In 1973, John Coniglio graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in social work. Then he spent most of his life with a camera in his hands.
Coniglio worked for 29 years as a photojournalist— 20 years with the Chattanooga Times then, when the Times merged with the Chattanooga Free Press in 1999, another nine with the new Times Free Press.
Today, and for two semesters, he has worked as a teaching assistant in the “Light and Life” course at UTC, showing students the lost art of working in a darkroom to make photo prints.
Dominque Belanger, who teaches the course, calls Coniglio “a crack up,” a funny guy who also has a lot of valuable experience to impart. “For the students to see John have all this knowledge and willing to give back to the University, I think of it as an incredible benefit to them,” she says. “Here’s somebody who did this for years and years and years and, maybe it’s not being used anymore, but if he dies, that knowledge dies with him.”
Coniglio, in a self-deprecating manner, downplays his instructions, saying the credit lies with the students. “I’m not doing anything; they’re doing it,” he says. “I’m just standing there talking like an idiot.”
That’s hardly the case, though. In the darkroom with four students, he is precise in his instructions, explaining the five developing solutions, what they do and how long a print should be left in each. The students, however, do the work of making a photo print, starting with film negatives, using an enlarger to expand the image’s size, exposing the image onto photo paper, then running the print through the solutions.
“Ooh, cool!” one of the students says as the image slowly rises from the photo paper.
“Basically, I give them a speech, after that they do what we talk about,” Coniglio says. “It’s like driving a beer truck on a mountain road. You just sort of sit there and hold onto the wheel and let it go.