Darkrooms for the People


By Zach Schepis

The front of ABC No Rio, which houses a community darkroom in NYC. Photo courtesy of ABC No Rio.

The address is right, that much I’m sure of, but the grim and chipped facade of 156 Rivington Street glowers in a manner that isn’t altogether inviting. On first glance, the casual onlooker would likely pass right by the old tenement building without the remotest inkling as to what might await inside. Packed in tight among a claustrophobic domino of narrow brick apartments, it’s just around the corner from Beauty & Essex–that gem of a pawn shop adorning the Lower East Side with its crackling burnt-out sign, doubling as both a junker’s paradise and an old-school speakeasy (for those savvy enough to be in the know, of course).

ABC No Rio’s Community Darkroom functions much in the same vein as the old Essex Street haunt, except without the secret backdoor entrance and all the booze. If you’re not a photographer looking to develop some film, then the graffiti tattooed brownstone will blend in along with all of the others on the block. Nothing special here, folks.

But a stepping inside the twisted brass gates leads to an interior that is painted ceiling to floor with a collage of murals. The creative atmosphere can be felt and a little red staircase yields the way up two stories to a tight hallway lined with neatly numbered apartment doors.

There’s a moment where it seems like the only option is to turn back, at least before one of the residents opens his door and freaks out on the unknowing traveler who is seemingly lost in the halls of his home. But one of the doors creaks open before any decision can be made.

“You found us, eh?”

The old man is leaning in the door jamb, half-bathed in the shadows of the darkened room, but he’s smiling. He twists the tips of his mustache, clearly amused. “Well of course you did. Come on in.”

For all intents and purposes, the place is an apartment. Half of it is curtained off, concealing what can only be the darkroom. It’s framed by an old mattress, a burgundy arm chair and a fridge that sounds like it’s desperately trying to hum its way through existence. Charlie Parker blows a 12 bar out of a cracked phonograph spinning on a table in the corner.

The old man lights up a smoke and offers his hand. “My name’s Jeff. You won’t want to hear this, but you picked the wrong day to come in.”

The boss, Marty, is out of town until Saturday. In his absence, the ABC No Rio Darkroom is temporarily out of commission. It’s clearly a small operation, but one that gets a surprising amount of attention from local photographers looking to develop film in a spot that’s cheaper than nearly anywhere else in the city. But with Marty gone, there’s no one left to supervise the use of equipment, which can become a real liability when everything is acquired through donation and subsequently “a royal pain in the ass to replace.”

“You see, there’s this new trend of community darkrooms cropping up in the city,” Jeff says. “With the flux in digital shooting all of the old analog players are getting shut out completely. The only way to keep it alive is to run a facility like this: you gotta make it cheap, and you gotta take it to the underground.”

The rise of this new underground analog movement isn’t solely a New York phenomenon; it’s a wave you can catch emerging in nearly every major city across the country. So long as the digital frontier continues to muscle all of the traditional players out of the business, community darkrooms will continue to serve a vital pulse for the community of old-fashioned photographers who will die themselves long before they let their long-cherished medium fade away. At least if they have anything to say about it.

Take Chicago, for instance. Long time resident and amateur photographer Greg Wiley lamented for years as he watched all of the camera stores and photo labs close their doors one by one.

“After most of them closed, Central was really the only camera store left for us,” he tells BTR. “It’s sad to say it, and I hate to hear myself say it, but in some ways photography has felt like it’s been slowly dying in this city.”

Wiley wasn’t alone in his observation. Over a decade ago, in the winter of 2001, Ellen Bunch noted the problem and decided to do something about it. She opened a small facility near 1700 Western, which she called the Circle of Confusion. It functioned as a tight community space for photographers to stop in and process their film for next to nothing.

Despite a shoestring budget and lack of quality equipment, Bunch managed to keep the Circle afloat for nearly seven years. But she eventually realized that it was not in her power to sustain the darkroom any longer. She was a musician at her core and her heart really wanted her to follow the music.

In 2008, the space was turned over to a young woman by the name of Freda, a photographer with a vision who everyone in the community knew as “Freedom.” She realized that the closet-setting hindered any practical means of establishing a creative workspace and made the executive decision to take everything up a notch. She moved the darkroom to a larger space on 1000 N Milwaukee where it sits currently, and set out on her mission to foster a more accommodating facility than that of her predecessor.

Before long, Freda found herself acquiring university level equipment. She got her hands on three Omegas, two 4x5s, and a host of other new machines all in the course of two weeks. Donations made everything possible, much in the same way that the community darkroom continues to grow and acquire more cutting edge technology that would otherwise exist far outside the meager budget available.

“An institute was getting ready to toss all of that great equipment,” says Wiley, “and Freedom managed to convince the company to donate all of it instead. The unfortunate truth is that quite a bit of this kind of equipment ends up getting tossed when places close down, and it all becomes a heap of scrap metal unless there are people ready to take it up.”

Freda oversaw the development of the darkroom until 2010, when–much like Bunch before her–she started to feel overwhelmed with the constant burden of growth and finance. She returned home to Europe, and plunged the community space into a period of closure that wasn’t interrupted until the year’s end, when a couple of entrepreneurs reopened the location as Negative Space.

But the new management didn’t survive nearly as long as the efforts of Bunch or Freda. They were far too lenient with their oversight and ultimately never charged enough to make the rent. There also weren’t any consistent hours of operation and the result was a space that ended up running itself into the ground after only a few months.

Enter Wiley and company: they started differently with a deliberate decision not to run the place for free, but to also make it affordable enough to encourage down-and-out photographers to stop by.

“Quality was also one of our biggest prerogatives,” says Wiley. “We wanted the experience we provided to be on par with what you would come to expect from a university facility.”

For more on the underground darkroom community in Chicago, as well as Syracuse and Brooklyn, check out Part II of “Darkrooms for the People” tomorrow.