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Darkrooms are re-developing in Baltimore

Artists of the Instagram generation plan to teach, practice a more hands-on method of photography

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

4:02 PM EST, January 4, 2013

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Once upon a time, people interested in taking a picture used a device known as a camera. Taking pictures was all that this device did. It could never make phone calls. Or play music and video.

The pictures were captured on something called film, which came in a roll and had to be inserted into the camera. A certain number of photographs could be taken on each roll, and the used roll had to be removed from the camera to be developed. The development process took time. And chemicals.

It also took a dedicated space where the work could safely unfold. That space was called a darkroom.

To a generation raised on digital photography and, especially, cellphone cameras, all of this must seem like quaint and ancient history. But to some young Baltimore fans of traditional photography, especially black and white, that past is well worth remembering and preserving, which is why they're building darkrooms where the old methods can be taught and practiced.

One is taking shape in the basement of Current Space, an artist-run gallery and studio facility in downtown Baltimore; the other is being prepared on an upper floor of Brickhaus Art Space, a collaborative venue on the east side.

"A darkroom is a space where you don't get to stream Netflix or do email while you work," said Kathleen Overman, 23, who is guiding the development of the darkroom at Brickhaus. "You can't. You'd ruin everything. If given the opportunity to make their own print in a darkroom, to get their hands really wet, more people would be open to this."

Providing that opportunity is a goal shared by the dual efforts that, coincidentally, are now under way — at a time when public-access darkrooms appear to be all but gone in Baltimore.

"More and more photo places have closed or are shutting down," said Ginevra Shay, founder and manager of the community darkroom at Current Space. "We want to create a place for Baltimore photographers to process and print their photos."

Shay, 25, who started on the project a couple of years ago, also envisions offering weekly classes, periodic lectures by visiting specialists and a photo club.

Most of the needed equipment has been donated to the Current Space and Brickhaus darkrooms, which are being devoted to black-and-white processing (color processing requires more equipment and skills).

"Equipment is flooding the market as people are moving to digital," said Lynn Silverman, who teaches photography at the Maryland Institute College of Art. A Kickstarter campaign will be launched soon by both to raise funds for the finishing touches.

Shay anticipates an operational facility by early February; Overman is hoping to have the Brickhaus darkroom ready by the end of February.

Shay has had help with her project from a former schoolmate at her alma mater, the University of Vermont, Pat Galluzzo, who recently moved to Baltimore to pursue graduate studies in photographic and electronic media at MICA. He drew up floor plans for the darkroom.

"It's not always easy to convince people this is awesome," Galluzzo, 24, said. "Being in a darkroom and watching the image appear from nothing, to see all these images with their unique tonalities, is really fascinating. It's born of magic. It's alchemy. It's not easy to do, and it can get frustrating, but my hope is that will make it intriguing for people."

The folks behind the darkrooms at Current Space and Brickhaus know they are not like most people their age. For today's generation, even the instant gratification of a cellphone photo may take too long. As for the notion of photography as an art form, that may not register at all.

"Every device in your pocket takes a picture," Galluzzo said. "People are obsessed with taking photo after photo, but they become digital photo hoarders. You can print things out on a computer, but no one ever does. They just stockpile images. I go the other way. I don't need to see images right away."

Slowing down and taking time is part of the allure of traditional photography, which goes far beyond an aim-and-shoot approach. It's about developing what is sometimes called a "photographic eye," an ability to see how an image can be best captured by a camera, how a shot can be aesthetically composed.

That eye can certainly work to keen artistic effect using digital equipment — memorable digital photographs hang in many a gallery — and the traditionalists are quick to acknowledge that.

"I don't dislike digital photography, but it's an entirely different form of art," Overman said. "When you see some digital photos, you can tell the person didn't spend a lot of time conceptualizing the image. Some people will take 12 shots of the same image digitally. They don't take the time to focus and get the shot right."

The purpose of the darkrooms that are under way in Baltimore is not to make artists out of every photographer but to expose them to techniques and viewpoints that can open up more opportunities for expression and enjoyment in the craft.

Those who only know the experience of cameras with memory cards and cellphones with auto-focus will be in for a revelation.

"You can learn what F-stop and aperture mean, how you can control your image," Shay said. "I am not in any way knocking cellphone images, which you can share and communicate with people. But going back to film is so exciting. With film, a photographer controls every aspect — choosing shutter speed, the paper you print on. And there is the physical connection. There's a negative you can hold."

Instead of color-correcting or otherwise editing photos with the click of a mouse, darkroom users make their choices the same way photographers have been doing since the 19th century, painstakingly developing an image onto paper.

And instead of clicking "Print" and seeing any number of the exact same images spit out of the printer, the quality of each individually processed photo is determined by the photographer.

"Digital prints can be reproduced to infinity," said Ben Graham-Putter, 24, co-founder of the BrickHaus Art Space. "A print made in a darkroom is a one-of-a-kind object. People are going to feel excited about learning a new skill that is so hands-on, that requires you to leave the comfort of one's own butt in a chair."

The artistic value of a black-and-white image created in a darkroom can be considerable, which is why the medium continues to attract photographers even in a color-saturated world.

"If you don't pay attention to fine qualities of tone, it doesn't make sense to be in the darkroom," Galluzzo said. "The thing with the silver gelatin process is that you can get the truest, deepest black on the planet. No digital camera can produce that resolution. You could probably do some of what I do digitally, but the process is what I like. In a darkroom, you always have a little human error. I enjoy some of the imperfections."

Given how some young people who grew up with only compact discs and then MP3s are buying vinyl records again, it's not a stretch to imagine they will become interested in exploring the world of traditional black-and-white photography, too. The efforts at Brickhaus and Current Space should help encourage any such interest.

"Setting up a darkroom takes plumbing, electrics and all that," Silverman said. "Having a community darkroom with a sink at hand — that's really fantastic. But if it's too expensive for people, it's not going to work."

Rental fees of between $10 and $20 an hour are common at community darkrooms, which also typically offer monthly rentals. Prices have not been set for either the Current Space or Brickhaus venues, but Graham-Putter agrees with Silverman. "The goal is for this to be sustainable, but also accessible," he said.

Like the folks at Brickhaus, Shay and Galluzzo see a need that needs filling.

"More photographers are going to be coming out of the woodwork with darkrooms coming back," Shay said. "Maybe 2013 is the time for photographers in Baltimore."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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