Happy Accidents | Suzanne Makol

So far in my ALT/space posts I have written about big-picture ideas relating to my teaching artist experiences. Today I’d like to highlight a moment of joy and straight-up fun that is part of the reason I love being a teaching artist.

This past spring term at Marwen, I taught and assisted two experimental darkroom photography classes for 6-8th grade students, the main difference between the two being that the class I taught was for students who already had darkroom photo experience. Throughout both classes the students were working with techniques such as pinhole photography, cyanotypes, photograms and toy cameras, all of which have a higher failure rate than more straightforward photography.

Naturally, many students were frustrated with not getting a good result on the first try, like when the pinhole exposure was too dark or too light since we have to guess exposure times, when the composition is not what they expected since there is no viewfinder, or when we tried to combine cyanotype with pinhole photography and got no result at all. But these failures are what make analog photography so great, because these hands-on experiences teach fundamentals of photography, and lead to some happy accidents.

There was one particular day in the class with the less experienced students that had a couple of those happy accidents. It was about halfway through the course, so students were getting better at making the pinhole photographs. We walked to a nearby field with our tin cans and oatmeal containers that were painted black on the inside and loaded with black and white photo paper. Everyone made an exposure, some students making portraits, while others focused on the trees, grass, and buildings around us.

Taking the photo paper back inside to the darkroom is always a highly anticipated step in the process. After a few moments of the photo paper being in the developer, images begin to appear. Some are totally black (too much light) and some may just barely reveal an image (not enough light). You can’t completely evaluate your image until finishing the chemical process and taking it out into the light.

The most mysterious photo of the bunch had a streak of light that no one could seem to explain. Since we couldn’t explain it, we decided it was a ghost. (This is a reminder that photography has been playing tricks and/or lying since the very beginning.) It started to give us the creeps, and when I cleaned up at the end of the day, the negative was oddly the only thing left behind in the darkroom.

The students spent the rest of the day printing in the darkroom, making positive prints from the pinhole negatives, and making photograms, a way of making images on photo paper with objects, or other non-traditional means. A student happened to have a glow-in-the-dark shirt on, which is noticeable when working in a darkroom. In the last few minutes of class, I encouraged her to try and make a photogram by placing photo paper directly on her shirt, because I know some people use glow-in-the-dark paint to make photo prints. First she recharged the glow by using a flashlight on her shirt. Then, in the darkroom, she placed a sheet of photo paper directly on top of the glowing part that she was interested in.

There was only enough time in the day to give it one shot, so I wasn’t hopeful that anything would come out of it. We were happily surprised at how clearly the image came out. The student had good technique: she didn’t move the paper, and our estimated exposure time seemed to be perfect.

These are two magical moments in just one day of an experimental photography class. As I mentioned before, it’s not all magic: there are plenty of failures. But what keeps me and the students inspired and able to work through the failures of experimental photography are the rewarding surprises along the way.

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