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Destined for the darkroom

Sunday, May 20th, 2012 | Posted by



Michael Hilton owns Mike's Darkroom in Santa Rosa. He does photography in black and white with film and prints on photo paper. His dog Nnamdi is a constant companion. (Jeff Kan Lee / PD)

Today’s generation of photographers may have replaced film rolls with memory cards and processing trays with computer software, but the imaging industry has not digitally swayed every shutterbug including Santa Rosa photographer Michael Hilton.

Hilton, 58, runs and operates Mike’s Dark Room, a traditional black-and-white film shop tucked behind Valley Plastics and The Smog Center at 968 Piner Road, Suite E. The shop offers an intimate space for old-school enthusiasts to process and print their undeveloped spools of film into uniquely crafted works of art for an amazingly low $6 per hour.

Without a single piece of digital equipment in his workstation, Hilton’s business is the last of its kind in Sonoma County and one of only a few remaining in California. While the darkroom doesn’t receive a great deal of business, since it opened in 2006 Hilton has continued to engage a variety of amateurs, hobbyists and professional artists from all across the North Bay.

“I would imagine almost any other darkroom throughout the state or country is going to have a digital aspect to it nowadays,” Hilton said. “It’s an arcane process, which I do only because I enjoy the craft.”

Since the upsurge in digital sales, roll film and film camera companies have suffered enormous blows in sales, perhaps epitomized most last January when film giant Eastman-Kodak filed for bankruptcy. According to the Photo Marketing Association, Americans purchased close to a billion rolls of film a little more than a decade ago. Today that figure peaks around a meager 20 million.

But for Hilton, the idea to open a film shop held no real interest as a plan to make money; rather, what motivated and led him to create the darkroom was the constant desire to do something he loved.

Growing up as a teenager during the late 1960s in El Cajon, a small city outside San Diego, Hilton shot most of his first pictures with color transparency film. Many of the photos he recalls compiling into slideshows, then synchronizing music from a tape recorder to the reel of images fading in and out on his film projector.

After high school, he joined the Coast Guard and left California to work in the Hawaiian Islands. Between military discounts on camera equipment and the picturesque landscapes, Hilton said his time in the service truly enabled him to develop as a photographer.

When he returned home he enrolled at San Diego State University and received a degree in anthropology. In his studies his camerawork continued, visually documenting animal behavior at the San Diego Zoo, but his passion for photography seemed more and more to have waned from his life.

“There was a certain letting go,” he said. “The love for photography was still there, but my path was with something else.”

By the mid-’90s, he had given away all his camera equipment and for the next several years didn’t shoot a single image. With a longing for change he said goodbye to his childhood stomping grounds and moved to Berkeley to experience what it was like to live in a bustling city of artists and thinkers.

“It was a great time in my life,” Hilton said. “For a solid 10 years I did nothing but write poetry, smoke cigarettes and hang out in cafes.”

After a while, city life had come to wear him down. Ready to live at a slower pace, he graced the city streets one last time and left for Santa Rosa where a friend from Berkeley had just relocated to.

But over the years the notion that he’d withdrawn a lot from the social community grew in his mind. One day to get himself out of the house he decided to buy a film camera and photograph people around town.

“As soon as I had the camera in my hands it just sparked that old love again,” Hilton said. “So I started to flirt with the idea, wouldn’t it be great if I had my own space where I could do this. Then I thought, I’m entering the last third of my life, why don’t I just do what makes me happy and see what happens.”

Just as Hilton started his search for a workplace a friend mentioned that her father had an unused corner in his building. Days later, he arranged a deal with the owner and then went to constructing the darkroom.

Piece by piece, he accumulated enlargers, trays and a slew of film gear until the darkroom grew to a fully functional outfit. Hilton even has his own shop dog, a mix of Australian cattle shepherd and Rhodesian ridgeback named Nnamdi, who according to Hilton is always the star of the show.

Framed on the walls a few of Hilton’s prints stand on display. While his work dabbles in black-and-white landscape and architectural details, he’s found his greatest strength in portrait photography. The work he’s created comes from a life spent enchanted with the art of legendary photographers from Ansell Adams and Edward Weston to Paul Strand and Eugene Smith.Because he never duplicates any of his pictures, each print is unique unto itself. Of the countless images he’s developed each tells a different story captured by light.For Hilton, many of the photographs speak to the serendipity that comes through hard work.

“But it isn’t the image so much as the process,” he said. “There’s a tactile experience and garage mentality to the craft that can also have the same kind of mindfulness as a Japanese Tea Ceremony.” He added, “As I get older, I see things more in shades of gray than black-and-white.”

Of all those who use Hilton’s shop, he particularly enjoys conversing with high school and college students, who he’s able to offer a sense of photography free of institutional constraints.

“The shop can be an example that if you want to do your art you can, but you have to let go of a lot,” Hilton said. “And it’s not always easy, but I have so much freedom to do what I want and that’s why I started the darkroom, to live this way.”

Hilton is open to contract work on a case by case basis, but offers no drop-off or standard developing services. To contact Hilton, call 578-3484 or to learn more, go to www.mikesdarkroom.com.

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Ann Hutchinson is our Santa Rosa correspondent.
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