They're closing the last color darkroom. Evergreen College, famous worldwide (not an exaggeration) for its liberal arts programs and unique freeform educational structure, has new management. Uh-oh, you're thinking.
You would be right.
The new management has, in its wisdom, decided to permanently shutter many of their internationally renowned art departments– drama, motion picture film, and others... but most crucially, their color darkroom. Why such a fuss, you ask?
It's basically the last one in the United States. Yes, three others remain on our continent, but they're all either smaller, less well run, harder to gain access to (try Googling them!)... in so many words, Evergreen was always the best, the last holdout of quality analogue color.
We forget that color film is (was?) one of the newest and shortest-lived of art mediums, one of the last invented before the glut of ones and zeros came along and jump-started society's obsession with speed over quality.
For a mere forty-odd years, you could throw a roll of 35mm Color in your inexpensive (and unbreakable) Pentax K1000 and capture light with a vibrance and organic richness digital media still can't compete with. Digital gives you thousands of colors. How adorable. Film gives you millions. Digital is a fine medium and looks lovely... as long as it's the only thing you're looking at.
Inkjet and laser prints give you black ink; again, how cute. Photo paper gives you silver halide crystals burned by light. Does anyone really think black ink has something over on burned silver crystals? Put the two next to each other, and you'll see what deep blacks are supposed to look like.
Or try scanning a cross-processed negative, and look at how the computer tries to grasp the subtle aberrations of the tone curve. You'll start to chuckle, realizing your high-end scanner doesn't have the faintest idea how many colors green is. The same with your $3,000 Canon, which can't get the range of skin tones your $50 film camera and $5 roll can in its sleep.
We know this isn't anomalous in materials manufacturing. Ask your grandpa what they used nylon for during the Great War. Ever notice how his shoes last forever too? How the zipper on your grandma's coat slides more smoothly than your three-year old Columbia jacket? The way your grade-school backpack lasted longer than the one you use now. We’ve grown to accept poor quality in most of the products we’re invited to repeatedly consume. Take your ancestors to the shelving section of IKEA, and try telling them any of the items are “sturdy bookcases.” You know they would dissolve in peals of laughter.
This isn't nostalgia. It's common sense. Film yields a better image. Yes, you need skill. You need patience. Yes, it requires more infrastructure. But who would expect quality without such a price?
You're probably thinking Evergreen is cutting their program for the same reason many other schools and art centers have over the years: money. Black and white darkroom is cheap and easy. It isn't going anywhere. Color is unique, toxic, requires a different skill set. You don't work under a red light; the prints have to made in pitch-black darkness. You can't touch the chemistry. The processor (above, center image) is the size of a small car.
But Color isn’t a major expenditure when your processor, equipment, and other infrastructure are already in place. Evergreen’s lab is by far the best-running, most organized, most kept-up of any lab in the US (again, not an exaggeration– we’re discussing a pretty special place here). Compared to some of their other programs, it's not very expensive. The photo director just retired; find another. There are knowledgeable people out there who are willing to teach. They are having budget issues, but cutting Color isn’t a major savings at all. Plus, everyone knows what you do if you’re a school in need of money; cut your science, medical, and business programs, and watch new funding flow in a year later. No, money isn't the reason. They'll try to tell you it is, but it isn't. They have the money for this.
Among the new management team is a woman who says "color photography is a joke." She's said that and similar remarks to artists. To students. To staff. The administration could expend the effort to hire staff to teach a practice that's been taught for decades, during a time when film is gradually regaining popularity, when a large and loyal majority of staff and students embrace these arts, when an entire community has grown out of the surrounding cities who use the darkroom... but they'd rather ignore these facts and kill their darlings. I don't believe I'm being unfair here. They could've consulted with the professors, or asked the students what was important to them. But they were lazy.
I have friends who've traveled from Germany to study at Evergreen because of its unique offerings. I've traveled down there myself countless times because, well, it's the only color darkroom. Others come from Portland, Poulsbo, Vancouver and more for the same. I doubt the administration has a clue. In ditching the very golden geese that made their institution so praised in so many cultured circles, they reveal they've forgotten something fundamental:
Art is the only profession that explores the act of what it means to be alive.
Everything else is secondary.
Several years ago I was told that stewardship would be the new buzzword of our time, that young people would care about culture, about helping each other and bettering society through thoughtful expression. Actions like that of Evergreen's new administration are why this hasn't happened. When a culture doesn't have art, it stops being a culture.
But: enough moping!
What do you do when the end is near? Learn how to say goodbye. Through the good graces of several key players, I've been able to print like crazy this last week. This last color darkroom closes forever on the 30th, and I've been making every minute count.
My photography practice, ever since graduating UW a decade ago, has centered around analogue color photography. I've put black and white printing aside because I knew this day would come earlier. We would lose color first. Now it's happening. And I'm ready.
They say it takes about an hour to test, print and finalize one picture in the color darkroom; I can make 100 prints in eight hours. I mention community above, and I do value the wonderful people I print with, but you won't catch me making much small talk. I keep my head down and churn out as much as I can. Time is short. It's like passing the bar and then learning the profession of lawyers is being eliminated. I got a degree centered on how to do something that won't exist next month. I don’t regret it.
This is our time.
We came in at the end, but we were still here. Very soon it will be impossible to make an analogue color image. People will forget what they look like. They'll lose the sensation of looking at an original– that feeling you get when viewing a painting– when they see a color picture. Paintings are precious because they can only be made once; shortly color photo won't even be able to be made at all. As though they disallowed paint and brushes.
I have a solo show on the second Saturday in October, at ArtForma in Georgetown. It will last for only one evening, and given what I'll be showing there I find that fitting. The large-scale portraits you'll see on display will forever be the last, and therefore permanently the newest, analogue color prints you're likely to ever see.
The technical details briefly mentioned above are fun, but ultimately unimportant; it's about what we feel, looking at the images. The organic, handmade object, like ourselves; an original, slightly different from all the rest, ephemeral and delicate and sensitive; strong and vibrant, but most notable for its subtleties.
Doesn't that describe your favorite person, the best parts of life?
It won't be the best show, nor the worst. But there'll never be another like it. You owe it to yourself to stop by.
See you there.
ArtForma Visual Art Space is located at:
6007 12th Ave S, Fl Second
Seattle, Washington 98108
Saturday, October 13
The show will last from approximately 5pm-9. Look for further details forthcoming.