Today we are talking with Jen Zehner, a US-based film photographer and the founder of Obscura Darkroom.
Hello Jen! Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about you and your film photography journey?
I first began my film photography adventure in high school, and fell in love with the medium. It was the perfect blend of creativity and magic, and science and technical skill. It sort of took over my life… I was a complete nerd and was photo editor for my yearbook and school newspaper, and would spend evenings after school in the darkroom. I found it to be a place of solitude, a safe space to distract me from problems from home.
After college, finding myself with no access to a darkroom, I reluctantly gave it up. There was always the lingering thought of taking it up again, but time and resources, as well as accessibility, all got in my way. On the brink of turning 40, I confronted the fact that, to put it simply, I was boring! I looked up Continuing Education classes at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and there was an Intro to Photography class starting the next week. Instant gratification! I enrolled, and subsequently took the class 4 times in order to learn and develop my skills. I also commandeered the second bathroom in my apartment, turning it into a little darkroom.
So, tell us about Obscura Darkroom? How did you first get the idea? When did you realize you could make it a reality?
Moving to New Jersey, I sought out darkrooms to use, and to my surprise, I found none in the area. There are two in Brooklyn, and soon to be two in Philadelphia, but nothing around me. So I set up an even tinier darkroom in a spare bedroom, but needed to utilize the Gowanus darkroom when I wanted to print larger than 8x10. The facilities there were great, but it was a chore to travel an hour and a half just to use a darkroom.
This past spring, I had a few months off from work. I had way too much time on my hands, and felt restless. I began thinking… do I want to go back to work? Discussing this matter with a fellow photographer friend back in June, I was asked “what do you want to do?” I responded, “I want to teach people how to use a darkroom.” “Alas, there are no public darkrooms around here,” I mused… and then an idea popped into my head. I should open up a darkroom! I finally knew what I wanted to do when I grew up!
I began gauging interest, and was delighted to find that there were many people in New Jersey who would use such a facility. I created a website (obscuradarkroom.com), and was mentioned on the July 4th episode of the Film Photography Project’s podcast. The website began getting tons of visitors, and people started leaving encouraging comments. I even began to get equipment donations! Hey, this could really work!
I left my “day job” on August 24, and am now on the path to making Obscura Darkroom a reality. The website is coming along, and Obscura Facebook page (@obscuradarkroomnj) continues to gain followers. There is more and more buzz about the Obscura project every day… I’ve been mentioned on the Negative Positives Photography podcast, and am scheduled to be a guest on an upcoming episode of the Film Photography Project’s podcast.
What do you see for the future of Obscura Darkroom?
My vision for Obscura Darkroom is that it is an inclusive and welcoming space for beginner and seasoned photographer alike. In an effort to promote creativity with kids, we will offer classes for homeschoolers and summer sessions for teens, as well as children’s activities. There will be various adult classes and workshops, too… introductory sessions, ongoing classes, and special workshops on topics such as alternative processes.
Another huge important facet to Obscura will be monthly memberships, so that people can come in and really focus on and develop their work. Obscura will also be a gathering point for film photography in New Jersey, and there are plans in the works for gallery shows and lectures. I’m excited to build not just a darkroom facility, but also a location where the community can learn and promote film photography and creativity in a positive and nurturing environment. It’s very important to me to be able to give back to the film community, as it has been extremely supportive of me during not only this project, but also during my own personal journey. I appreciate the support given by the Film Shooter’s Collective, in particular. I feel so fortunate to belong to such a caring and positive community.
How can people help make this happen?
Obscura is currently coming out of the planning stage, and entering the realm of reality. I just received some funding in order to find a location and begin construction soon. The Kickstarter campaign for equipment and supplies just went live on October 8th and it has lots of interesting and fun rewards for every level of support. Whether you are a local film photographer, interested in supporting the project from afar, or just want a cool t-shirt, we have something for you.
Besides the Kickstarter, Obscura is also accepting donations for equipment… if you want to get rid of it, we’d love to have it! Starting a darkroom from scratch is a really expensive project, and we can use all the support we can get, whether it’s via Kickstarter, donation, or just spreading by the word. Now that the ball is rolling, the website and Facebook page, and eventually the Kickstarter, will be updated frequently with news about the project. Any questions or comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. So stay tuned!