The analog scene on the West Coast celebrated a birthday during the pandemic last month. Safelight Lab turned one year old this April, but instead of throwing a huge party, they did something better: during a worldwide crisis, Safelight Lab continued to operate as a lab, processing film, when most labs shut down. Rob Cowan, the founder of Safelight lab, used to shoot film as a teenager with his mom's film camera. After switching to digital, he eventually came back to his first love, film photography. He even hosted "Darkroom Parties" at his apartment, where he would use his bathroom as a darkroom for him and his friends.
"After the idea hit me, I started hosting Print Making days in my apartment. At one point, I had two enlargers set up in my bedroom with the window blacked out, and the chemistry in the bathroom."
Today, the lab he opened hosts both amateurs and professional photographers who want to develop their own work, but also welcomes drop-offs for processing. We talked to Rob about his passion for analog, how he decided to open the lab, and what future projects await Safelight Lab.
When and how did it go from an idea to an actual space?
I quit shooting film in the mid-2000s like most photographers and went digital. I picked film back up a few years ago and decided I wanted to develop at home and make my own prints. The idea hit me in 2018 that we needed a community space. I started heavily working on the idea in late 2018 and opened in 2019. After the idea hit me, I started hosting Print Making days in my apartment. At one point, I had two enlargers set up in my bedroom with the window blacked out, and the chemistry in the bathroom.
What pushed you to open such a space?
Because of the interest in the darkroom parties at my apartment, it was clear to me that people wanted a space they could go and hang out in, create their art, and save money.
In a digital era, why would you take on the idea of opening such an analog space?
It’s my opinion that film photography has a solid place in the photography world. While digital offers convenience and speed, I think that film offers an artistic side that can’t compare to digital. I was also noticing how the younger generation of artists was discovering film for the first time. I’m in my late 30’s, and I grew up without the internet and digital cameras. This younger generation didn’t, so they’re seeing this aesthetic that film provides and I think that’s what a lot of them are looking for.
Have you seen an increase or a decrease in recent years?
I’ve definitely seen both. Film almost died, but thank goodness it survived. The increase in popularity over the last few years has been amazing to watch. Truly inspiring.
What are the services you offer? Is one more popular than others?
We offer a range of services at Safelight Labs. I teach workshops on how to develop your own film and how to make your own black and white silver gelatin prints in the darkroom. Those are my favorite to teach because I get to pass down the knowledge I’ve acquired over the past 20 years. Once a month I also teach a Film 101 class where we discuss everything from Camera Obscura to the difference between 35mm and 120, SLR’s and rangefinders, the history of film, how film is made, etc. I also offer Do It Yourself development; you come in and develop everything yourself using all of the equipment I provide. We also have a photography studio for rent as well as a small gallery space where we highlight a new artist every month.
Who is your main audience? Do you have a regular clientele or a more punctual audience?
I have a TON of regular customers. Some come in just to scan their film, some to develop and scan, some to use the studio, some to print in the darkroom, and some just to drop off their film for developing. We are also still a new business and people are discovering us each day and stopping by. The regular clientele is extremely diverse; some are professional photographers, some are brand new, some are getting back in to film, some only exclusively shoot film, and some who don’t shoot any film at all.
What is the craziest request you got?
I’m sad to say that so far I haven’t gotten any crazy requests. But I am definitely looking forward to it!
What are some of the challenges you face as a darkroom/lab?
Our biggest challenge is awareness surrounding film, its availability, and who we are and what we do. A lot of people don’t even know that film is still being made, and it’s always a pleasant surprise on their faces when they learn about how popular it has become again.
Are you afraid that the analog wave might dissolve eventually?
Honestly, I’m not. Film has it’s own unique look and feel. I think that within the photography world, film will always have a place. There are multiple different types of paints and materials to paint on. Film is the same; it’s just a different tool to choose from.
If you weren't in charge of a darkroom/lab, what would you be doing?
Who knows! Most likely working a regular unfulfilling job and still shooting on the side.
Do you still have time to shoot? Do you have time to develop your own material?
I make time to shoot for myself as often as I can. One of the benefits of owning Safelight Labs is having access to the studio and the lab. Before owning the studio, I hadn’t done much studio work. It has been a lot of fun experimenting and learning how to shoot in a studio space, experiment with lighting, reflectors, V-Flat’s, flash strobes, continuous lights, etc. Occasionally my personal film gets put on the back burner, but I find time on my days off to develop my own work and print in the darkroom.
What are the measures you're taking to make your darkroom a sustainable/green environment?
We are very careful with all of our chemistry. We understand that a lot of it is not safe for the environment, so we carefully watch what is being poured down the drain and what isn’t. I’m also a believer that if there’s a way to avoid using a chemical, don’t use that chemical. For example, with stop baths. We choose to use filtered water instead of a chemical stop bath. There are a lot of other things we would love to do in the future like water reclamation, silver recovery, etc., but those systems will come in the future.
As a darkroom, what advice would you give photographers based on your knowledge from the post-shooting side?
My advice is to learn how to develop your own film, and how to make your own prints. Even if you don’t do it regularly, or decide not to at all, I think it’s wise to understand the ins and outs of film, what it’s capable of, what it’s limits are, and what you can and can’t do with it.
Can you give us a rundown of the services you offer and the prices?
DIY Film Development (35mm/120 C41/BW) $5/roll and $2/roll to scan
Film Development + Scans start at $15/roll for standard scans, $20/roll for advanced, and
$25/roll for High-Resolution scans
Darkroom Time is $15/hr and we provide all of the equipment and chemistry. You must provide
your own paper.
Studio Rental is $35/hr
Where are you located?
We are located Downtown San Diego at 1357 7th Ave, Suite B, San Diego, CA 92101
If any photographer has a question, how can they get in touch with you?
Instagram is always a great place to reach us. We are @safelightlabs, or all of our information and links to our podcast can be found on our website at www.safelightlabs.com