Bushwick Community Darkroom Rectifies Film Photography’s Exclusionary Past

Founder Lucia Rollow shares how she breathes new life into the analog practice through affordability and inclusion

When Lucia Rollow rolled her Volkswagen down New York’s Long Island Expressway back in 2010, she had no idea she was on the brink of founding a thriving film photography community and one of the only 24/7 darkrooms in the city. A recent college graduate with no spare change, Rollow longed for a place to continue developing film and honing the craft she loves. After scouring NYC for an affordable darkroom without success, she made one of her own.

Roughly one week after she had the idea, during her trek along the highway, Rollow launched a Kickstarter campaign to turn the empty basement of her apartment building into a price-friendly darkroom—accessibility being an integral component for Rollow from the get-go. This dedication to providing processing resources to not only herself, but also to those around her, led her basement workshop to become the flourishing 4,000-square-foot Brooklyn studio it is now. Located on Troutman Street, the comprehensive Bushwick Community Darkroom (BCD) is a refreshing hub for professional and beginner photographers, who share a passion for analog—and each other.

More than a film studio, Rollow’s darkroom operates as its moniker suggests: with the community. Between hosting art shows, musicians and zine swaps with local nonprofits and schools, BCD ushers in a new era of analog photography, offering low rates ($15 to scan and develop 35mm or $20 for 120mm), no-questions-asked financial aid, around-the-clock access and classes on developing film. Online, their website and social media continues to champion inclusivity within the industry, spotlighting Black film photographers from the area. Internally, BCD prioritizes employees who can best serve and reflect NYC’s diversity, forgoing typical hiring impediments like checking the legal history of candidates.

We spoke with Rollow on the analog practice’s whitewashed past, how to build a blossoming film family in spite of it and why the medium will never die.

Great Dunes by Lucia Rollow, courtesy of Bushwick Community Darkroom

How has the film photography industry shut out marginalized individuals?

The only people that have ever received real recognition in this industry are straight white men. For instance, did you know there was a whole cadre of Black photo studio owners throughout the USA in the late 1800s? I had no idea until just a few years ago. Have you ever attended any sort of photography meetup? Probably not, if you’re not a straight white man.

I’m not trying to exclude cis white men, but I am not not trying to exclude them. The darkroom is a space for the rest of us. They have the world; I just want this little piece to be a safe place for people who are curious to ask questions, learn and fall in love with this incredible craft.

The ethos of your studio is obviously helping the community and rectifying the industry’s inaccessibility. How does film photography allow you to do this in ways other mediums may not?

It has to do with the ease of picking up a camera. My father was a painter and was always teaching me to draw, but I was frustrated by my inability to translate the images from my brain onto the paper. Whenever I picked up a camera, it just seemed to happen naturally. I think despite its exclusionary history, photography is one of the most accessible art forms. Painting and drawing were extremely frustrating to me, and I’m not the only one. Especially today, when everyone has a camera in their pocket, I think it’s important that people have the resources and opportunity to learn its history and craft no matter their background or skill level. In the darkroom, people can gather, learn and build off each other—give feedback on prints but also teach each other how to load cameras and have those basic spontaneous conversations that simply don’t occur in other environments.

Great Dunes #3, 2018 by Lucia Rollow, courtesy of Bushwick Community Darkroom

How does BCD engage with the neighborhood and the culture of Brooklyn’s photography at large?

Since the pandemic started, it’s been more challenging, but we’ve collaborated on events and exhibits with Brooklyn Film Camera and the NYC Street Photographers Collective a bunch over the years. We’ve done workshops and shows with kids from local schools. Engaging with the photography community at large is challenging, because it is so dominated by cis men, but hopefully we’ll have more and more opportunities to work with youths from the neighborhood. That is a large piece of the long term vision for BCD, and it got tabled when the kids all stopped going to school. When I was in graduate school, I wrote an entire curriculum draft for an after school high school program that directly connected all the academic subjects back to analog photography. That is something I would really like to explore more in our second decade.

BCD offers a bounty of educational programs to learn processing. What has teaching meant for you and the mission of the darkroom?

Teaching is, always has been and always will be a fundamental pillar of what we do. Personally, I can’t teach anymore because I have too many other things to pay attention to, but we’ve got plenty of people on staff. Back in the day, when I did teach all the classes, it really helped me develop a perspective of what I was doing. The joy people express when they realize just how simple all this stuff really is—it’s like nothing else. People are extremely intimidated by the equipment and chemicals involved but after a few hours of explanation and experimentation, all that fear disappears and they see the magic. It’s the most joyful reminder of what we love about this process. There is nothing like watching someone see a print appear for the first time, seeing that world unlock for them, realizing that they’re experiencing that magic that you once experienced… I should probably teach more.

If someone is saying that film is dying, it means that they’re not aware of what’s going on in the world

It’s been a little over a decade since BCD opened. How do you feel about this dedication to photography? Did you expect so many people to be invested in film, especially as it’s often known as a “dying art”?

Once you get in, you get in and you’re addicted. It’s like you can’t quit. The idea was to provide a space where people could get addicted to it, as well. But I always knew that if the right resources were available, then people are going to take advantage of them because it’s just not the same as digital. The tactile quality of the paper, the act of getting in the darkroom, and watching all this magic happen: it’s different. If someone is saying that film is dying, it means that they’re not aware of what’s going on in the world. They’re just wrong. Film photography has been on a major uptick over the last like six or seven years.

“Looking Into the City” and “Sofija on the beach I, Long Island” by Elisabeth Ciaccio (a member of BCD) courtesy of Bushwick Community Darkroom

What do you attribute the success of the BCD to?

It’s a community space, so it has a lot of appeal to a lot of different people. It’s not just me trying to make money off of other people’s art; it’s about creating a space for people to exchange ideas. That sense of people thinking the same way and doing the same thing is not something that exists in a whole lot of places—at least not in New York’s photo world. Most of them are much more expensive. If you wanted to do something at the ICP [International Center for Photography] or wherever, you’re going to be dishing out at least $1,000 for a month-long class. And that’s just not feasible for most young people.

What do you think the future of this practice looks like? Are you seeing newer, younger generations interested in film?

Oh yeah, we have a lot of kids coming in. We have high school interns and we’ve done a lot of high school programs. They’re always kids coming in, and we get a number of phone calls from parents asking if they’re 12-year-old can join. I don’t think film photography is ever going to go anywhere. The younger generations are just as interested as the older generations. I started doing this stuff in the mid ‘90s, when it was everywhere. Even then, being interested in darkroom photography was a small thing, not a whole lot of people were interested. So to see it going the way that it is now is cool. People want to say all this shit about film, but it’s not going to die. It’s archival. It’s the only archival material. It will never die.

Hero image “Jump, 2019” by Jorge Morse (a member of BCD) courtesy of Bushwick Community Darkroom