Last year, Portland’s Newspace Center for Photography closed its doors. That left a hole in the local photography community. The city had no other publicly accessible darkroom.
After the closure, a group of seven photographers, all former Newspace users and volunteers decided to take matters into their own hands. They created a Kickstarter and raised more than $20,000 to buy enlargers, scanners and other processing equipment from Newspace's fire sale, then moved it all into a studio in the North Coast Seed Building in Northeast Portland. They named the space the Portland Darkroom and put out a call for membership at $120 a month. They quickly maxed out at 20 members and had to start a waiting list.
It’s clear that for the volunteers who got the darkroom going, it’s about more than just saving the equipment. It’s about the community. Darkroom members are all eager to share advice, feedback and technical knowhow with each other.
Every Wednesday night, the Portland Darkroom also opens its doors to non-members for a small fee. We visited the Portland Darkroom during one of these open sessions and met a number of photographers, each with their own style and approach to photography. Photographers worked on portraits, landscapes, action shots and still life. Part of the appeal of film is the variety of types of cameras one can use to create drastically different images. It seemed as though no two photographers at the darkroom used the same type of camera. Some used heavy, tripod-mounted, large format cameras, while others preferred to work with quirky plastic ones.
Portland Darkroom member Leslie Peltz, a former Newspace user, has two ongoing projects. She documents the grain silos of the Pacific Northwest and takes pictures of skateboarders in action, all through the lens of her modified Holga camera. Peltz says that for her, being in the darkroom is like "a spiritual experience." She loves not knowing what's on her camera until after she develops the film.
We joined Leslie Peltz for a day of shooting at the Burnside Skatepark, beneath the Burnside Bridge in Portland. Peltz remarked that construction around the park and additions to the park itself make for constantly changing subject matter. She believes that skateboarders are less intimidated by her plastic camera than they might be by someone shooting a digital camera.
After shooting with Peltz, we returned to the darkroom so she could begin to develop her photos. There, we spoke with Lauren Masterson, one of the co-founders of the darkroom, who also teaches film photography at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. She told us that while many local colleges have darkrooms and offer instruction on film photography, there are no darkrooms publicly accessible to non-students. The mission of the Portland Darkroom is to change that. They want to ensure that artists continue to have a place to practice their craft.
Masterson says that the Portland Darkroom is taking a lesson from the closure of the Newspace Center for Photography, which wasn’t able to financially support its size and ambitious programming. The Portland Darkroom plans to stay small and volunteer run, so that they can focus on what matters, keeping film photography alive for years to come.