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Upside-down and Reversed: Photography at MIT by ARTalk

[by Biyeun Buczyk ‘10] I came to MIT thinking I’d put art aside for the next four years in favor of concentrating solely on my classes, but as soon as I saw the sodium-lit image appear in the bath of developer, I pretty much left the planet.

[by Biyeun Buczyk ‘10]

Behind these gray walls, Prof. Harold “Doc” Edgerton invented high-speed stroboscopic photography, and to this day his work lines the Institvte’s hallways. The Edgerton Center (nicknamed “strobe alley”) now stands as an invaluable resource for students, and it’s where you can put his invention to work in 6.163: Strobe Project Lab.

From 1965, Minor White (a close friend of Ansel Adams) taught at MIT’s Visual Arts Program until his death in 1976. White was an inspiration to students, and one of them Charles Fendrock ‘75 continues to come to MIT’s photo classes to share that inspiration (I met him last semester in 4.341…amazing).

MIT might not strike you as a photography hub, but if you look in the right places you will find a number of extremely talented photographers ( Hi, Lulu. ;-) ). With this comes a plethora of resources and activities, which I’ll try to share with you as concisely as possible (although I really could go on forever).

I came to MIT thinking I’d put art aside for the next four years in favor of concentrating solely on my classes. To my luck, my freshman advisor, Graham Ramsay, didn’t let that happen. As a professional photographer himself, Graham convinced me to take his advanced darkroom class (The Finished Print) at the Student Art Association (SAA) last spring. I had no previous darkroom experience, as I worked only with digital cameras, but that didn’t matter. As soon as I saw the sodium-lit image appear in the bath of developer, I pretty much left the planet.

A few cameras, classes, and hours and hours in the darkroom later, I’m once again taking The Finished Print – this time with three large binders of negatives, a taste for medium format, and a project that entails building my own 8×10 view camera at the Hobby Shop. I guess you could say photography became my unofficial second major.

Before I go rambling on about my own projects, I want you know what you, an aspiring photographer, have at your fingertips as soon as you arrive.

W20: the Student Center. This is where the magic happens. The fourth floor of W20 is darkroom land. Three darkrooms live here, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they occupied a third of the floor space.

Looking for digital equipment? You might want to check out photography at The Tech. If you remember from the PSC Blogs, Christina Kang ‘08 (another one of MIT’s fantastic photographers) documented the PSC fellows in five developing countries during the past summer. She brought along the Tech’s Nikon D2Hs. (I will have to warn you now that most of the digital equipment you can borrow at MIT is Nikon.)

The Tech has weekly photography meetings where photo assignments are discussed and chosen for the following week. If you’re interested, you only have to drop by.

Technique is MIT’s yearbook, or rather, as they call themselves, the MIT Photography Club. People who hang around The Tech may often crossover to Technique. They have digital equipment as well as some very nice analog cameras. Unlike the Tech, Technique has a greater fondness for film. My only gripe is that they keep your negatives until the yearbook is published, but if you don’t want to buy film it’s a good deal.

Technique has a meeting 1pm every Saturday, which involves tutorials, food, and photo-geekness. Just like The Tech, all you have to do is show up.

On the wing opposite from The Tech and Technique is the Student Art Association. In addition to photography classes (I usually take one a term), the SAA offers classes in ceramics and 2-D art. The SAA doesn’t have digital equipment, but they have a Hasselblad, a Mamiya, and a Speed Graphic press camera (OH YES).

The SAA also has a studio, complete with background drops and some nice lighting equipment (currently living in the closet).

Since I spend most of my time in the SAA darkroom (I practically live there), I feel obliged to give you a quick tour:

The giant metal sink in the middle of the room is where the development process happens (I won’t get into that in this post). To the right is an enlarger—you use this to blow up your negatives into a viewable size. On the left are the chemicals.

The chemicals are conveniently arranged in their order of use (developer -> stop bath -> fixer -> permawash).

Photography uses a lot of water. You can see in the photo above that there are two hoses running to two of the trays. A small stream of water is needed to keep the baths fresh, as they are used to wash the prints between chemicals.

When the lights go out, the work begins. The dim orange-lit room can be a little creepy at times, especially when you’re alone in the darkroom at 4am. This is why you bring music (yes there are some nice speakers in here, but I failed to take a photo of them).

Perhaps in a future post I’ll go over a bit of the darkroom process if you all are interested. Now, let’s get back to those resources I’ve been talking about…

If you’re looking for “for-credit” photo classes and HASS credit, you should check out the Visual Arts Program. It lives in building N52.

The VAP has nice equipment (cameras of all formats and tons of lenses) and amazing facilities, however their lab fee is at a premium (it’s more expensive than an SAA class), but depending on what you want to do it might be worth it.

The VAP darkroom is really, really…beautiful. In order to use it you either have to be majoring in course IV [architecture], or you have to be taking a photo class. However, while the darkroom has a pleasant environment, I felt I was limited in what I could do with the chemicals. They essentially have one developer, D-72, and no toners. But if you’re starting out, that’s probably just fine.

In addition to the darkroom, the VAP has an amazing digital lab, which includes some high-resolution film scanners and Adobe Photoshop.

When you are done creating your masterpieces, you can show them off at the Wiesner Student Art Gallery on the second floor of W20. The Wiesner Gallery is sponsored by the SAA and the Office of the Arts. You can pick up an application for an exhibit idea (it doesn’t have to be photography) at the SAA, and someone might just let you do it. For instance, Eric Schmiedl ‘09 just had an exhibit of his photos a couple weeks ago, and now the Origami Club is having their work up throughout the rest of March. If you’re around, go check it out!

Before I end my post, I want to mention another resource—one that I hadn’t paid attention to until last semester: The Photographic Resource Center (PRC) at Boston University. This is *the* place for students in the area to show off their photography at juried shows. It’s also a host for many talks related to photography. Since MIT is an institutional member of the PRC, any student can attend the talks or visit the gallery free of charge. On the 28th of February, I attended a talk by Arno Minkkinen (one of my heroes), which was packed and fantastic as always.

I hope this post covered some resources (without rambling on too much) that you might explore and find useful if you decide to go to MIT. In the meantime, if you’re bored feel free to check out some of the photography-related activities I’ve participated in over the past year:
—If you’re interested in alternative printing processes, check out the SAA’s Gum Bichromate Workshop, which is held every IAP.
—Also, if you want to know what I did during 4.341 (Introduction to Photography and Related Media) last term, check out this post.

20 responses to “Upside-down and Reversed: Photography at MIT”

  1. Omar '12 says:

    Haha…i knew Eric Schmiedl ‘09 would be mentioned right when I read the title of this.

  2. Anonymous says:

    third time’s a charm!

  3. Celena '12 says:

    It’s great to know that there are photography classes for people of all skill levels at MIT. I’m definitely going to take some sort of class once I get there. I for one, have always been interested in photography, but didn’t have the resources to learn more about it.

    Btw, the SAA darkroom looks like some sort of spooky labratory from a movie…mwahahaha. =)

  4. |Lex! '12 says:

    Photography! My kryptonite! Oh well, still got fourth!

  5. |Lex! '12 says:

    Oh…. 5th…. That has some magical chaotic properties doesn’t it?

  6. Li '12 says:

    Awesome! I have a photo portfolio from high school, and I definetly want to continue. I’m excited!

    Is it possible (in terms of both enrollment and time) to take a photo class and a studio art class at the same time? Also, is there a charge for supplies?

  7. Keri says:

    Don’t forget about SP.747, where you can do digital and darkroom imaging through the Edgerton Center! (By the way, you were right, Biyeun. Thery is fantastic.)

  8. Biyeun says:

    Yes you can take both a photo and studio art class at the SAA as long as the times of each class don’t conflict with each other. I’m not sure about the expenses for studio art classes, but for the photo classes you will need to get your film and paper. Usually we like to group up and buy paper in bulk – it saves a lot of money.

    As for the time issue…if you love it, you will fit it in. wink I will warn you that two classes during the same semester might be a bit tough since the darkroom has an appetite for time.

    Yeah, I figured so many bloggers had posted about Thery’s class that I wanted to put some new stuff up. But yes, Thery is like the living encyclopedia of everything that is photography. (Photo-minded-prefrosh take note!)

  9. lulu says:

    HI Biyeun!


  10. Anonymous says:

    That’s a really cool picture of W20!

  11. Harish says:

    I’m so glad there are darkrooms available at MIT smile

  12. Mark says:

    I’m a Jamaican who has a great desire to study architecture. I have a first degree in counselling but studied Visual Arts in college. I guess life has come full circle and I’v returned to my first love Architecture; I’d really appreciate your personal outlook on why you chose MIT. Thanks a great dael for your assistance.

  13. Becca says:

    Do they have like beginning classes too? I’ve always been interested in photography, but have never had time to do anything with it.

  14. Biyeun says:


    The SAA has a beginning darkroom class. Additionally, as Keri and many of the bloggers mentioned before, SP.747 is an excellent for-credit beginning darkroom class. There is also 4.341 (Intro to Photography and Other Media) at the VAP, but I think that’s a better for-credit class to take once you’ve had a bit more darkroom experience. grin

    If you don’t want to take a formal class (although I really recommend it), you could show up at a Technique or Tech meeting, and someone will probably offer to help you for a couple hours on a weekend.

    And if you’re looking for help with composition and lighting, the SAA is an excellent formal resource for that (there is usually a lighting class during the fall semester). Technique and the Tech are great too…they will often hold mini-classes on composition and lighting if the need arises.


  15. Biyeun says:


    Send me an email, askb(at)mit(dot)edu, and I’d be happy to answer some questions.


  16. Isshak says:

    I love photography ! Thanks Biyeun, I will be considering those classes If I make it. 4.341 sounds interesting !

  17. Anonymous says:

    This excellent entry makes nonadmittance a bit harder to bear…

  18. Great informative post about exploring photographic options at MIT. I just wanted to clarify what one can see exhibited at the Wiesner Student Art Gallery right now. The current origami exhibition (on view through March 30), are the entries from the sixth annual student origami competition. Entries came from students across campus, and not just from members of the Origami Club, and range from original designs to classic folding patterns. If you’re in need of some midnight inspiration while struggling through psets, the gallery is open 24 hours/day. You can read the Tech Talk article about the show here.

  19. You can also click here to learn more about the origami exhibit on view in the Wiesner Student Art Gallery.