The Dark Room Project

When I dropped out of the Frost Centre’s Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies program in 2009, I had no idea I would eventually be living and breathing my subject matter, sharing it with the wider community in a way I hadn’t imagined was even possible.

After a fruitless year of theorizing and writing in circles, I put aside my MA thesis examining the cultural impact of the Roy Studio Images’ acquisition by the Peterborough Museum and Archives with some relief. I had found art, or rather, art had found (and saved) me. I loved working in the arts and I didn’t regret leaving school for a minute. But eventually art led me back to my own history, the very roots of that thesis project, and into creating an art gallery and photography collective in the historic Roy Studio building I had once studied.

The Balsillie Collection of Roy Studio Images is both a regional and national archival treasure (on par with only a half dozen image collections of similar size and scope), and the building which housed that treasure for nine decades is now a designated heritage property. It’s also still a functioning commercial property, with a photography studio on the main floor and residential tenants on the second. Above that is the Gallery in the Attic and now The Darkroom Project.

The Roy Family occupied the photographic studio at 140 Hunter in downtown Peterborough for three generations, saving nearly every image made between 1896 and 1992. The building dates back to 1856, less than two decades after photography’s invention. It was built as a photographic apparatus, with skylights and studios designed around photographic production in the pre-electric era. It also houses the longest continuously operating darkroom in Canada (1856-2010). And now, after a brief hiatus, the ‘Roy Studio darkroom’ has been reopened.

However, rather than the space being the sole domain of one commercial photography studio, we have brought together a dedicated group of analog enthusiasts and film artists to form The Darkroom Project – a collective aimed at creating a space for the production, demonstration, and exhibition of hand-printed, film-based, fine art photography.

The space has been secured based on initial membership fees, and thanks to the generous donations of equipment from the community, and many hours of time donated by members, we have been able to re-establish a functioning black-and-white wet darkroom in one of the oldest existing darkrooms in the nation. It is the same place where the most expansive visual record of Peterborough was created.

In keeping with the community spirit that rallied to preserve the Roy Studio Images as an intact archive, and the spirit of generosity that moved the likes of Jim Balsillie of Blackberry to purchase the entire collection and donate it to the City of Peterborough, we’re appealing to that same spirit, to help us create a publicly accessible, world-class analog darkroom— a living history site for contemporary photographic production. We hope that with enough public support, including our upcoming Indiegogo campaign (launching April 1) and ongoing grant applications, we will be able to build and maintain a library of equipment, and gradually expand the range of photographic production options available. The Darkroom Project will be available to all interested members of the community.

If you’d like more information on the project, or to become a member, please email or call 705.740.1162 or visit us in person, 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday at 140 ½ Hunter Street West, Peterborough. Just look for the Roy Studio mosaic in the doorway and keep going up.

Elizabeth Fennell is a Trent & Fleming graduate who lives and works on Hunter Street. She likes making good news happen.