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Spring 2002

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Link(e) to the future

     Five years ago, when art professor Richard Linke decided Skidmore’s photography lab should scrap its chemicals, sinks, and enlargers and go digital, some people thought he was nuts. Digital would come to Skidmore someday, they said—just not yet. But Linke says, “It would have been irresponsible to be teaching photography without the digital vocabulary. Students going out into the world really needed it.”
     Linke was told the modifications to existing space in the art building would cost around $25,000. Having built a couple of houses himself, he knew he could do it for far less. So he took his pie-in-the-sky notion and made it happen, designing and building—with his advanced photo students—the entire lab, from floor to ceiling.
     They began with a field trip to the lumber yard. Then Linke introduced the young photographers to building materials, power tools, and demolition work (like tearing out old sinks and recycling countertops). They worked Friday afternoons and Saturdays. All told, revamping the photography lab took most of the spring 2000 semester. “We built the space exactly the way we wanted it,” Linke says. “And we built it to perfection.” The cost? Under $2,000.
     The new computers and monitors—which cost considerably more—came a little later, after a year of using hand-me-down computers from Skidmore’s language lab. “We raised the majority of the money for the equipment (and the renovations) from my former students,” Linke says. “They understood that they had a premier lab in their day, and they were glad to help students have another state-of-the-art facility today.”
     The new lab is “a grand success,” Linke proclaims—and it’s easy to see what he means. For starters, the lab is spanking clean. There’s the glossy white floor that bears not a single crumb. (Linke, who mops the surface himself, requests that his students remove their shoes before entering. They willingly comply. “It sets the tone that we care about the place,” he says.) And there are the smooth, painted tables—so sturdy, with their diagonal braces, that you could dance on them—and blemish-free walls that sport a few select black-and-white prints, for inspiration.

Skidmore’s new all-digital photography lab, designed by Linke and his students

     For classes, each student (there are fourteen in each of the three photography classes Linke teaches every semester) sits at an individual workstation equipped with a dual-processor Apple PowerMac G4 computer and a seventeen-inch flat-screen color monitor. From his own station, Linke can broadcast to the students’ computers his live technical demonstrations, slide programs, or video tutorials. He can also work one-on-one with each student and give on-screen critiques. Having the ability to assist students during the process (rather than waiting for a print from the darkroom) is immensely valuable, Linke says.
     Once upon a time, Linke was a darkroom man himself. His own metamorphosis to digital aficionado began with the advent of software like Adobe Photoshop. Students who’d experimented with it in high school started teaching it to him at the same time he was teaching them about old-fashioned enlargers and chemicals. “Most people don’t get a chance to have a revolution in their career,” he says. “I had to decide whether to retire as an old professor doing everything the same old way, or to retrain, retool, and enjoy all the excitement. I was uncertain at first, but as soon as I got into it, there was no going back.”
     Going digital, Linke admits, was “extremely labor intensive. Not only did I have to learn how to use the new technology,” he says, “but I had to be good enough to teach it. It’s ten times as complex, but students are getting ten times as much out of it.” The resolution and dynamic range of digital photos has surpassed that of 35mm film, Linke states. Also, there are endless possibilities for the creative manipulation of images—which, he notes, is nothing new. “Photography was always an abstraction, there was always some kind of alteration.” And Linke still teaches photography with a straightforward approach. “It’s easy to get caught up in the gimmicks and the tricks,” he says, “like putting Oprah’s head on someone else’s body—but I just don’t do that.”
     With the new digital lab, Linke has stepped boldly into the future, taking Skidmore’s photography program with him. “This is the most advanced teaching lab on campus,” Linke says. “There are just a handful of schools that have anything like this, and I’m super-proud of the whole thing.” —MTS


© 2002 Skidmore College