Darkroom Detroit gives photographers a home to create

The nonprofit in the Islandview neighborhood will open a community darkroom for photographers of all skills and ages

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Detroit — When Eleanor Oakes moved to Detroit in 2014, she did what any photographer does upon arriving in a new city: scout out where to get film processed, where to buy photo equipment and where the photographers hang out.

In New York City and San Francisco Bay Area where she lived previously, these places existed. Here?

“There was nothing,” says Oakes, 32. “I think the arts community here is really passionate and supportive of each other, but there’s not a photography space.”

Eleanor Oakes, 32, founder & CEO of the nonprofit Darkroom Detroit, and Javier Garcia, 32, the group’s president, say the organization’s goal is to provide photography resources and education for Detroiters.

The lack of photography resources became even more apparent as Oakes taught digital and darkroom photography classes at Oakland University and Wayne State University. Her students often asked how they could continue using the darkroom, where black-and-white prints are developed in a space with only dim red light.

“As their teacher, I’d always have to be like, ‘I’m sorry. Unless you keep taking a class in darkroom, there’s no access.’ ” she says, empathizing with their disappointment. “... It sucks to dip your toe in this water and think ‘Oh, this is great. I would love to keep doing this as a hobby.’ And they couldn’t. It was like this door just shut in their face.”

It was then her idea for Darkroom Detroit started to develop.

The nonprofit Darkroom Detroit on East Grand Boulevard hosted a cyanotype photo workshop during the total solar eclipse Aug. 21. Cyanotype is an alternative photography process that turns blue when exposed to the sun. Here, the cyanotype photographs are exposing in the sun of the eclipse.

Oakes founded the nonprofit in 2016 to provide photography resources and education for Detroiters. In January, she and Hallam Stanton, her fiance and co-founder, bought a brick house at 676 E. Grand Boulevard in Detroit’s Islandview neighborhood and have spent the last few months rehabbing it into a photographer’s haven.

The first floor contains a co-working space and gallery that will feature local and national photographers. The first exhibit titled “Preface” — featuring five photographers whose work addresses race and gender — will be the grand opening of the space Sept. 30.

A materials shop will sell film, paper and photography materials hard to find in Detroit, at an affordable price, and photographers of all levels can sell their images.

“If you’re a 10-year-old kid, and you have some really strong work, you can sell that in the space, all the way to an experienced professional,” Oakes says.

Sitting in an upstairs room — strewn with donated photo equipment and books — Oakes explains the space will hold classes, and an adjacent room will have computers loaded with Adobe Suite for digital photography.

She’s also launching a Patronicity crowdfunding campaign this month to build an eight-station darkroom in the basement. Photographers can rent space by the hour or join a membership. The goal is to offer free classes, particularly for youth who lack after-school activities.

“We want to let them have a place to express themselves in something other than what you normally see at rec centers,” says Darkroom Detroit president Javier Garcia, a Detroit photographer raised in Southwest, who shared Oakes’ vision for a community darkroom.

“If I needed to do work, I basically had to do it myself, whether it would be in my basement processing film or driving to Pontiac to go buy paper and chemistry,” says Garcia, 32. “I wished there was a more central location that could serve all those needs.”

Oakes — who last year gained recognition for her graffiti wall project — was also bothered by the destructive images of Detroit slapped on national magazine covers.

“It’s a lot of outside photographers who are traveling here to make the ruin porn and then ... that becomes the outsider’s narrative of the city,” she says.

The nonprofit Darkroom Detroit on East Grand Boulevard hosted a cyanotype photo workshop during the total solar eclipse Aug. 21. Cyanotype is an alternative photography process that turns blue when exposed to the sun. Participants also made pinhole viewers to safely view and photograph the eclipse.

She thought Detroiters should tell their own story, so she started a program where she gave a camera and four free film rolls to students. She’d show them how to operate the camera and told them to take pictures for a month.

“One of the first cameras I gave out was to a 10-year-old boy whose house was being foreclosed on, and they were being evicted, and he took a couple rolls of film in his house before they had to leave,” she says.

That camera gave him a voice, she says, and she hopes Darkroom Detroit will do the same for more Detroiters who want to explore photography.

“It provides a platform for them to express their own issues and express the positive or the negative things they see happening in the city,” she says.

Photographer Sonia Litynskyj, an MFA student in Cranbrook’s School of Art, is a Darkroom Detroit instructor. Her first workshop will focus on issues of identity, feminism and portraiture.

The 27-year-old Rochester Hills resident said she’s excited to connect with Detroiters through visual storytelling.

“It’s a really powerful way to give people a little bit of an insight of what’s going on around you, and your perspective of life,” she says.

In August, Darkroom Detroit was named a Knight Arts Challenge finalist for a photography exchange program with youth in Detroit and Kabul, Afghanistan. Regardless if the nonprofit receives a share of the $3 million grant, Oakes plans to launch the program with the Afghan Girls Financial Assistance Fund this winter.

A trendy way to learn STEM

Instax film cameras are trendy right now. So trendy that even Garcia’s 9-year-old daughter listed one as the first item on her Christmas list.

Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Fuji’s Instax cameras were outselling Fuji’s digital cameras, and the company expects to sell 6.5 million Instax this year.

Darkroom Detroit plans to embrace the analog throwback movement, especially when it comes to the darkroom, where kids can develop critical thinking skills — sans cellphones and iPads.

“It gets kids away from screens, because you can’t have anything in the darkroom, so it gets them to reengage with their hands and bodies again,” Oakes says, adding that darkrooms require math and science skills.

“You have to think about, ‘OK, so if I’m mixing this developer 1 to 9, and I need 70 ounces of developer, what do I need?’ Even my college students, they haven’t had math in a while, and they’re like, ‘What?’ So it makes you reengage with your brain in a very practical way that encourages thinking about math, science and the actual alchemic reaction that’s happening,” Oakes says.

And in an age when we take pictures on phones and expect to review them instantaneously, the process teaches patience.

“It takes a lot more time than just snapping something with your digital camera and being able to see it,” Oakes stresses. “... and if you’re working too fast, it doesn’t work. So it really forces patience on students who can have difficulty with that otherwise.”

This photo is one of the results after Detroit photographer Eleanor Oakes gave a camera and four free rolls of film to Detroit students and asked them to take pictures.

Seder Burns, a lecturer at University of Michigan’s Stamp’s School of Art & Design, donated several photo enlargers and printing easels to Darkroom Detroit. He taught a darkroom class in the Residential College and had contemplated starting a community darkroom.

“To be honest, it’s something I wish I had done,” he says, explaining there are no darkrooms for public use in Southeast Michigan. Most exist on college campuses and are only open to students.

“There are some people who do it at home, but you have to be incredibly motivated,” he says, “and it takes a lot to create a darkroom in one’s home.”

Burns said he supports Oakes’ efforts, since “it is an increasingly rare opportunity to work in a darkroom, and by providing community resources, it allows more people to experience that.”

“In the same way that vinyl is experiencing a renaissance, so is film-based photography,” he adds. “I feel like this is very good timing and taps into the current zeitgeist.”

For those who truly want to learn the art of photography, Garcia recommends starting in the darkroom.

“You only get 36 exposures to get it right,” he says. “And that process of taking those 36 exposures, and then processing your negatives, and looking at your negatives, and saying, ‘Oh, that’s the one!’ and then making a print and putting in developer and watching that image come through, and that feeling that that thing that you saw at that moment is now here in my hands, it’s so gratifying.”

Grinning in agreement, Oakes adds, “It’s like magic.”


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Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

Darkroom Detroit

676 E. Grand Boulevard, Detroit

(313) 312-0869



Sept. 30-Nov. 26

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