Just a short walk into St. Paul’s stands a three-story building containing one of Bristol’s best kept assets. The St. Paul’s community centre is home to the country’s best public access darkroom. Sessions which are held by Chris Waller, who has been involved in photography for thirty years, allow the local community to not only develop their own photos, but also experience archaic methods of developing photographs, such as tin typing. For some members of the dark room, what started out as a hobby has evolved into full on careers, with many of the people going on to do degrees in photography along with acquiring specialist skills. The members of the darkrooms are extremely invested in it, and even members who move on remember Bristol’s facilities and often return.
“Nothing beats the magic of developing your own photograph and seeing it appear in front of your eyes.” – (PHS – Photography student)
Looking back two or three years, there were only two public access darkrooms in the country, Bristol and Doncaster. Now with retro photography coming back into fashion, around fifty can be found across the country, Bristol’s being the biggest. The darkroom allows people with common interests to share their passion and learn from each other, creating not only a local community aspect, through other classes such as pottery and textiles being held at the centre, but also a darkroom community, with Chris’ vision of it becoming a regional centre, rather than just a local one;
“We’re not just a sort of a hobby or operation, for many people we give them the first step on the ladder to going onto a degree or career in photography”- Chris Waller
Through the Heritage Lottery Fund the centre was able to purchase new equipment, and were able to fund eight courses with around one hundred teachers using a teaching teachers process, enabling them to conduct the courses that they wanted to. In the past they have had links with schools and universities within the city, such as, Future Brunels, Redland Green School and The University of the West of England and hope to continue to further these educational links.
“The time I spent at St. Paul’s a couple of years back on the lottery funded alternate process workshops had a massive impact on my work and teaching here in Cardiff. I have taught the techniques to children and adults in Cardiff, the valleys and even as far as Mexico City.” (Andy – Photography teacher)
The centre is currently in a state of uncertainty as there have been notions that it may be shut down due to cuts in funding. This would mean either the closure, or relocation of the darkrooms, as well as the other facilities available within St. Paul’s community centre. Due to this uncertainty, they have been unable to allow guests to come and hold workshops and have been unable to advertise themselves properly as they are unsure about whether the darkrooms will be open for too much longer. Members of the darkrooms started a petition late last year when funding cuts were being made and managed to get some more time with a high number of signatures.
With the art of photography becoming an ever-growing passion and a career choice for so many more people, surely having these facilities within a community is not only a blessing, but also a chance to experience where this art came from, and a chance to learn a new skill. With a current number of about one hundred and fifty members, it shows that the darkrooms are of interest to the public and with the right marketing and advertisement more people wanting to learn these skills can have the chance. Having these unique facilities within a community is not something that should have to be fought for, because it is something that should be held in high regard.
You can find out more about the St Paul’s Darkrooms by visiting their website here.