Analog is Back: Piney Woods Darkroom Launches for Film Photographers and Artists

📷 all photos by Jamie Maldonado

Photographer Jamie Maldonado has launched a new nonprofit, Piney Woods Darkroom

The public darkroom will allow East Texans to use camera equipment, process analog photos and make and show their art. Maldonado, a professional photographer and the nonprofit’s founder, said analog photography is not a thing of the past, nor a fleeting trend.

“Film photography, traditional darkroom printing and cyanotype … are alive and well in 2023 and show no signs of slowing down,” Maldonado said. 

He envisions a space to provide darkroom access, instruction, peer collaboration and expensive, hard-to-come-by equipment. 

Born and raised in Kilgore, Maldonado began his career under the mentorship of O. Rufus Lovett of Kilgore College. Maldonado laments that nowadays, public community darkrooms are virtually nonexistent in East Texas. 

Meanwhile, former photography students, artists and hobbyists continue to seek resources and inspiration.

“There’s everything from curious housewives to retired dentists to the typical student. People come in who are not connected to the arts at all,” Maldonado said. “Then, they discover this whole new world and a whole new part of themselves and this new form of expression.”

Piney Woods Darkroom has amassed photography equipment for its community darkroom and studio.

Britt Pugh, a Tyler painter who focuses on large-scale contemporary abstract pieces and a member of the Piney Woods Darkroom’s board of directors, agrees that analog photography in East Texas is growing. 

“The film community is growing in such a huge way, especially in younger people. We definitely have a very vibrant art community within Tyler,” Pugh said. 

“We have this big energy of painters, artists and photographers doing heavy levels of creation here, but there’s just not many opportunities to show that and bring people together.”

Maldonado’s generation and career have provided him a unique opportunity to appreciate digital and analog photography side by side.

Born in 1980, he calls himself a  Xennial – a Generation X-Millenial hybrid. “I grew up with a black and white TV as a really young child, but also I was a child the first time I was on the internet,” he said. “I am not afraid of technology, but I know how to use a rotary phone,” Maldonado said. 

For photographer Ransom Jarvis, 23, the entrée into film photography was its novelty. 

“I had disposable cameras when I was a kid and I always loved it for the kitschiness of it; the nostalgia – the ability to send off a roll and a couple of weeks later you get to hold something,” he said.

Jarvis said the Piney Woods Darkroom is needed for film photographers, because the tools can be expensive and the process requires precision. 

Jarvis knows Maldonado as a primary source for photographers in East Texas. 

Photographer Jamie Maldonado envisions an artistic film photos space where novices to professionals can share and learn.

“Anybody that shoots film in the East Texas area eventually comes into contact with Jamie. He’s kind of like the grandfather of the film community in town, and that’s not an age thing,” Jarvis said.

“He is a total wizard when it comes to whether it’s actually shooting film and doing photography or whether it’s the developing chemistry side. Most of all, he’s been extremely encouraging.

Maldonado recalls the joys of professional digital photography, including the ability to take 5,000 photos at a wedding. But he also notes the challenges of digital work. “You sit down to edit 5, 000 photos. You do that a hundred times, and you never want to do it again,” he said.

Maldonado said digital photography also puts unique stresses on a photographer’s body. 

“Spending 15 years hunched over Photoshop can be really damaging:  headaches, eye strain, back aches, joint aches, all kinds of problems.”

He welcomes the variety film photography – when environmentally sustainable – can offer, while recognizing the benefits of both methods. “Film is a lot more thoughtful. Your pace is better. You’re spending less time staring at your screen,” Maldonado said. “It’s 2023. We can do both: we can walk and chew gum.”

Maldonado said artists and everyday viewers can appreciate aspects of analog photography. “Untrained eyes won’t know about shallow depth of field or the resolution, but they’ll still have an emotional impact from it,” he said. 

The Piney Woods Darkroom awaits funding for a permanent location. Maldonado envisions a building with a film processing room, a black and white printing room, a color printing room and a communal space for discussing and hanging art.

Maldonado said digital photography’s precise documentation gives film photography a wide berth to explore expression.

Pugh imagines what Piney Woods Darkroom could be in East Texas.

“In its prime, it could be this hub with people feeding off of each other, waiting for their turn to use the darkroom and people coming in, just curious about cameras.

“We would have a wall of cameras and someone’s explaining them. And then, watching people begin to get it – there’s a magic when artists and photographers are around other people. Your creativity feeds off of them,” Pugh said.

Similarly, Jarvis looks forward to a welcoming public darkroom. 

“I want it to be a space where anybody can come in, even if they have no experience – no matter what they look like, what sort of orientation they are, what any of their background is,” he said.

Piney Woods Darkroom is still searching for a permanent location. Maldonado envisions a building with a film processing room, a black and white printing room, a color printing room and a communal space for discussing and hanging art. His $10,000 fundraising goal is about 30% realized through donations made through the nonprofit’s website and through IndieGoGo.

Maldonado said community  film photography in East Texas is well within reach. “It’s thriving, it’s available and attainable. It’s not too expensive, it’s not out of reach, it’s not too hard,” he said.

Maldonado said he has considered his life and career if he lived in a metropolitan area with more photography resources. Then, he rethinks his connection to East Texas.

“Why should I be the one who leaves? Maldonado mused.

“Why do all the creative people have to be the ones to do without?

“I want to be one of the ones who can stay and maybe give the people here a chance to build something.”

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Jane Neal is the executive director of The Tyler Loop and storytelling director of Out of the Loop: True Stories about Tyler and East Texas. In addition to the Loop, she works at the Literacy Council of Tyler and attends Sam Houston State University remotely, where she studies sociology. Jane is a certified interfaith spiritual guide. She is a member of Leadership Tyler Class 33 and a former teacher of French at Robert E. Lee High School, where she ran a storytelling program called Senior Stories. Jane and her husband Don have four children.