Story and photos by MAKENA KLINGE
The smell of chemicals, the sound of running water. The serenity emitting from the dim glow of the small light fixture hanging from the ceiling, coating the room in an amber ambiance. Mind and body follow a rhythm, movements become melody as the outside world dissolves into the darkness of the surrounding four walls. Magic becomes material as an image appears on the liquid-submerged paper, making ripples as it sways beneath the surface.
Photography is a centuries-old art form that continues to affect and contribute to how we view the world we live in. The concept of photography has been around since the early 1800s and is constantly developing and evolving into what we know it to be today and what we will know it to be in the future.
Darkroom photography was the original – and only – form of photography available in the world until somewhat recently. Only within the last few decades has digital photography taken over, and almost completely pushed film photography out of the picture.
However, there are still artists and community members who appreciate film photography and acknowledge its history as an art form. Here in Salt Lake City, Dave Azul Brewer co-owns Photo Collective Studios. The experienced photographer started that business in 2011.
In 2016, he and his business partner Jessica Jude bought the Clubhouse on South Temple. The Ladies Literary Club had owned that building for 100 years and wanted to find a new owner who would keep it open to the public for art and expression. Brewer and Jude remodeled the building and made it wheelchair accessible with a historic grant that they won in the spring of 2021.
Photo Collective Studios was operating at its original location and the Clubhouse until 2019, when Brewer relocated that business to the Clubhouse. Brewer explained that they are separate businesses. The Clubhouse functions as more of an event space and the studio is a place for photographers to work out of.
“There’s no other building like it in Salt Lake City,” Brewer said. Some of its main attractions include: a stage overlooking a ballroom floor, a front patio, a backstage barber shop and bride’s lounge used for hair and makeup, and a balcony upstairs that serves as a part of the photo studio. The building also includes the only functioning public dark room in the city, down in the basement.
The studio offers public access to professional photography equipment, backdrops, and lighting at an hourly rate. The studio even offers film developing classes that take place every Monday for those interested in learning how to work in the darkroom. It’s also open to those who are familiar with the art and just need a space to develop photos.
“My goal is to create an experience where people feel comfortable and encouraged to create on their own,” Brewer said. Photo Collective Studios not only offers the only public darkroom in the city – aside from the one at the University of Utah – but also provides a much-needed space for artists to pursue their creative goals.
Brewer said his favorite thing about Photo Collective Studios is “connecting with various photographers from various backgrounds and skill sets and recognizing that we can all learn something from each other.”
Brewer said it’s “more important now than ever to keep darkroom photography alive because it is such a timeless art form and with the introduction of digital photography it has quickly become almost obsolete.” He explained that in his career he went from knowing film photography as the standard to digital becoming the standard, “almost overnight.”
Yet the processes used in digital photography stem directly from techniques that are used in the darkroom. There are buttons in Photoshop that have been transferred over from steps of developing film. That alone shows just how important darkroom photography is, even in the digital world we live in.
Edward Bateman has been a professor of various photography classes – Art History of Photography and Digital Imaging for Visual Artists to name a few – at the University of Utah since 2008. He is very passionate about photography and how it impacts our world.
“Chemical has the ability for surprises to happen, things that you’d never imagine, things you couldn’t predict, it can be really exciting,” Bateman said.
Even though Bateman would say that he prefers digital photography – because that’s what he is known for – he likes darkroom photography because “it’s meditative, things go at its own speed, things have its own pace.”
Regarding the appeals of film photography, Bateman also said, “People like the tactile, the tangible quality of actually interacting with something as more and more things become virtual.”
John Moffitt, the president of the Photo Club at the U shares a similar view on photography.
“I genuinely enjoy both digital and darkroom photography. I use both for different things. I honestly couldn’t imagine photography without a darkroom and a computer,” Moffitt said in an email interview.
Moffitt is a senior at the U and is studying operations and supply chain management and photography. He became the president of the club in the summer of 2021 and says that the purpose of the club is to provide a community on campus for students who are interested in photography.
“There is nothing that will transform the way a photographer sees and works faster than a darkroom. Working in a darkroom used to be the ‘norm’ and I think photographers were better off because of it. Even for photographers that don’t plan on using film indefinitely, working in a darkroom for even just a few months can be a transformative process,” Moffitt said
Despite the impact that the art of the past – film photography – has had on the art of the present – digital photography – it’s undeniable that darkroom photography has fallen into the shadows of the art world.
As Brewer said, “There are enough film lovers and film enthusiasts that recognize its uniqueness that I believe as creatives, as artists, we have enough desire to keep it alive.”