The Bushwick Community Darkroom (often referred to as BCD, or simply The Darkroom) is the place where photographers go to create.
Occupying a 3,000 square foot warehouse in the heart of Brooklyn, the BCD offers members and guests access to extensive facilities designed to meet the needs of any creative photographic project. From lighting to shooting, processing, scanning and printing, the Darkroom has something for every professional camera jockey and vaguely-creative hobbyist. Keen on nerding out a little ourselves, we went down to the BCD to have a look around, and just for the hell of it, we brought along one of our favourite New York photographers, Colin Lane, to dust off some old negatives and give their printing process a go.
If you ask BCD’s founder Lucia Rollow what she does at The Darkroom, you get a mixed response. ‘I run everything,’ she says. ‘I try and keep track of everything, I coordinate shit, I do whatever needs to get done. I guess when I sign things, I sign them as “founder-slash-director.”’
In 2011, after graduating from university with a degree in photography, Rollow found herself without access to the equipment necessary to create her art. 2011 was a time when darkroom practices were seemingly on the way out; film was not yet ‘cool’ or ‘retro,’ and resources were hard to find. The lack of available darkrooms forced Rollow to build her own. ‘I got into photography because I wanted to work in a darkroom, so not having a darkroom was just not an option,’ she says.
The first iteration of the BCD was a single-person occupancy room roughly the size of a closet and housed in a spare storage unit in the basement of Rollow’s apartment building—but that didn’t feel like quite enough. It lacked community. ‘I went to school with a whole bunch of other kids,’ Rollow explains, ‘I’m probably not the only one in this situation.’ Through flyers, a modest Kickstarter and word of mouth, she made the darkroom available for rent and found that a facility like her’s was in high demand. As membership grew, so did the BCD. 10 years, three locations and several iterations later, the Bushwick Community Darkroom is a 24-hour operation offering darkroom facilities, studio rentals, in-person classes on everything from loading your camera to printing the negative, public film drop-offs for development and scanning, and a facility that serves hundreds of photographers per month.
When we arrived at the BCD warehouse, we were confronted by the size of the place. We, perhaps very naively, expected a small operation: a few enlargers and a couple of developing reels. On the contrary, walking through The Darkroom, we felt like kids in the Willy Wonka candy store, and Colin—the guy who got to print that day—had won the Golden Ticket.
We met with Samuel, a BCD technician who very kindly agreed to guide Colin through the process. Colin selected his negative—an archival shot of the young, fresh-faced Strokes crossing a Manhattan street—and was led by Samuel through a light-tight revolving door and into the gang darkroom to make some magic happen.
Meanwhile, I wandered around to poke at things and ask questions. After The Darkroom’s size, the second thing you notice is the sheer amount of stuff. Just, stuff. Every sort of analogue photographic machine and tool imaginable—however obscure—was available and splayed on shelves and overhead compartments. In a word, The Darkroom feels organic; a very natural collating of equipment and artefacts as they arrived and were used, all in their right place, not unlike a neurotic artist’s studio.
Even more fascinating is the fact that most of the equipment at the BCD was donated. Donated equipment has been a saviour, a blessing and a major instigator for growth. Back when BCD was the size of a closet, someone decided to earn some good karma: ‘This guy gave me these Fuji tabletop colour print processors, as well as a couple of colour enlargers, and I was like, “I can’t say no to this equipment, but it literally will not fit in this space. I need to find a bigger space,”’ explains Rollow.
Donations instigating growth has been a recurring theme in the story of the BCD. Early on, a lab that had been on 21st Street closed its darkroom operation and donated several massive pieces of equipment, like that light-tight revolving door and their first massive wall-installed colour processor. It’s a lovely thing, donating thousands of dollars’ worth of photographic equipment, but then again, what else is there to do with it? While photographers with a soft spot for film treat these pieces of kit like gold, much of the gear being used every day at the BCD (and darkroom facilities around the world) is largely considered to be obsolete. The companies who created much of this equipment are no longer around, let alone producing new models, and the older these machines get, the more difficult it is to keep them chugging along. ‘I’ve been fighting with the machines a lot,’ says Rollow. ‘They’re ancient and finicky, most of the time you just have to be gentle and caress them and hope they work again, and for the most part, they have.’
This problem is one that looms in the back of the minds of all film nerds who know that there aren’t a lot of options when their favourite camera dies. It’s damn near impossible to find film equipment in perfect working condition, and you’re even less likely to find a technician who can fix it when it starts to age out of itself. ‘All of the dudes who know how to fix our machines are over 60,’ says Rollow. ‘When they aren’t around, what will happen? That knowledge is just gone from the face of the earth.’
The BCD is maintained by hand with lots of love, because at the moment that is really the only way to stave off the threat of extinction. Still, Rollow is optimistic. ‘There is a guy that comes and fixes our stuff who is into the idea of training someone, and I’ve been trying to recruit an apprentice for him, so there is some hope.’
The revolving door spun open finally and Colin emerged, tray in hand, excited to see his print under the white light. With a smile on his face, he pointed out the highlights and the shadows that he liked. He explained to us where he dodged and burned, where he retracted light and where light was added to get his image’s embellishments just the way he liked. His hands had chemistry on them and the paper smelled of fixer, a beautiful, vinegary smell, all too familiar to people who’ve passed hours in the dark, making pictures with their hands.
There’s just something about printing in a darkroom, something unmistakable and irreplicable. There’s a magic in rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty, and a sense of satisfaction you can’t get by clicking around on a laptop. You’re in there, making an image—literally creating it with your hands—surrounded by friends who are all in there creating art with you, comparing notes and exchanging ideas. For Rollow, the community has always been the most important part of the Bushwick Community Darkroom. ‘In college, I was used to gang darkrooms—an environment where people were working around me, making art in the same way, looking at each other’s work and being there together,’ she remembers. ‘It was great and inspiring, and I wanted to foster that same sort of creative environment… I want people to come and be here. We are open for business. Come and make something.’