Manifest Drawing Center is Preserving the Art of the Darkroom

Get back to the business of film at the center’s community darkroom.

Photograph by Chris Von Holle

Photography, as you may recall in the pre-Instagram, pre-selfie recesses of your brain, is a fine art. And once upon a time, there was mystery involved.

Light made its mark on the film, but there was no knowing what had been produced until chemical processes made the image appear. Which explains why the word magic keeps coming up talking to the minds behind Manifest Drawing Center’s darkroom, which opened in Madisonville in November.

The darkroom got its start four years ago when photographer Michael Wilson approached Jason Franz, the founding executive director of Manifest Gallery, with the idea. Wilson had inherited six enlargers as darkrooms were shutting down and wanted them to have a next life. Franz was immediately on board. He’d always taught drawing not just as a way to make a picture, but as a means of learning to see. “I thought photography was similar as a process, and wanted to see the two explored in parallel,” he says. Two years later, the Drawing Center had grown enough to require a dedicated staffer. They nabbed Kate Cunningham (above) for the role, who conveniently holds multiple photography degrees. Things began to roll on the darkroom.

In addition to open lab four nights each week, there will be introductory and intermediate classes, plus visiting artists. The Drawing Center’s setup allows for what Cunningham calls horizontal learning—a community develops and mutual instruction naturally occurs. They’re also running a 16-week course for high school students, a pilot project for the Ohio Arts Council and Ohio Civil Rights Commission, “using photography as a form of social—or personal—voice,” says Cunningham.

But why invest in an analog technology? “Why draw with graphite and charcoal?” says Franz. “The analog [does something] to the artist. It involves time and your body in ways that digital divorces people from.” Besides: You get an actual object.

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