The Mobile Darkroom

Panoramic photos shot on my Clipper 6x18 pinhole camera at yesterday's inaugural run of the mobile darkroom. It was parked in front of The Emporium for visitors to enjoy during Knoxville's First Friday event. This specially modified trailer functions in part as a giant pinhole / camera obscura, so it seemed fitting to photograph a giant pinhole camera with a smaller one! 

Visitors to the mobile darkroom exhibit were able to peek inside the trailer to see a live, upside-down projection of the crowd mingling behind them. If you've never looked inside a camera obscura, it's fascinating to observe how this ancient technique uses nothing but natural light to project an image on the opposite wall. Also on exhibit were examples of large images previously captured on photo paper, along with samples of other creative work done at the Knoxville Community Darkroom.

You can learn more about the mobile darkroom and other creative events by visiting the Knoxville Community Darkroom website.


Exposures for each of these photos ran from about 90-120 seconds. Most people appear as faint, ghostly figures as they moved about the scene. The longer a person stayed in place, the more "solid" their appearance. (Click to see larger versions of each photo.)

The Knoxville Community Darkroom

View from outside the Knoxville Community Darkroom during their open house.

No matter your age, shooting old school film has a distinctly romantic, vintage appeal - at least until you start contemplating how you're going to turn those rolls of negatives into physical prints and share them. The good news is that if you live in the Knoxville metro area, there's a new option in town!

Starting in the late 80s, and stretching well into the early 2000s, one hour film labs were found in virtually every drugstore, alongside discount chains like Costco and Walmart. Several years ago, these labs began rapidly vanishing. As digital photography overtook film in the 2010s, demand for high volume, rapid processing predictably evaporated.

Happily, there remain a number of pro labs where you can mail in rolls of film. Two labs I personally recommend to readers are the Old School Photo Lab in New Hampshire, and The Darkroom in California. Both labs offer digital scans that you can download before your negatives (and any prints you've ordered) even make it back to your mailbox.

Avid film shooters must now choose between sending film out for processing to one of these professional labs, or learn how to process film at home. As detailed in previous blog articles, processing black and white (and even color) film at home is surprisingly easy and inexpensive with photographic supplies readily available online. Many of us who "soup" our own film end up digitally scanning it for editing and to share online. You don't even need a darkroom to develop film - just a light tight bathroom or inexpensive film changing bag will do the trick. That's one option.

What if you want to print those negatives directly yourself, without needing a computer to scan them? While it's possible to set up a home darkroom in even the tiniest of spaces (such as a closet or bathroom), it's not necessarily practical for everyone to do so. My own "darkroom" is in an attached storage shed that lacks AC and running water. It's workable in cooler weather, but entirely impractical during the hot summer months!

Fortunately, film aficionados in cities around the country have banded together to form non-profit, community darkrooms, where you can develop your film, print using conventional enlargers on silver gelatin paper, and enjoy interacting with fellow artists who appreciate the traditional (and not-so-traditional), "analog" methods of making photographs. These community darkrooms are a great way to keep traditional processes alive and relevant in the consciousness of today's photographers.

A few of the enlargers set up for use at the Knoxville Community Darkroom.

Last October, I took part in funding a Kickstarter initiative to launch the Knoxville Community Darkroom. They met their fundraising goal, and kicked things off with an open house in March. While I wasn't able to join at the time, about a month ago I signed up for an annual membership. For a flat, yearly fee, I have 24-hour access to all the equipment and space I need to print. The only items I have to supply are my negatives and any paper I need for printing. (Paper isn't cheap. I recommend starting with inexpensive 5x7 photo paper to avoid costly mistakes as you learn.) On top of the availability of space, chemistry and enlargers, I've enjoyed the added benefit of getting helpful pointers from a number of seasoned darkroom users.

Work is underway on the new KCD mobile darkroom. When finished, this trailer will also function as a giant camera obscura, allowing large images to be viewed and exposed directly on paper via a small opening on the opposite wall.

While I have had to do a lot of experimentation to get decent results printing (and I'm still not "there" yet), I'm gradually getting back up to speed on the basics. If you've been pining for the old darkroom days, or you're a younger person who is curious as to what this film thing is all about, I would strongly encourage you to visit their website. You can also check them out on Facebook and follow them on Instagram.

Community support for an initiative this ambitious is vital. So if you think you'd like to get involved and join in the film photography revival, now is the time to get behind this wonderful project!