A few months ago, Dave Christensen, director of the Harvey Milk Photo Center, was at his desk when the chairman of Leica Camera dropped in unexpectedly to tour this unique community facility he had heard about all the way back in Wetzlar, Germany.
By the time Christensen had composed himself and entered the main lobby to meet this exalted international figure, Andreas Kaufmann was breathing deeply of the chemical air. Christensen knew exactly what to do — escort the Leica chief and his friends into the darkroom, where the aroma is even more intense.
“To him, the smell was like somebody baking a cinnamon roll,” recalls Christensen, proudly. “He said he had never seen a darkroom that large.” The Photo Center darkroom, which opened in 1953, is probably the biggest, and certainly the oldest, public darkroom in the nation. There is room for 40 photographers to work at once, turning raw film into frameable prints, and the amazing thing is that this technological time warp is in demand like never before.
“A generation that grew up on digital and never touched film is experiencing the magical process of traditional darkroom printing for the first time,” says Christensen. “People are shooting in digital, creating a negative and going into the darkroom to make a print.”
The photo center has all the digital scanners, too, but that is not what has kept this place going for 75 years. Since the day it opened, at a different location, in 1940, the Photo Center has been a place where anyone could come in with a camera loaded with film, pay a nominal membership fee, and walk back out with a finished print.
If you don’t have a camera, they will loan you one. If you don’t know how to work the camera they loan you, there are classes to get you through processing film, running it through the enlarger and making prints. If the resulting work is good enough, they will even show it in a group or solo exhibition in the gallery.
“I think it is a goddamned miracle that something like this exists in this town,” says photographer Fred Lyon, 90, who has been shooting the streets of San Francisco since 1946 and finally earned a solo show at the Photo Center a few months ago. “It is beautifully equipped, and the whole staff is enthusiastic and encouraging in presenting photography at all levels, which is another miracle.”
Though Christensen has been unable to locate a photographer who has been using the Photo Center for all of its 75 years, he knows one who has been using it for 55. He is documentarian Jeff Blankfort, 80 of whose images, spanning 50 years, will hang in the lobby, the gallery and the hallway connecting them starting Sept. 12.
“Without the Photo Center, I would not have had a photographic career, because there would have been no place for me to develop my film, print my pictures and teach myself photography,” says Blankfort, 81, by phone from the ranch where he lives near Ukiah.
When Blankfort first found the place, in 1960, he was a hobbyist who worked a desk job in San Rafael by day and commuted to the Photo Center by night, working in the darkroom until it closed at 10 p.m.
“The Photo Center is unique in the United States,” says Blankfort, who paid $6 for his first six-month membership. Now it costs $62 for six months and $6 each time a member uses the place. Membership with unlimited usage is $155 for six months. But price is not a barrier to entry because membership is at an all-time high of 1,300.
The Photo Center is owned by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. Director Christensen and his instructors are all Rec and Park employees.
“Its alumni is like a who’s who of San Francisco photography,” says Lyon. One of those alums was the late Harvey Milk, whom the place was named for after it was remodeled and upgraded to digital as part of a $12 million building upgrade in 2009.
The Harvey Milk Photo Center is a department within the Harvey Milk Center for the Recreational Arts. The main entrance is on Scott Street. But if you go around back, the Photo Center has its own entrance, through glass double doors decorated with photographs. People in Duboce Park see the sign and come up to peer through the glass.
The next step is through those doors. Then they can smell the chemicals of film development and they’re hooked, just like Kaufmann of Leica.
“There is nothing else like it that I am aware of,” says Christensen.
Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @samwhitingsf
Jeff Blankfort: 60 Years Behind the Camera: Sept. 12-Oct. 25.Harvey Milk Photo Center, 50 Scott St., S.F. www.harveymilkphotocenter.org.
Video: Take a tour of the Photo Center with Dave Christensen at: http://sfg.ly/1PCxQnf.