ROCKPORT — Maine Media Workshops prides itself on keeping current with technology. If there’s an innovation in the digital world related to photography or film, chances are pretty good the workshops are teaching it.
Later this spring, the Rockport-based school and college will introduce a new lab that will teach artists how to use technologies that were popular a century ago.
“We’re seeing resurgent interest in historical processes,” said Meg Weston, the school’s president. “People want to learn how to make things by hand again. The idea of creating something by hand means a lot in our society today.”
On June 12, Maine Media Workshops will dedicate its book art and alternative process photography studio. Among other things, the studio will teach book binding, letterpress printing and old-world photography processes that sound like tasks from a college chemistry lab: gum bichromate, kallitype, calotype, wet-plate collodion.
The school has taught these techniques in individual workshops, but some classes have doubled in size year to year, which made it feasible for the school to expand its offerings.
The school received a donation of presses and other equipment from its former president, Charles Altschul, and raised about $250,000 to renovate the ground floor of its Ernst Haas building to accommodate the side-by-side studios, Weston said.
The desire of creative people to learn old technologies and techniques has been an intriguing trend to watch over the last few years, said Brenton Hamilton, a member of the school’s faculty who lectures nationally about contemporary issues in photography. He also teaches historic processes at the Center of Alternative Process and is on the adjunct faculty at the International Center for Photography, both in New York.
As a culture, we’re voracious consumers of new technology, but we balance those cravings with a desire for things that we make by hand.
The more advanced we go with technology, the more people seem to want to rediscover old methods and techniques, Hamilton said. He likened that trend to the renewed popularity of vinyl records in the recording industry.
The tangible, tactile quality of making something by hand requires focused effort and care and can be more rewarding than engaging in digital processes, which may lessen human contact, he said.
“Though we live in a technological age, I have found that our students want to participate in making something of their own that is real and substantial,” Hamilton said. “Perhaps making something with one’s own hands lends toward a re-found authenticity.”
An appealing aspect of the dual labs is enabling makers to combine digital technology with historical processes. One could take a digital image, create a negative from a digital file, print it using an historical process and then bind it into book form, Hamilton said.
Maine Media Workshops is one of the few places where that’s possible, Weston said. She thinks it will make the Rockport campus attractive to new students while enhancing the offerings to existing or returning students.
“It opens up the possibilities for long-term programs and workshops,” she said. “It likely won’t be as popular as some of our programs, but we feel it will be a strong complement.”
Altschul began acquiring presses in the early 1980s, and has added to his collection over the years. Like many people, he learned photography and graphic design before the digital revolution and adapted his work to keep up with technology. The new lab will help students stay active in both the digital and traditional worlds, he said.
“I think what’s happening is, everyone uses computers for everything from communicating with their kids to doing their banking to whatever they do at work,” he said. “They’re in front of the screen all the time. When they go home and want to do something creative, they do not want to sit in front the computer, so they work with their hands instead.”
The school has about 1,600 students, who travel from around the country and internationally to take classes mostly in photography and filmmaking. The school was established in 1973 and operates with an annual budget of about $3.5 million. It offers workshops and short-term intensives, as well as degree and certificate programs.
Watson said the school hopes to enroll 130 students between book arts and alternative processes. The book arts includes both handcrafted books in various forms, as well as design and e-book publishing.
The lab will be open for demonstrations and tours from 3 to 5 p.m. June 12. At 7 p.m., Mark Dimunation, chief of rare books and special collections at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., will talk about the book arts. Among his duties is building the collection of finely crafted books for the Library of Congress.
He said the new lab is garnering attention nationally, which demonstrates the interest in well-made books. Artists are expressing themselves in book form because the book offers integrated dialogue among text, format, material, shape and technology.
“As book arts have pushed the boundaries of what are traditional materials, more and more people are interested,” he said.
Many schools teach alternative processes, but with a motive of saving the craft. The curricula at Maine Media Workshops is designed to advance the craft. “Their program is being developed because it wants to move the book forward,” he said, commending the workshops for its innovative approach.
Not only is that laudable, he added, but it also positions Maine to become a leader in the field of the fine-press movement.
“I think Maine absolutely has the potential to become one of those regions where you have printmakers and binders and papermakers and printers all living in a cluster of interrelated communities,” he said. “It’s very exciting.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: