Inside a second-floor Gowanus studio space, an anniversary party hums late into the night. DJs spin jazz throwbacks as clusters of people sip wine and snap photos with analog Minoltas. Among them is Rachel Jun. Dressed head to toe in black; she floats effortlessly through the crowds. Passing a wall of black and white darkroom prints, she stops to join a photo booth portrait. “This is really great,” she says between sips of seltzer.
Last February, Jun first opened the doors of Gowanus Darkroom, a community space for film photography enthusiasts. A BFA graduate from UC Santa Cruz, Jun moved to Brooklyn from her native California in 2011. Though she dabbled in digital photography, Jun kept coming back to film, “I always liked the darkroom,” she said. “Especially when you’re printing with your hands, you really get the sense that you’re creating something.”
Despite today’s fast-paced, digital culture, many artists are reverting back to classic art forms and analog processes. Though Jun recognizes digital photography’s speed and efficiency, she makes it clear that film’s intrinsic focus on lighting and optics have notable benefits. “Taking it slow and being limited to a certain amount of shots can hone your eye as an artist,” she said. “Everyone can benefit from taking a beat and paying more attention to the way we look at the world.”
Soon after arriving in Brooklyn, Jun noticed a lack of darkrooms in her neighborhood. “It was so hard to find them,” she said. “There were only a handful and they were either expensive, or far, or had weird hours.” Inspired by this shortage, she began brainstorming how to create a darkroom space of her own.
“It was an idea for a really long time,” Jun said. “I felt there must be a market for this.” In 2014 Jun received an offer for a large donation of film equipment from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. She accepted. “That was definitely the catalyst,” she said.
After receiving the equipment, Jun secured a space in an unassuming Gowanus warehouse. She then began the 3-month process of turning a large, cavernous studio into a vibrant art hub. “This was all empty,” she said, gesturing to her surroundings from a green velvet sofa. Behind her, a row of succulents and cacti lined the windowsill.
In addition to a fully stocked film processing area, Jun’s darkroom offers a wide range of services, including workshops and personal classes tailor-made for individual skillsets. Members also have the opportunity to help out through a volunteer program in exchange for significantly discounted rates. Though the Darkroom isn’t technically a studio share, members have twenty-four hour access and can come and go as they please. “This is their space,” Jun added. In the future, Jun would like the Darkroom to eventually become its own non-profit, with additional staff and a board of directors to help with logistics and decision-making.
In a city plagued by high costs and rapid gentrification, New York’s creative enclaves have found themselves under increased threat. In recent years, rising rent prices have resulted in waves of artists being forced to vacate communities throughout the city. “Every neighborhood is in danger of being changed dramatically,” Jun said, lamenting the closures of several studio spaces in Gowanus last fall.
Given these trends and the subsequent exodus they have spurred, Jun hopes the Darkroom will have a positive impact, specifically on the Gowanus art community. “I’d like to be one of the core organizations that are helping to hold down this neighborhood and keep artists here,” she said.
Judging by the celebratory crowd gathered at the studio on a Friday in mid-February, the future of Gowanus Darkroom seems bright. Throughout its first year, the Darkroom has become a space where artists can come together to hone their skills and foster creative community. Despite the hostility often felt by New York artists, Jun is confident that art spaces like hers will continue to thrive. “Art may seem superfluous to being human, but it’s not,” she says. “It’s important and necessary – we need it.”
All photos by Ludmila Leiva.