Darkrooms Faded Away in the '90s

By Katelyn Umholtz

Doral Chenoweth joined the Columbus Dispatch in the 1990s, a time when darkrooms were the best part of the newsroom.

“The light was dark. The smells were ever present,” Chenoweth said. “We performed our craft in the darkroom, and it was something that not everyone could do.”

But this wouldn't last through the '90s. Soon enough, the decade would bring not only changes to the darkroom, but in Chenoweth’s case, no more use for a darkroom at all. The paper he worked at brought in digital around 1995.

“We were on the forefront of that whole movement,” Chenoweth said. “They were looking to have all the latest technology in the photo department.”

This was certainly a growing trend across newspapers in the country, but that didn’t mean digital would make its entrance at all papers as fast as it did at Chenoweth’s paper. In fact, some publications wouldn’t see digital work until the early 2000s. However, most visual journalists had an idea of what would soon happen in their careers.

Bruce Stidham became a journalist in 1996. At the beginning of his career, taking pictures was a long process. Stidham said he recalls having to leave assignments early just to accomplish all of the tasks to develop the pictures from film. This process was a pain, he said, and it left him having to work hard and long.

“In the old days, when we used to shoot soccer games, at half time we would go in and develop film, look at it on the sidelines and then scan it,” Stidham said. Today, he said, you can do the same thing 30 minutes faster.

Chenoweth’s loved the craft of film, but he said he immediately saw the benefits of switching over to digital.

“I saw the way digital technology could make our jobs faster and have more control,” Chenoweth said. “I saw the advantages of Photoshop over the darkroom right away. I am so thankful Photoshop came along at that time because I was a terrible color printer.”

The two visual journalists may feel slightly differently about film, but one thing they could agree on is joint work efforts between reporters and photojournalists worked in the '90s.

“People were more dependent on photographers back then,” Stidham said. “But now you can just give a reporter a camera, so they can write their story and have a picture for it.”

Stidham said the quality rarely suffered when this was the way the newsroom worked. Newspapers still had the budgets in the ‘90s for multiple reporters and visual journalists on staff.

“There was more work then than there is now,” Stidham said. “And now there's more competition because everyone has a camera.”

This was Chenoweth’s main reason for loving the '90s so much. The projects were bigger packages and more thought out, but that’s because he had the time to do that, considering the much bigger staff sizes newspapers experienced in the '90s.

“I loved the travel and challenging assignments,” Chenoweth said. “The time we were given to work on things was unprecedented in today's era. We would go spend a summer in Appalachia looking for stories. That doesn't happen very often anymore.”

Chenoweth said there’s still some great work to be done today in the field of visual journalism. He recently did a longer piece on the heroin epidemic in Ohio. His work may be different now, but he still loves his job.

“My career continues to take new and interesting turns,” Chenoweth said. “There's still good feelings and strong work ethic. I still enjoy going to work everyday.”