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Senior High photography class.
Senior High faculty judge students’ photos from teacher Houston Harmon’s photography class. Here, teachers Nancy Petersen, center, and Shelli Strouf discuss a student’s print.

Before the school year started, Taylor Thomas had never even seen 35mm film, much less loaded it into a camera.

The Senior High junior carefully explained on Wednesday, as the semester comes to a close, that to load a camera, the sprocket holes on the top and bottom edges of the film must fit snuggly onto the sprocket’s teeth or the film doesn’t advance after each picture is snapped.

The source of that specific epiphany? At the beginning of the semester, she’d shot what she believed was an entire roll of film before realizing her film wasn’t advancing in the camera.

“I thought I was taking pictures,” she said with a laugh.

Thomas is a student in Houston Harmon’s photography class at Senior and feels like she’s learned an art. Harmon’s students only use film cameras, and they’re required to understand the finer points of lighting, exposure, composition and developing. The class has its own darkroom.

“We still do the whole process,” Harmon said.

Some of that is because it’s practical. As the world moved to digital photography, much of the leftover, unused film equipment was cheap and easy to get. Some of it was donated directly to the school.

But Harmon said there’s more to it than just the economy.

This simple, basic photography, which he calls “black and white” because those are the images it produces, teaches students photography techniques that will make them better shooters regardless of the kind of camera they use.

“I really think everyone should have to do the black and white,” he said. “It forces you to learn it.”

Jerralee Lyman, a Senior High class of ’59 graduate, donated equipment and then money to Harmon’s class in an effort to inspire the students. Harmon holds a photo competition for his students at the end of each semester, and the top three winners get a cash prize — $150, $100 and $50 — courtesy of Lyman.

The contest gets the students to feel proud of the work they produce and helps them feel invested in the process.

Harmon does none of the judging. Other teachers visit the photo gallery at the end of the semester and vote on the images they feel are best, choosing from about 70 images. None has a name attached.

Chloe Kanning, a junior, said it was challenging at first to learn to develop her own photographs and capture images that had the correct composition.

“But it’s the most fun I’ve ever had in a class,” she said.

She admitted that using film and working in a darkroom is much more involved than just snapping away with a digital camera.

“It’s a long process,” she said. “But it’s worth it.”

Eric Toennis, a senior, called it “tedious.”

But, he believes some of the images he’s been able to capture and develop on his own are better than anything he could have gotten with a digital camera.

“When you do them right, they’re better,” he said.

He’s enjoyed the class, saying that it’s been fun to study something not many people know how to do anymore.

“I like to learn this kind of stuff. In the future not many people are going to know how to do it.”

Contact Rob Rogers at rrogers@billingsgazette.com or 406-657-1231.

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