Film photography left in the dark as local darkrooms close

Diana Sibbald holds up a finished print in the Brookline darkroom. Photo by Nicole Havens/BU News Service

By Nicole Havens
BU News Service

Traditional film photography, which allows only one chance to capture the perfect image, is becoming harder to find these days.

With the New England School of Photography in Waltham set to close in the spring, there is only one black and white darkroom with courses open to the public left in Greater Boston. High schoolers use the darkroom at the Unified Arts Building of Brookline High School during the day for photography classes, but at night anyone can sign up for a class that explores using film instead of today’s modern photo techniques.  

The Brookline Adult & Community Education program opens the space to the public for classes, including Josephine Shields’s “Creative Darkroom” for advanced photographers.

Shields has taught the class on weekday evenings for nearly seven years. She said she is motivated to keep it going because film photography isn’t just a hipster trend.

“We’re not a fad,” she said. “We’re here now because we’ve been here for the long run.”

The Brookline darkroom provides many photographers in the class with the only viable option to process their film. With the right tools, film development can be done in a kitchen sink, but printing must occur in a light-tight darkroom according to Scott Buchanan, a photographer in “Creative Darkroom.”

As a regular in the class for almost a decade, Buchanan specializes in large-format black and white film like that used by Ansel Adams. He said one of the main reasons he has attended the class for so long is because he has no place in his Somerville apartment to put a darkroom.

“I end up with this backlog of stuff,” Buchanan said. “I may have developed a film but I can’t print it and this is the first time I’m going to see it.”

The darkroom also offers students a way to rekindle their passion for film photography with like-minded people. Many took long breaks from film — even Shields and Buchanan — and returned to it thanks to the class in Brookline.

“It’s like, why do people keep running? Why do people keep playing golf?” Shields said. “It’s just that it gets in your head.”

Rebecca Philio, a photographer who began the course at the beginning of the fall term, studied photography as an undergraduate but set it aside for about nine years.

She’s in the process of relearning everything but has enjoyed the class and the help the classmates offer each other.

“I meant to take this class about seven years ago,” Philio said. “I just kept putting it off and putting it off, then finally this semester I decided to do it.”

Although photography can be a solitary art form, sitting on a hill patiently as the clouds and light align for just the right shot, Shields said a person still needs to be “out there” with their work, and the class facilitates that level of commitment to the art.

“So, that’s why I’m here,” she said. “You have to have some passion, and that’s what it is.”

Every July, and occasionally for a few weeks in August, the class will showcase at least 20 pieces of student work in Brookline Bank’s “community window” facing Harvard Street.

The window has different installments every month from community groups, and began as a way for Brookline artists to present their work, Shields said.

One of the course’s longtime members, Elmer Sprague, who died in April, wrote a statement to accompany last July’s pieces in the window about the feeling a photographer experiences when they see their image appear on a piece of paper after exposing it.

“It’s the pleasure of that magic moment, the feeling of ‘Hey, I made this happen,’ that brings the members of the Creative Darkroom class back to the Brookline High School darkroom for three-hour sessions one night a week.”

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