On a snowy Friday the 13th, in 2015, Rachel Jun opened "Gowanus Darkroom". Little did she know the darkroom and lab that would, later on, become a reference in Brooklyn's analog scene, where amateurs and professionals would cross paths in between developer, baths, and fixers.
"Living in South Brooklyn it was not easy to get darkroom access, and building one in my small apartment was not an option. I figured I couldn’t be the only one who would be interested in a community darkroom that served the area."
Rachel's own journey with film started during her freshman year of high school. "My school had a pretty nice darkroom that few people used," she says, "I took full advantage of using it most days. I never really stopped after that." Five years after its opening, Gowanus Darkroom hosts workshops, private classes, and develops film via drop-off. We talked to Rachel about the exciting journey that has been Gowanus Darkroom, and how it still continues to grow for a more sustainable analog future.
When and how did the darkroom go from an idea to an actual space?
Around 2014, I was workshopping the idea around to lots of people. Most conversations went something like, “You want to open a darkroom? You gotta talk to my friend...” This way I met and spoke with lots of different analog folk. Eventually, I was offered a donation of equipment, and then another, and another. I started going about finding a space. I was very lucky to find the space we’re in now. That combined with the equipment donation got the ball moving and pushed me to make it a reality.
What pushed you to open such a space?
I wanted to open a darkroom for selfish reasons. Living in South Brooklyn it was not easy to get darkroom access, and building one in my small apartment was not an option. I figured I couldn’t be the only one who would be interested in a community darkroom that served the area.
In a digital era, why would you take on the idea of opening such an analog space?
In a strange way, opening a niche business appealed to me. I knew that there weren’t many other darkrooms. Knowing the analog community, I knew if I built it, photographers would come.
Have you seen an increase or a decrease in recent years? And what's the clientele you see?
The darkroom has definitely seen a dramatic increase in traffic over the years. Last year was my best year. This year likely would have been even better if it weren’t for current circumstances. I have seen an increased general interest in film and darkroom. We see a pretty big variety of both new and returning clients. Customers range from beginners to professionals of all ages.
What are the services you offer? Is one more popular than others?
The most popular service is the hourly darkroom rental. We have many new and returning customers coming to rent the darkroom on an hourly basis. There’s no commitment to rent, and we show you the space before you get started. It’s a fun way to spend a day. Our second most popular service is our film drop off. People can leave their film with us to process and scan. That way, they can get the negatives to either print in the darkroom, or simply share with social media. Private lessons are also very popular as it is a fun skill to learn, especially alongside a friend or partner.
What is the craziest request you got?
I once got a request to process a client’s film using “development by inspection,” which is a tricky technique that is no longer widely practiced. I have also processed film that has been soaked in various liquids such as ramen broth and lemon juice, with varying results.
What are some of the challenges you face as a darkroom/lab?
The biggest challenge for a niche business is always overhead. I have a lot of help from the community and volunteer assistance, but running a darkroom is a lot of work. There is always something to clean or fix, but it doesn’t feel like work if you love what you do.
Are you afraid that the analog wave might dissolve eventually?
I try not to think about that too much (haha). I believe as long as new people are learning this skill, including young kids and students, there will always be a home for analog photography.
Do you still have time to shoot?
I don’t shoot as much as I’d like, as I’m kept pretty busy in the darkroom, but I do shoot and process my own film at least once a week.
What are the measures you're taking to make your darkroom a sustainable/green environment?
We really push customers to be properly trained on reusing chemicals correctly. You go through much less chemistry and recycle it until you can’t anymore. We also make sure people are using the chemistry correctly and disposing of it safely. All of our silver is reclaimed by a silver reclamation lab, from liquid chemicals to film and paper. We also accept fixer drop-offs for those who process film at home, so that they can also properly dispose of their chemicals.
As a darkroom, what advice would you give photographers based on your knowledge from the post-shooting side?
My biggest advice is to take your analog shooting a step further by learning how to print in a darkroom. It’s the most fun aspect of the process in my opinion, and you never really get to see how beautiful your negatives are until you print them in a darkroom.
Can you give us a rundown of the services you offer and the prices and a way for people to get in touch with you?
We offer hourly darkroom and film processing rentals as well as monthly memberships for people wanting to process and print in our space. We also offer classes and workshops for anything analogue and film drop off services for anyone who would rather have us do it for them. I can be reached at email@example.com, or contacted through our website at www.gowanusdarkroom.com. Our phone number is (718) 788 - 1751.
During this time of confinement, Gowanus Darkroom offers Mail-In Film ordering, as well as contactless drop-off.