On Monday evening, I had the privilege of attending the last class for Introduction to Black and White Photography, taught by Paul Matthai. Throughout the term, the class consisted of darkroom and classroom work but in this final class the real focus for students was the completion of their projects. Since there was no lecture, I spent most of my time checking out the lab while observing and interacting with students. One thing stood out to me about this class: how wonderful everyone was to each other.
Even though it’s titled as an introductory class there were many different experience levels amongst these photography students. Some participants identified themselves as complete newcomers to darkroom photography, others as needing a refresher, while still others had taken this class multiple times. Many of the returning students cited the lack of publicly available darkrooms with quality equipment in the area as their reason for taking this class. There was no attitude about the different experience levels. While students were in the dark room, the more experienced ones helped the newer ones answering technical questions about developing film while also providing advice when asked for it. The groups of students in the front of classroom were discussing various techniques and ways of attaining the desired print. All criticism was constructive and it was clear that everyone in the class had the same goal: developing and improving their own style. One thing that the teacher stressed was that while everyone had different styles, themes and subjects in their work, they all shared the common goal of self-improvement. This created a real sense of unity that pervaded the class. One thing that I found very interesting was observing the students selecting the shot that they wanted to turn into a print. With the popularity of digital cameras it is now easy to take hundreds of pictures and save them all on a computer, but when making prints from real film, selecting the right picture is important. Techniques learned and experienced in this hands-on class aided this process. Each student had their own idea as to what made their picture print-worthy. These ideas were cultivated by the style, subject and interests of the student, making each print, unique.
I also had a chance to learn about Paul’s teaching style and after that conversation, I could easily see why he had so many return students. He told me that he wants his students to take chances and make mistakes because that is how they’ll learn and develop their style. One barrier for potential students taking Studio Arts classes is the thought that they are not good or experienced enough. This is exactly the barrier Paul tries to break in his class. He does provide all the technical instruction one needs to be proficient in black- and-white darkroom photography and is always available to answer with specific questions, but his main goal is to help the individual student develop their skill and more importantly their confidence. “If you’re not loving the class, I’m not doing my job.”