Shari Wilkins could not bear to see enlargers, lenses and darkroom trays get tossed aside. As digital photography began overtaking print, the former marketing professional and admirer of the medium salvaged the items from art centers and schools decommissioning their darkrooms.
"It was not from an antique point of view," the Lakewood resident says of the items she began gathering in 2005. "I'm like, All these pieces and parts and equipment — I don't want them thrown away."
Wilkins' collection continued to grow — quirky, anonymous family photos primarily from the late 1800s and early 1900s and vintage 35mm film cameras — as photo film, negatives and print became increasingly obsolete.
Then early last year, a friend from Zygote Press told her the organization planned to get rid of three enlargers. The encounter prompted Wilkins to research community darkrooms. To her dismay, there were none in Ohio. So over the next year, she visited university darkrooms, took a photography class and acquired donated items.
In February, she opened the nonprofit Cleveland Print Room as a way to revive the nearly lost art. "For me, it's more of preserving [film] photography," she says, "and having a vision of a place where photographers can get together and collaborate."
The print room, nestled in the ArtCraft Building, now has eight darkroom stations available daily for members. An on-site gallery features a diverse range of color and black and white photographs, from Greg Martin's swirly wet plate collodion print of a child in a forest to Vaughn Wascovich's speckled cotton gin image. Emerging, featuring local student photographers, opens in the gallery May 17.
Through classes such as salt print and cyanotype, and a monthly pinhole camera club workshop, Wilkins is doing her part to keep print processes alive. "It's much more satisfying to take a photograph on film and develop it and process it," she says. "You are doing it all with your hands."