When you go to a museum and see a color photograph hanging, you’re looking at a chromogenic print. Meaning something made in a darkroom, by an artist who knows her stuff. You’re not going to see a digital print in a museum environment for a couple of reasons. One is that film was the visual capture medium for how we processed the twentieth century. It has a lineage tied to it, a history.
Another is that film yields a better image. We are at the stage now where this is an objective evaluation. Ten years ago, the film vs. digital argument might have been an intriguing one to have. But we’ve reached a level where digital has matured to a point of excellence that reveals it still has nothing on the color range, black levels, exposure latitude, and unbeatable organic grain structure of analogue. I’m no longer interested in hearing how digital capture has any meaningful relation to fine art in the twenty-first century. It has relevant applications for sports, journalism, and crime scenes. But compared to film, digital is grade school. It’s cheap, it’s easy, has a gigantic margin for error, and comparatively speaking, looks terrible. It’s nice for tourists. That’s right– we’re not pulling punches here.
Film is a cultural artifact people want to use. Kodak doesn’t merely still produce film; they continue to announce new film stocks and the resuscitation of classic stocks by demand. It remains a popular format for auteur filmmakers, and dozens of movies are shot on 35mm every year. Film has never been available for purchase at places like Urban Outfitters before. You can find Polaroid film and cameras at Nordstrom now. Film is the fastest growing trend in photography today.
But more importantly, it’s the upper limit of the art form. The tumult of digital has stabilized, and we can now see that film and fine art photography will remain synonymous for the indefinite future. If you’re serious about photography as art, you’re going to work on film. You’re at least going to learn it. Where are you going to learn it?
The Height of Evergreen
Evergreen College had the last major color darkroom in the United States. It was also the absolute last educational institution in the country to have a color darkroom. If you wanted to do your MFA in color, you went to Evergreen. It was a destination spot for high-end photographers. People came from everywhere to use it. There was a community of us, driving for hours from adjoining states, even making trips to fly in, to use some of the most state-of-the-art photography equipment in existence. I printed there for years. They had the only Ilford color processor in the world, and they kept it running like a Swiss watch. They had an 8" x 10” negative enlarger– a recent and exciting acquisition.
One of the reasons it’s so easy for film to be the fastest growing trend is that like vinyl, the knowledge for how it works already exists. Color was one of the cheapest parts of Evergreen's Photography Department to operate and concurrently their shining jewel, their well-earned claim to fame, a vibrant beacon celebrating the best of chemical-based, optical, analogue photography. Students on tours were always blown away by it. 'Cause you won't see this anywhere else. One of the best art departments in the country, hands down. Photo was as good as it was because of Hugh Lentz, who ran the department for three decades. He just retired.
Right after that, they decided to dump Color.
The Laziness of Evergreen
By “they” I mean the administrative heads of the school and more specifically the Photo Department. Even though the lab is easy to run and the processor cheap to maintain, they dumped it. Despite its having a strong, loyal base of students and community members who paid the fees to keep it going, they still killed it. Now the processor just sits there. The college isn’t tearing that wing down, or replacing it; they’re just walling it off.
The crown jewel of analogue photography in the USA is being walled off, for negligible financial gain. The thing about a color processor is how heavy it is. It’s the size of a car. You can’t move it. And you can’t turn it off for extended periods, either. It’ll start to rust and warp. It’s more mechanical than electric, more animal than machine: the more often it's running, the more prints you put through it, the better it functions. Leaving it off behind a wall, for a year or a decade, is tantamount to destroying it. But the administration doesn’t know this.
Was this a money issue? Did they care, but were just not able to afford it? Incredibly, no. They have made no attempt to sell to a non-profit or any other institution. And this is what’s criminal, because it reveals where their perspectives truly lie. It's one thing to decide this doesn't fit your business model, but quite another to destroy a cultural artifact that is popular and still in use.
What Could Have Been
It takes two people to do a weekly maintenance on the color machine. The chemistry is comparatively affordable– about half the cost of black and white photo, a department Evergreen is retaining. Forty liters of RA4 developer is $188. It’s easy to mix. And color paper is cheaper than black and white paper by a huge margin. Evergreen says it can't have volunteers do work formerly done by paid employees. That sounds like it makes sense, but when those “paid employees” were actually just work-study students, what are we really talking about here? This is their way of saying they can't pay $27 in labor a week.
Long-time staff have had to listen to unreasonable excuses for why it was shut down. A recurring refrain is: “we need to spend money on facilities actually in the curriculum.” Once Hugh retired, Color was cut from it. The teachers were never approached for their opinion. By not replacing Hugh, and making convenient nips and tucks elsewhere, the culture now is such that staff can only say yes. And inside, they tell me, they just scream. Their voices, their ability to be heard, hold a discourse– have all been silenced.
Young students and loyal staff have tried hard to fight for it, and they are shut down. Evergreen has created an environment where students devalue themselves and their work. There are staff who tell me they want to cry when community members come in to thank them for keeping the color darkroom afloat as long as they could.
If Evergreen actually wanted to keep Color, they would've started writing grants. They wouldn't have thrown up their hands the minute Hugh retired. A man works over three decades to create a thing unchallenged in the rest of the nation for fine art photo… and the administration’s response after thirty years is to rip apart his life’s work. For them to say there is no hope of it living on is both a compliment and appallingly lazy. It's sad. It represents the worst sort of systematic disregard for students, employees, art, legacy, relationships, and reputation.
Ignorance Behind Closed Doors
I’d like to offer a little more on what the administration is like behind closed doors. It is not my intention to harm people, so I’ll withhold the names of the high-level staff I’m about to discuss. I’m sure each has qualities about them to recommend, but a word needs to said about the culture they together create at Evergreen.
The President of Evergreen is not an artist. He’s an economist. Entire departments could be bankrolled or demolished at his say-so. Who makes these determinations? To what degree is outreach not merely executed, but considered? Evergreen staff and students voted on the creation of a Fine Arts degree. It never got approved. A Bachelor of Sciences, however– which was widely unpopular– was approved. Should we be shocked that the administration values STEM over the Arts? I’ll tell you how this crushes a student's spirit.
It crushes the young child in every student who dreams of being an artist. It tells young people not to dream, not to value expression, individualism– as people of color, minorities, or otherwise. It encourages, specifically, the silencing of unique expression and selfhood. In our capitalist society, artists have to fight for the right to create and be. They should be embraced. We shouldn't have to fight for the arts. We don't have to fight for science or math. When an institution doesn't listen to its faculty, students, or the community that supports it, we can agree there's a problem.
The Director of the Media Department famously said that “Color [film] is a joke.” She showed her visiting friends from France the facilities… and didn't show them the color darkroom. Because, she said, it's a joke. That’s how little she understands the legacy of photography and photography today. She’s that short-sighted. And we’re talking about the head of Photo here. Her friends would've loved seeing the United States’ most significant, best-run lab for making museum-quality work. Obviously. The only one at an educational institution, and the only major one with public access. As I elucidate above, it's a treasure, with a thriving community and a lot of support.
Beyond that, she has humiliated staff in front of others, accosting them for supporting queer and trans people, calling insignia made by an on-campus LGBT group “disgusting,” and threatened a queer employee with termination after he politely stood up for himself– in front of multiple witnesses. Nice. After Evergreen’s alt-right fiasco in the media last year, are we surprised? In her ableist demeanor she confuses the fight for art with unprofessionalism, and her miswielding of power and prejudice doesn’t do her any favors.
“Film is dead,” the Dean has said. “Digital is here to stay.” He manages not to notice these two statements no longer contradict each other, as they might have appeared to in 2003. He flatly refuses to acknowledge film as coming back. With these proclamations, he reveals how far out of his depth he is. As I indicated above, film is the fastest growing trend in photography. He thinks his position of Dean somehow qualifies him to make decisions in a field about which he knows nearly nothing.
If I may be so bold: when discussing meaningful trends in contemporary art and fashion, people his age need to be listening to people my age. No hard feelings, good sir, but you’re fifteen years out of date. Most of these staff weren't even aware of how rare color darkroom was until they were told.
The new head of Instructional Photography recently announced to a class he “doesn't believe in safe spaces.” That is a direct quote, from a professor in liberal Western Washington in 2018. He doesn't like to teach and makes it obvious he hates students. He’s famously unavailable to them, even during the lead-up to final projects. The running suspicion is that he’s only there to get benefits and will stop teaching the moment he can, possibly next year. His frequent absences force students to an attitude of resignation, not to mention extinguishing any enthusiasm they may have had for the medium. What a pitiful replacement for Hugh, who shepherded the passions of so many.
The Lab Manager blatantly tells student workers that “film is dead,” that they “should give up on it.” That "the only way to have a future in photo is to go digital." This is what passes for encouragement from staff at Evergreen. Again, I say: So early 2000s. He tells students how much he hates having community members in the lab, and has been heard on more than one occasion calling them “a waste of time.” He thinks having no community would be better, despite community members being the ones who pay to sustain the program.
The Myth of the Lone Wolf
You get an idea of what the culture is down there now. Toxic. You better hope the person helping you is a long-time teacher, grad student, or work-study. Hugh’s legacy is more noticeable now that he’s absent: nobody dared touch the program while he was running it. Because of him, thousands of photographers, like myself, know and could print analogue color. Because of him, thousands of people love film as they would never have been able to otherwise. Sometimes one person can make a difference. Artists need communities, but you don’t find them very often.
Arts communities don't exist because we as a society hold alive the romantic notion of the lone wolf artist. Generally speaking, there is no such thing. The Sistine ceiling wasn't painted alone. Warhol didn't make his works alone. In photo, there's the shooter, designer, lighting, assistant, and model. You see what I'm getting at here. Artists still romanticize about going away and doing their own thing in the woods, coming back with an armful of masterpieces. This lie kills community building. We exist with the help and support of others. Evergreen’s PhotoLand offered that for decades.
How Evergreen Became Second-Rate
This is really about conserving legacies– not just of individuals, but of societies. You’d think a school would care about art history. The Color lab was attractive, highly functional, and well-used. Its presence indicated that Evergreen cared about where the medium of photo came from, and knew where the art form was at its finest.
I write above that you won’t find digital color prints in a museum environment, only chromogenic prints. You don’t have to trust me. Look up the top ten most expensive museum-sold photographs. They’re all shot on film. Evergreen has just eliminated the ability of their students or anyone else to perform at that level. No student graduating from Evergreen College, from this point forward, will have the skill sets or experience to do museum-quality film work. Keeping the darkroom would have meant becoming, ever more, a leading force in fine art photography.
People in higher education should know things like this. The director of a fine arts institution should understand film is important. We hold higher education to a higher standard. But this place doesn’t hold itself to a higher standard– not in legacy, community, culture, nor even work environment. Evergreen has been disgraced publicly. But it should be disgraced even further for its ignorance of art. Ignorance is becoming its hallmark. They could've set a trend.
Instead they'll have to settle for following, when it becomes one.
The individuals above will try to tell you otherwise. They’ll throw numbers at you, share convincing arguments about how their hands are tied, how they meant well. They’ll use words like slander and libel, even though every claim in this post has been vetted by at least two people, and I don’t give away my sources. Who should you trust?
The thing these days is, you really can't trust anyone– because everyone’s coming from somewhere vested. They work for the place. They go to school there. They got fired. They got promoted. They need a story. They need to graduate. You can’t trust them. Not really. Because everyone has an agenda.