Darkrooms for the People


By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of Chicago Community Darkroom.

Click here for Part I of “Darkrooms for the People”.

Much like Freda’s initiative, Wiley began to slowly improve the quality of equipment available through countless hunts for donations. Before long, the Chicago Community Darkroom was born.

“We’ve been getting at least one call each week from people looking to donate their equipment,” admits Wiley. “To be honest, I don’t know where else to tell them to take it.”

One of the first things they did was put all of the available lenses out on each enlarger, which prevented the considerable worry of amateur photographers going into the cabinets and handling the lenses. The best way to ensure the quality of a facility, aside from a constant acquiring of new means, is to protect the ones that exist already.

It’s one of many big improvements in a place where everything has been designed with an unwavering eye of efficiency. The community darkroom has received film cabinets that are capable of drying film in under an hour, condensing an overnight experience into a single session. They also possess a resin-coated RC dryer, which dries paint in less than 30 seconds. A dry mount press was also donated to the darkroom, which became instrumental in handling fiber paper.

“When we first started, we used to place stacks of books on top of the prints because they have a tendency to curl,” muses Wiley. “When that didn’t work we’d even try ironing them out by hand. I think we can all agree that the press has saved us from anything that ridiculous.”

It’s incredible to think that so much has been accomplished in the span of only two and a half years. Most of this is due to a management that honors members, who after two orientations are awarded access codes granting them 24 hour access to the facility.

But it’s only made possible through an unwavering trust, rooted in a serious professionalism that belies the laid-back atmosphere of the space.

“I can’t stress enough how important the orientation process is,” says Wiley.

“Everything is curtailed specifically to our equipment and if someone doesn’t do it right then they could do some serious damage. You leave the water on and the place floods? We’re done for. A number of the heating elements could burn the place down.”

Photo by Josef Koudelka, courtesy of Chicago Community Darkroom.

For the Chicago Community Darkroom, independence is key. While the workspace offers beginner classes, such as Intro to B&W and Intro to Print, along with a host of Saturday workshops, Wiley and company are moving away from teaching on the beginner level.

“We kind of expect you to know what you want,” says Wiley. “We’ll help set up the printouts but we’re done with the handholding. It can get hectic bouncing back and forth between development and printing.”

Chicago’s success story has, fortunately, become one of many in a new movement that is beginning to shine hope back into the lives of analog photographers. A journey upstate along the snow-worn roads of Syracuse, NY will take you to Light Work Lab: a non-profit photography organization that has been helping artists since 1973. Rather than mimicking the professional atmosphere of a university facility, Light Work has joined forces with the local Syracuse University to provide an experience unparalleled anywhere else.

One of the main programs is an Artist-in-Residence initiative, which invites artists from around the world to spend a month in Syracuse to make work. The artists are provided with an apartment, 24/7 access to the facility, a $5,000 stipend to support production, along with help from a knowledgeable force of staff and interns.

Photo courtesy of Light Work.

“We’re always asking ourselves what the needs of artists are today,” Light Work Director Shane Lavalette tells BTR. “Really, the goal is to think ahead about what the needs of artists will be, which is a difficult undertaking but integral to our role as a facility devoted to supporting artists.”

For community darkrooms across the country the future is now, and nowhere do the needs of an artistic community become more pronounced than back on the home front, full circle and on into my own backyard: Brooklyn.

The industrial wasteland of yesteryear is blooming with new seeds of an artistic revolution, one whose growth has spiked to an unprecedented rate as more and more creative nomads wander East out of the gentrified amusement park-like stagnation of Williamsburg.

Out of the frying pan and into the darkroom. After passing by the nondescript exterior several times without noticing, the warehouse doors to the Bushwick Community Darkroom swing wide to bid entry.

A young man with a black fedora sits reclined with both feet propped on top of the front desk. He twirls a lens in front of his horn rimmed spectacles, deep in concentration. From behind a series of curtains can be heard the quiet murmurings of a class as they become acquainted with the workings of a darkroom.

His name is Freddy Rankin, and he’s been a member of the Bushwick Community Darkroom for close to two years now. He recalls with fond reverie when the owner, Lucia Rollow, started it all out of her basement on Troutman Street. The story doesn’t sound too different than the seeds that were sowed in Chicago. Simply enough, the workspaces were dwindling in Manhattan and those that remained standing became increasingly expensive. The bottom line, Rankin admits, is that Bushwick really needed it.

In just two years Rankin has seen immeasurable change. The darkroom used to occupy a spot in the hall across from its current location, but soon needed significantly more space. With the closure of Manhattan darkrooms, many of the customers soon found themselves taking the subway hike out to the heart of Brooklyn to continue their passions and developments.

“It was interesting to see all of these high-class customers and yuppies staggering through the industrial streets, trying to find their way here,” Rankin says with a laugh. “They’re used to all kinds of high-tech equipment and processing, so it’s been about allowing these people some time to adapt.”

Rankin continues to explain that the facility doesn’t have to be a large place, just a functioning one. The secret to success is getting by with a little help from their friends. The volunteer hours have kept everything afloat and Brooklyn Central has taken over the class schedule. They are responsible for finding the professors who can teach and then all profits are split evenly. Members are offered discounted rates and the facilities are open consistently between 12 and 8pm with the exception of Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

With the mounting success, Rollow and Rankin took to perusing other spaces capable of accommodating the growing number of photographers hungry to develop. They almost landed a sizeable warehouse, when suddenly without warning the developers in the area took back the offer and hiked the price up.

Rankin is secretly rooting that his hometown of Harlem will be the next location, but Rollow is currently in Detroit looking for a means to branch out in a new city. Rankin is scant on the details, but he can’t help but smile as he spills the beans.

“Who knows where this will take us,” he says. “In only two years we’ve gone from a musty basement to a full blown facility with classes and professional equipment. Who knows where we’ll be in two more years? There’s a misconception that film is on its way out, but that’s rubbish. We’re just passing the torch.”