn his desk.

According to Hannum (himself an Art & Design alum), when he was a student, the art school’s curriculum was completely different than it is today. Like many other art schools across the country, it has shifted from a craft-oriented approach to a more conceptual art, focusing on creative problem-solving rather than on learning to be a painter or sculptor or photographer.

But in an age when people are exhibiting a longing to once again get their hands dirty, the school’s desire to be cutting-edge has diminished the chance for students to learn about an important aspect of photography: developing their pictures in a darkroom.

“Things have been moving so fast that (students) just want to go back to basics,” Hannum said. “They don’t want to be film photographers, but they want to see what it’s all about. What I’m sensing is that in the past five years people want to get their hands wet. They want to see something evolve before their eyes.”

For LSA sophomore Ben Case, time spent in the darkroom is easily applicable to other areas of study.

“I have no problem spending hours in the darkroom, whereas I have problems sitting at a computer editing for hours,” Case wrote in an e-mail interview. “The experience in the darkroom gives you a well-rounded view of photography, and an appreciation of the art. (Hannum)’s RC course has given me an appreciation for patience, which also applies to my life in general.”

Last semester, LSA junior Katie Gass collaborated with fellow RC creative writing student Logan Corey to create a multimedia exhibit combining poetry and photography as a platform to showcase gender and sexuality in the modern world. The final exhibit consisted of one 16x20 black-and-white and four 8x11 photos, three poems and several three-dimensional objects. Gass’s experiences in the darkroom and Michael’s mentorship have been touchstone parts of her growth as an artist.

“Working in the darkroom is my escape from the real world; whether it is the nerve-wracking moments of developing negatives or the rhythmic process of printing photographs,” Gass wrote in an e-mail interview. “It is always a worthwhile experience and one that I hope others will continue to have in the years to come.”

She added, “Digital photography may be getting more attention these days, but Photoshop is really no substitute for the magic of the darkroom. One moment all you have is a negative and a blank sheet of paper, and within five minutes you’ve captured an unforgettable moment in time.”

Practicality also factors into the decision to stick with film — namely, the large expense of a digital photo lab. According to Hannum, it’s actually much cheaper to use a traditional 4x5 film view camera once one gets into larger formats. It’s still very expensive for digital cameras to replicate the high-resolution quality of large-scale film prints.

While one tool is no better or worse than another, Hannum emphasized how film forces the photographer to slow down and really think about the image at hand, instead of snapping a hundred pictures and choosing the best one.

“In a way it reminds me of the Slow Food movement,” he said. “It slows you up a bit.”

By experiencing the medium from a different vantage point, students only enhance their abilities with the methods they’ve already learned and practiced.

Yet there is indeed a craft to digital photography, Hannum said — one just as viable as film. The big question again comes back to money: How does one practice the craft and move into large-scale prints without using a $50,000 digital camera?

Lending further credence to his personal belief of all tools being equal, Hannum explained how he introduces students to a “smorgasbord” of tools and options. He leaves room for lots of freedom and exploration, especially for students who undertake an independent study, the next step after Hannum’s 385 course. Upon gaining greater familiarity with cameras, his students’ independent projects may use even more diverse tools.

“We had someone do an independent study with an iPhone where she documented a party,” he said. “There’s a certain sense of vitality one gets with an iPhone. (The iPhone) is much more appropriate for such an event than a large 4x5 camera. It’s just a tool and you have to use it in the way that’s appropriate for the job at hand.”

At the end of the day, it comes back to perspective. To be familiar with the wide range of tools at one’s disposal is to know the correct time and place for each tool. Sometimes it may be an iPhone, and at other times it’s a black-and-white viewfinder. Both are fine by Hannum. He just wants people to know what else is out there.

Because of this philosophy, it would be a mistake to classify Hannum as someone clinging to old technologies. For him, developing prints in the darkroom is simply a good way to learn how to choose what to use and what to photograph. It enhances the overall liberal arts experience.

“This is what universities do. We teach students what’s happened and what’s available and how to deal with the problems at hand,” he said. “I think in the past 50 years, the art community has moved away from craft and more toward conceptual art, which is OK. But some people just want to buckle down and learn how to do something well.”

Leaving the past in the dark

Similar to Hannum’s courses, the School of Art & Design also pushes its students to incorporate many facets into their art. The main difference is a heavy multimedia approach, as opposed to an emphasis on historical processes.

Within the School of Art & Design, there are mandatory classes for all freshmen and sophomores. The first required class in the curriculum is TMP (Tools, Materials, Processes), where students learn fundamental skills in a variety of mediums, including photography and printmaking. As students progress through their four years in the program, they have the opportunity to specialize. But according to Rebekah Modrak, an associate professor in the School of Art & Design, traditional disciplines such as photography were eliminated a couple of years ago to mirror the increasing fluidity in the arts.

In short, students don’t major in photography, but motivated students can work within the school’s broad curriculum to discover their passion and build concentrations based on interest. For Max Collins, an Art & Design alum and former managing photo editor of The Michigan Daily, the program not only allowed him to do photography but also taught him to apply it to other classes — an idea reminiscent of Hannum’s own convictions.

“If you were to look at my transcript, you would see very few classes that were solely photography, but that is just how the School of Art & Design is set up,” Collins wrote in an e-mail interview. “The classes offered often have these very broad parameters, which allows for students to work in a variety of mediums. So while I wasn’t taking traditional photo courses, I was able to use photography in a majority of my classes.”

Collins’s senior thesis stands as a strong model of a project using photography as a pivot-point for a greater piece of media. He shot portraits of people lit only by computer screens, then manipulated the images on Photoshop to give them a zombie look.

“The general concept had to do with how we behave with digital technology and I chose to exemplify this through the glazed expressions we have when we work on computers,” Collins wrote.

Even though the school may not offer an abundant array of strictly technical classes, the School of Art & Design's fine art basis aims to get students thinking about the ways in which they might employ their craft. According to Collins, such a curriculum is ahead of traditional trade schools where students might solely study photography.

“Today, everyone with a camera is a photographer,” Collins wrote. “Now the battle isn’t in making the image anymore; it’s about how you can differentiate yourself from the pack creatively.”

Of course, the school needs to prepare its students for the real world, where they must be familiar with the entire array of artistic practices currently in use. However, the essential need to understand the past has recently reemerged to go hand-in-hand with its current multimedia approach.

Modrak recently published “Reframing Photography,” a text geared toward photographers and non-photographers alike. The primary impetus for the book, as she explained, was a desire to ground today’s wide spectrum of photographic practices in history and technique. She advocates this type of study despite her affinity for social networking sites like Facebook and Flickr. Though the use of technology is not a bad thing, it does alter the landscape.

“In many ways, Facebook is the end result of what we’re going to make with a photo,” Modrak said. “We think about social networking and online Internet art when making photos, so Facebook must be in your mind all the time with what you’re going to consider.”

Modrak’s own work shows a fascination with the Internet — exemplified in her project “ebayaday,” a photography exhibit curated by Modrak and fellow A&D colleague Zack Denfeld and University of Michigan-Dearborn professor Aaron Ahuvia. The exhibit uses eBay as the basis for displaying images by more than 25 artists — images that include works centered on real estate and costumes. Basically, a person searching eBay for real estate or costumes might accidentally stumble upon sight-specific images dedicated to showing artwork about real estate or costumes.

As opposed to galleries, where people enter expecting to have an artistic experience, Modrak views the Internet as an incredible means to reach an audience she might not otherwise get. And yet, while such a project seems to highlight Modrak’s technological leanings, she, like Hannum, underscored the importance of art history.

“My philosophy in (“Reframing Photography”) is to talk about past photographers like Ansel Adams and Roy DeCarava,” Modrak said. “Any of the choices you make as an artist are OK so long as you’re aware that you’re making them and also why you’re making them.”

Synthesizing the images

The school’s methodology instructs its students to exercise a significant degree of control in how they choose to make their mark. But in such an individualistic setting it can fall predominantly to students to obtain the necessary technical training. While a conceptual education serves as good preparation for life after graduation, where the power to think creatively is a very important asset, there’s still a lament for the old days of slower, more communal practices.

“I’m always surprised by how many students haven’t seen wet-process in person,” said Lisa Steichmann, an instructor in the School of Art & Design. “And every year I get students complaining about the lack of darkrooms on campus.”

As of now, the darkroom still exists in the basement of East Quad, but even Hannum is skeptical as to how long it will remain after he leaves. While digital camera work is pertinent to multimedia processes in the vein of Modrak and Collins, as Steichmann pointed out, choosing one format over another hinders the range of possibilities.

The best results stem from an ability to put process and tools together. Darkroom practice may not be around forever, and the University may one day not support one at all. Yet as evidenced by the extensive waitlists for Hannum’s classes, photography students are increasingly intrigued about their craft’s roots.