Saito Hisao

Dark Room International

While many think the demise of Kodak will mark the death knell of print photography, devoted film enthusiasts continue to give the niche viability. Black-and-white photography in particular seems to have holding power, in part because the development process doesn’t generally require professional equipment. In the Kanto area, B&W photography gets a further boost from Dark Room International, a non-profit outfit with its own public dark room that supports photography culture. Located in Yokohama’s historic Noge district, the birthplace of photography in Japan, Dark Room International is the brainchild of Saito Hisao.

“I was a professional photographer who loved B&W, so much so that I wanted my own darkroom—a big one. I figured that if I built one, I might as well make it big enough to attract other photographers to whom I could lend it out. I searched around Japan for a model to base it on but discovered that none existed! There were of course university darkrooms, but nothing open to the general public. A professor told me that there were good examples in America so I traveled first to New York where I visited the International Center of Photography to take some notes. I sought out others in New York as well as in Los Angeles. I eventually decided to base mine on one I discovered in L.A. The ones in New York offered private rooms, while in L.A. it was one big community room with enlargers. I launched Dark Room International in 1999 on my return to Japan.

“I was a professional photographer at the time, primarily doing shoots for magazine advertisements. I had saved up quite a sum of money over the years and was contemplating buying a Benz. It was that or the dark room and in the end I gave up on the Benz and poured everything into the equipment and the space.

“At the time it wasn’t an NPO, but a division of my company, K-Photo Service. In the beginning, nobody came. Then Asahi Newspaper wrote an article about me, announcing the opening of the first public rental dark room. Twenty people showed up that day! Thereafter, news of our work spread primarily via word of mouth.

“It took two years for it to become profitable, after which time I turned it into an NPO. During those difficult first few years, we’d get lots of prank calls from people who just wanted to tell me how stupid I was, because digital was on the rise at the time. Most of them were professionals in the digital camera industry. I used digital in my professional work, so I could kind of understand their angle, but I wanted the art of analog to live on.”

Dark Room International is now well established with over 800 members. It receives cooperative support from such noteworthy photographers as Hosoe Eiko, and from organizations like Magnum and the Photographic Society of Japan. This past winter, the Dark Room International hosted the Yokohama Photo Festival, a huge event to mark 150 years since Shimo’oka Renjo opened Japan’s first photography studio in Noge, Yokohama. The four-day festival brought photographers from all over the world and Japan, and will become an annual event to celebrate photography culture, whether analog or digital. Still, Saito believes B&W analog commands the most charm.

“When you take away the color, you can begin to see the true nature of your subject. And when it is your own print, there is more enjoyment. Take this simple analogy: you can drink beer from a cup, but if it is yakimono (kiln-fired wares) that you’ve made on your own, you’ll appreciate that cup more, as well as the beer. And like yakimono, you can’t ever make the exact same print twice. It’s unique.

“You see the world differently when you’re shooting with film. You see more. It’s because mistakes are less easily forgiven on film. It demands more from you. And by using film, your technique will improve. I know pros that only use digital. And I know pros that have also learned all the techniques of film. When you compare their digital work, you’ll see: the ones who know analog are just that much better.

Although membership at the Dark Room International is increasing, Saito admits that overall usage is declining because of digital. He also reveals that, ironically, usage bottomed out right after the 3-11 disaster in Tohoku because people were practicing “restraint” (jishuku). What better time to be reminded of the importance of loved ones and to take pictures? Luckily, usage has bounced back this year and he believes the overall decline will level out as the organization connects with true believes.

Dark Room International opens its doors to all. Two other friendly staff who run the facility for Saito will teach newcomers all the necessary techniques, from shooting to printing. Start to finish, the photograph is completely yours.








Dark Room International

Address 住所:
Naka-ku, Hanasaki-cho 1-41-1-2F
Tel/Fax: 045-261-7654

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