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Student Photo Co-op

January 13, 2010 at 10:55 am
By Margaret Taylor '10

It’s quiet deep in the bowels of Sayles at two in the morning.  KRLX deejays are holed up in their studio.  Occasionally a member of campus security might pass through.  You might also find Davey Bendiksen, playing around with chemicals in the campus darkroom.

Davey is president of the Student Photo Cooperative, another Club You Didn’t Know We Had at Carleton.  The Student Photo Co-op is at least thirty years old, but most Carls don’t know it exists because of low publicity.  For decades, it’s provided Carleton students with the resources to pursue their own film photography free of charge.

Davey’s trying to let more people know about this resource by putting posters up around campus and reviving the mailing list.  He’s a senior, so he hopes another film enthusiast will pick up the mantle next year.

The Student Photo Co-op’s headquarters are in the basement of Sayles a couple doors down from the KRLX studio.  The Co-op was relocated there in the early 2000’s after spending decades in the basement of Leighton.  When I arrive, Davey is brimming with enthusiasm, and I have just enough time to register that there’s a lot of equipment in here before he whisks me off on a grand tour.

First stop is the film room.  The most important principle in developing film is controlling when and how it gets exposed to light.  Once the camera is done with it, the film comes sealed in a light-tight metal canister.  Davey shows me (with the lights on because it’s only a demo) how to pry the canister open with a can opener and load it onto plastic spindles.  These prevent the film from coming into contact with itself while it develops.  The black-and-white film that students at the co-op work with hasn’t changed much it the past seventy years.  It’s an emulsion of silver embedded in cellulose that undergoes a chemical reaction when exposed to light.  If the film were to touch itself, the whole image would stain orange.

The plastic spindle goes into a tub and then developer fluid is poured over it.  There are many different kinds of film out there – something digital camera operators don’t have to worry about – and each one has to stay in the developer fluid for a different amount of time.  Fortunately there’s a table with that information taped to the wall.  The next step takes patience.  A would-be photographer has to stand there, shaking the tub of fluid, in total darkness, for seven or eight minutes.

“It’s fun,” Davey says.  “You get to think about senses that aren’t your sight.”

The developed film must go into a stop bath, then a fixer, then a wash bath.  Once it’s clean, you’ve got negatives.  Davey shows me how to squeegee the excess moisture off, hang a weight on the end, and put it in the drying cabinet.

Halfway through the demonstration Davey asks to see the digital camera that I brought along.  He finds out, to my embarrassment, that I am the sort of person who always shoots on Auto Mode.  He clicks the dial over to manual and shows me how the computer chip inside the camera simulates the conditions of exposure time and f-stop.  F-stop means how wide the camera shutter opens, like the iris of one’s eye.  A narrower iris opening makes the image sharper (the same reason squinting helps), but it means less light gets to the film.  Exposure time refers to how long the shutter is open.  You can increase that to allow in more light in a nighttime situation, with the tradeoff that the picture might be blurry.

The advantage of film photography over digital is the massive amounts of data that can be captured.  “Digital has got nothing on film when you get past 35mm,” says Davey.  A shot done with 35mm film, which is run-of-the-mill, makes an image file that is 140 MB when scanned into a computer.  And there are specialty films out there that can produce images of much, much higher resolution.  These shots can be blown up to the size of a poster without a sign of grain, or worse, pixels.  The very best digital cameras can only rival the quality of film; none can surpass it.

Once the negatives are dry, they have to be turned into positive images.  To do that, Davey leads me into the darkroom.  Here we can work under an orange safety light that doesn’t interact with the chemicals in the photosensitive paper.  The enlargers in the room are essentially projectors that shine light down through the negatives onto the photosensitive paper.  The negatives block the light in such a way that the paper develops only in the parts of the image that are supposed to be dark.  After the paper is exposed, we develop the paper with the same series of chemical baths much like we did the film.  This time, when it comes out, the image is the right way around.

Times are changing for hobbyists who work with film instead of a digital camera.  Davey is able to get a lot of his supplies very cheaply on eBay because people don’t want them.   He’s even been able to convince enthusiasts down in Northfield to give him equipment for free.  In the past year, all the facilities in town that would develop high-quality film have closed.  Northfield Photo and Haumann’s Photo, both of which had been family operated, are gone, and the only holdout is a low-end service at Walgreen’s.  Davey particularly mourns the loss of Kodachrome film.  Kodachrome was a pioneer in color photography that Kodak recently decided to discontinue.  There’s only one facility in the world that will still process it.

Because of the Northfield print shop closures, the Student Photo Co-op provides a service to students that they can’t find anywhere else.  There is a darkroom in Boliou, but it is only available to students who have taken introductory art courses.  The Co-op is open to anyone.  Another advantage the Co-op has over the Boliou darkroom is that it’s open at all odd hours of the night.  Davey’s favorite time to develop film is when the only other people in the building are KRLX deejays who drew the short straw.  He encourages people of all skill levels to come and try it out, even if they want to do it at a sane time.

“Loss is an integral part of print photography.”  This means not only the loss of Kodachrome and mom-and-pop print shops, but also the fact that there are many more steps to developing film than with a digital camera, each of which comes with the potential to ruin the image.  Print photography is an art form where you must learn to cope with mistakes and to celebrate filling up your fail bag.  It’s a good match for students who feel like a blast from the past.  Color film photography may be in peril to digital, but, says Davey, “I think there’s always going to be a place for black-and-white photography.”


Want to learn more?  The Student Photo Co-op is now offering lessons.  Just meet up this Saturday at 8:30pm by the Sayles mailboxes.  No equipment is required for the lesson, just an interest in learning a neat new skill.