Ever since I moved to Homer, Alaska in 2017 I’ve dreamed of having something like a community darkroom to print my mediocre film photographs and waste away long winter hours. Homer is a pretty artsy town, and I think there might be enough interest to keep something like that going on a small scale.
Well, this winter I took the first steps to hopefully making that dream a reality — I built a darkroom in our spare bathroom at home. It took me about 2 weeks to track down everything I needed, and thanks to a couple of generous donations I spent a total of about $37 putting everything together.
How, you might ask? The simple answer is I posted on Facebook asking if anybody had darkroom equipment they’d be willing to part with. I honestly didn’t have very high hopes. After all, I live in a small town in rural Alaska that has about 3,500 year-round residents (or something like that). There’s only one road in and out of this place, and we’re at the end of it, some 220 miles south of Anchorage. The closest Walmart is a 90 minute drive, and there seems to be more gravel roads than paved streets in town.
But I figured it was worth a shot. I posted my query on a couple local Facebook groups, and it wasn’t long before I got a handful of responses. I offered to buy the darkroom equipment, but in the end the bulk of it was donated to me. Both of my benefactors were just happy somebody was going to actually use it, and since I got everything set up in early January I’ve done a handful of prints that went on display at Grace Ridge Brewing for a February art show.
One of the donations was from somebody I had never met before, a guy named Rick overseeing the estate of the late Joyce Robinette. I learned she was a long-time teacher and traveler, spending many years in Adak, Alaska, and taking photos on her travels around the world, before retiring to Homer. She passed away in 2020.
Joyce left behind many things, including an almost complete darkroom set up with Beseler 23C II enlarger, timers, trays, and an assortment of grain focusers, developing tanks, tongs, books, and other useful items. There’s no telling how long it’d been since this stuff was in use, and as expected the enlarger needed a good bit of TLC. The lens was racked with fungus, and so was the condenser. But it was nothing some denatured alcohol and a little elbow grease couldn’t take care of.
In true small-town fashion, my other major donation came from someone who I knew, local photographer and friend of mine Meaghan McCallum. She was down south for the winter learning to shoe horses, or something, but she had a clutch of darkroom gear sitting in a storage unit in Homer. Our friend Monica hooked it up, even dropping the equipment off at my front door.
Meaghan’s donation rounded out the stuff I needed to start printing photos in my small bathroom-turned-photolab, including 2 more enlargers, an easel for mounting paper, 3 plastic gallon jugs, and a set of long-expired developing chemicals like powder Dektol and DF76, stop bath, and fixer, among other things. I wasn’t sure if the chemicals would still be usable nearly 15 years after expiration, so I posted on the “Film Developing” Facebook group and was reassured that, yes, the stuff was likely still good as long as the powder wasn’t brown when I opened up the pouches.
So what did I spend the $37 on, you ask? None of that money actually went towards darkroom equipment (although I have since spent $8 on a new set of bamboo tongs off of Amazon because the ones I had were pretty worse for wear). All of my money was used to light-proof my small bathroom space, and also install a shelf about the commode to hold all the processing trays. The 1×12 piece of pine for the shelf cost me nearly $20, plus a set of hinges, some striping for the door cracks, black poster board and tape for the window, and $3.50 for a corner table from the local thrift store to mount the enlarger.
And that was pretty much it.
I was only missing one key ingredient to start printing, and that was photographic paper which I bought from Stewarts in Anchorage and had in hand in 3 days. Ok, so I didn’t include the paper costs in my final breakdown, but otherwise I really did just spend $37 to get my at-home darkroom set up and running.
The outpouring of support I’ve gotten for the project and the generous donations were completely unexpected and greatly appreciated. Now I just need to fine-tune my techniques and produce some work to be proud of before summer gets here and I’m fishing 80 hours a week again. Hopefully I’ll be able to pay forward the kindness and let some of my photo friends get their hands wet with Dektol in the near future.