The Story of Not Dead Darkroom as told by Shimshon Obadia.
“Your Darkroom is Dead”
“Time to Throw Away Your Old Film”
“The End of An Era for Darkroom Photographers”
These have been the distressing kinds of headlines that have troubled me on a deeply personal level coming out of online newspapers around the world over the past few years. As a photographer I developed the craft of my art by exposing light to silver gelatine film and spending hours working in (and more often with the will of) the darkroom to turn out each beautiful print. However, like many of my generation, I became pulled in by the haste, quantity, options, and perfection of digital photography. It took me nearly a decade working in this field to realize that I had lost something in this endless pursuit of digital perfection. Gone: the magic of having the world slow down to a near-halt, the simplicity of pulling film with a metal lever, and the feeling of a shutter’s mechanical vibrations rippling through my palms — literally capturing the light from that moment — turning it into an image in silver. I dug out my old Pentax and bought my first film roll of the 2010s. I became engulfed by a love for my craft that I hadn’t felt since I was a teenager running around the streets of Toronto with my father’s K1000.
From there it was a cascade of analogue that opened me up. I knew I couldn’t consider myself a true photographer if I didn’t develop my own film, so I began hunting down all the old equipment I used to handle daily. I found a developing tank shipped in from Montreal, a light-proof changing bag from New York, black and white chemicals from Toronto, the list went on. Once I had my film developed, all I needed was to find myself a darkroom to make prints in. Nothing compares to the feeling of making your own prints by hand, it’s a meditative, almost trance-like euphoria of a process that my art had been missing for almost 10 years. To my dismay however, the nearest community darkroom I could find was a 6 hour drive away in rainy Vancouver. Instead, I acquired a professional film scanner and started making digital prints for my clients. This approach just wasn’t the same though, the photos looked more analogue than my digital work, but simply didn’t feel as real as it should have; the picture’s soul wasn’t there. Thus began the third stage of my analogue crusade; a series of treks up and down the Okanagan valley in search of abandoned and disused darkroom equipment. I made a firm decision, a covenant with my camera if you like, to defy the headlines and keep alive the tradition I’d been inducted into so many years ago.
This business first started to take form when my wife, Emily, who managed the local digital camera store here in Kelowna at the time, had an old customer drop off a photo enlarger. These crane-like fixtures are the centrepiece of any darkroom. He parted with it, stating he didn’t have the eyesight in the dark anymore at his age. To the man’s credit, he said he was turning 91 and had driven it to the store himself. Knowing full well about my crusade, my wife called me and asked if I’d like the enlarger as the store (being a modern digital photography business) had no use or space for such a donation. It wasn’t long before I was light proofing the bathroom door and wheeling equipment and photo chemicals in and out of it on a regular basis. Emily and I started to realize that I was going to need a more permanent space. At the same time, friends, clients and colleagues kept asking about the process I’d become so wrapped in once again. I was giving impromptu lessons and — although certainly no purist — started becoming something of an analogue evangelist. Memories of the community darkroom I used to frequent in Toronto filled my head as I’d cram a couple friends into my semi-converted bathroom to pull photos out of developer, into stop bath, under fixer and into the wash tray. I even started hearing my father’s instructive voice come out of me as one piece of my growing darkroom after the other would fall into place, month after month. He even mailed me some of his old treasured gear from Toronto for my birthday when he found out what I was up to.
Analogue has had its come-back, or as author David Sax describes it, analogue is having its “revenge” in cities around the modern digital-obsessed world. However, my home city of the past decade, Kelowna, didn’t have a hub for those discovering or re-discovering the world of analogue in the digital era. Clearly the need was here with more and more photographers bringing film to shoots, on vacation, and around the city on walks with them. These are people of my generation, people who, like me, grew up products of the digital revolution and are exhausted with the endless chase after perfection in every conceivable direction behind a screen. There’s a collective scream building, demanding the tranquility, the tangible simplicity, the perfect imperfection of that perfect moment when the world slows down to a near-halt. Even with this demand, unfortunately, there wasn’t anyone passing on these skills here outside of select (and expensive) university degrees. No places offering a space where people could become inducted into this centuries-old tradition as I was. Although I could teach friends at home, my bathroom simply wasn’t big enough to fill this expanding niche. Those dystopian headlines began seeming closer to reality than comfort would allow.
Following a long period of agonizing over this perceived loss of something I considered ingrained in my personality, it was Emily who asked me point blank in her trademark no-nonsense style, “why don’t you be the one to do it?” She knew better than anyone, better than maybe I do sometimes myself, that I’d wanted to find a place like this again for a long time. She also knew that I had the defiance in me to keep the darkroom tradition alive in an increasingly complicated, increasingly digital landscape. We envisioned a place like the old tiny darkrooms of my home city. It would be a hub for a very special type of community; a sanctuary from the complications of the world outside. We thought about the homey feeling of simplicity and safety in the warm glow of the darkroom’s safe lights. The coloured lights playing host to a gathering of photographers of every background and walk of life, finding common ground in the grains of each other’s photographs. Idealistic, possibly; defiant, absolutely! My wife was the first one to reject the idea that it was the “End of an Era” when I moped about that depressing headline, she was the one (a formerly all digital photographer herself, now enthralled by her own K1000) who encouraged me to pick up my old Pentax again, and she was the one who got me to stick to my analogue guns and said, “call it the Not Dead Darkroom.”