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A glimpse into the classic practice of advanced darkroom photography at UNC

Sophie Payne, a sophomore English major at UNC, holds a lithofilm negative which she will use to get higher contrast in her final enlargened print in an advanced Darkroom Photography class on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. "I always push my film which means that my film has more contrast. I like blacks and whites, I don't like as many greys. So, a lot of my images are intense," Payne said.

Following a line of stick-on glow-in-the-dark stars, UNC student Sophie Payne walks through the dark serpentine entrance to the gang darkroom. She walks sure-footedly through the dim orange glow cast by the safelight to her work station surrounded by the trickling sound of running water.  

She switches on her enlarger’s light and slides her litho film into place. Crisp black and white images of hands holding various stones are projected on the easel below it. 

“I always push my film, which means that my film has more contrast,” Payne said. “I like blacks and whites. I don't like as many grays, so a lot of my images are intense.” 

Payne is a sophomore in the advanced darkroom photography class offered through the art department at UNC. The class teaches students techniques, like pseudo-solarization and the use of high contrast litho film, for experimentation in a more hands-on, artistic approach to photography.

Pseudo-solarization is the intentional re-exposure of a print to light after it has been washed in developer chemicals to invert the blacks and whites of the print and create an effect of hard white lines around the image's subject. Litho film allows the developer to achieve higher contrast and eliminate gray tones in the final print.

“I really like the slow way of working,” said Gesche Würfel, professor of the advanced darkroom class. “You always have something to do with your hands, and you don't really notice that time goes by, at times, quite fast.”

The small class is open to students with interests outside of studio arts. 

Bryan Cereijo, a college award-winning photographer and master's student in visual communication at UNC, specializes in documentary work.  

He said this class helps him draw inspiration from the more artistic side of photography, so he can incorporate that artistry into his documentary work. Capturing a moment with an image is a way for him to actively preserve history.

“It's very symbolic in what we do as visual storytellers,” Cereijo said. “The photon bounces off a person and then reflects and goes straight to the film, so, in a weird way, it’s like it’s living.”

Tristan Brown, a studio art major at UNC, incorporates her interest in fashion photography into the class whenever she can. 

“Darkroom has helped me slow down and think about composition,” Brown said. “You can only take a certain amount of photos at a time with film. You don't wanna take one good one out of a whole roll. You want them all to be THE one.”

The first project for the class required students to photograph images based on the recent extinction of an iceberg in Iceland. To represent the concepts of global warming and sea levels rising, Brown photographed a block of ice she purchased from the store as it melted under hot lights.

“I decided to start breaking it apart because that’s kind of what we do to our planet,” Brown said. “We have an impact on it, and we break things.”

Elizabeth Trefney is a double major in health policy and studio art at UNC. She loves combining both of these interests in her work.

“I think that art can be an outlet for anything,” Trefney said. “It’s an incredible tool to educate people and engage them in a way that looking at a graph or a report can’t.”

“It’s so amazing to see the students when they’ve developed their first roll of film and make their first print, when they see the image appear out of nowhere,” Würfel said.  

Würfel’s teaching and expertise is the reason some of the students are taking advanced darkroom photography.  When asked why they and other students should take this class, most students simply replied with the first name of the professor, “Gesche."

“If you want to do photography in any way, you should take a darkroom class — period,” Brown said. 

While some students said it was scary and daunting at first, the class is fun once you get used to the equipment and general process.

The only requirements to take the course are the photography I and introduction to darkroom photography classes. All majors are welcome. 

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