Water still bubbles and the sharp scent of chemicals still fills the amber-lit darkroom at Mesa High School as students — years after the advent of the digital camera or the camera phone — develop film into photographs in the time-honored method.
“Crafting a photograph is a piece of art, and a darkroom is part of that experience,” said Jesse Castellano, the photography teacher at the high school. “There is a distinct difference between developing a photo in a darkroom and downloading from a digital camera.”
Castellano, who has taught photography for 34 years, has passed on the art to more than 8,000 students that have stepped into his classroom.
At the end of the school year, Castellano will retire from teaching, but his program will continue without him.
“It’s safe for the next two or three years,” he said.
“CTE (Career and Technical Eduation) asked me, ‘Why are you sticking to film?’” he said. “It’s still fairly inexpensive to maintain. The (size and shape of the) room doesn’t work for computers. And there’s still an interest.”
Of all of the art programs at the high school, only the photography classes are completely filled next year, Castellano said.
“I’ve been fortunate because Mesa valued art programs,” Castellano said.
While other programs throughout the country were reduced or eliminated over the last several years, Mesa has remained supportive, he said. He has continued to teach a full five classes each semester, every year, since 1979.
Castellano never intended to teach for as long as he did.
“Ten years turned into 34 years,” he said.
And while the demands and expectations of teaching have increased over the years, the challenge and fun of photography hasn’t, Castellano said.
“Certainly teaching isn’t for everyone,” he said. “If it weren’t for art, I wouldn’t have ever become a teacher.”
But it’s that same draw to art that keeps some kids in school who might otherwise drop out, he said.
All these years later, “I feel like I’m an even better teacher than I’ve ever been,” Castellano said.
While at Arizona State University, Castellano initially intended to become a ceramics teacher, but a photo history class changed his artistic direction.
When student teaching opportunities came up during his senior year in 1978, he put off the decision until the last minute. Mesa was one of the schools left with open spots.
Under the supervision of Dr. William “Bill” McCarl, Castellano began teaching photography, eventually replacing him the following school year when McCarl retired.
Castellano’s student teaching began in the same classroom he has taught in his entire career. The avocado-green cabinets in his office remain intact, symbolic of years gone by. While old pictures and notes from former students still line his bulletin board and papers are still stacked on his desk, it’s a lot fewer than there used to be, he said. He’s ready to start the next part of his journey.
“You’ve got to have a passion for something,” he said.
Knowing that someone hand-crafted a print is what makes it valuable, he said.
“Even if you’re very good at printing, there will be some variation,” he said. “In that way it’s a one-of-a-kind.”
Art can be created even using the point-and-shoots the class uses, he explained. Basic artistic skills, like the rule of thirds can be taught using any camera.
It’s the intention behind each photograph that matters, he said.
“Give a good photographer a cheap point-and-shoot camera and he can make a piece of art,” Castellano said.
It’s the execution, not the tool that matters, he said. While the digital is certainly more convenient, it doesn’t teach the photographer the patience and precision of photography, he said.
When Castellano retires this year, his position will be absorbed by two other art teachers at the school, he said. And he’s glad that even in a digital age, he could impart the magic of developing film on his students.
“Digital photography has produced all these photographers who have never been in a darkroom,” Castellano said. “Anything that can be done in a darkroom can be done on a computer, but it’s not the same thing.”
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