After fifteen years as a local institution, the Denver Darkroom calls it quits
Standish Lawder is not a fan of digital photography. Part of it has to do with his personal preference: A 75-year-old former pre-med major who switched to art history after taking a fateful humanities class and went on to earn a Ph.D. in it, Lawder has a mind that just sees things in film -- the chemistry of it, the mechanical simplicity of the process -- and probably always will. "Art is the culmination of the eye and the hand working together," he declares. "Opening the computer isn't the same thing any which way. I just don't regard it as art-making."
But therein lies the rub, because tomorrow, it's putting him out of business -- which will be sad for him, but even sadder for Denver.
For Lawder, things could be worse; he'll be packing it in and moving to Petaluma, California, where his daughter, an E.R. doctor, and his grandchildren live. "It's a nice place," he offers. "You've got the ocean on one side and the mountains on the other. I see it as opening a new chapter in my life. It's been a fantastic one here, but I'm moving on."
And indeed, it has been fantastic: a project started out of love and almost on a whim with just the right guy to grow it into something grand. Before settling in Denver in 1996, Lawder had spent his career a teacher at schools with serious pedigrees -- Harvard and Yale -- retiring from University of California San Diego as the head of the art department. But after moving to Denver, Lawder found that he was just not done teaching yet, and so the Darkroom was born, with Lawder teaching a few classes out of his studio and living space at 26th and Larimer streets.
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Word spread, more photographers signed up for the classes and the Darkroom grew until it had outgrown those digs. A few years after opening, Lawder -- with a little help from friends like Yoko Ono, who, almost randomly, sent him a check for $20,000 to see the project through -- picked up and moved to the Darkroom's current space at 40th and Tejon, which afforded the operation a gallery space, a beautiful back-yard garden for events and an entire basement to use for the actual darkroom.
And as the digital revolution took hold (in a weird coincidence, the year the Darkroom started was the same year the first digital cameras were made massively available for public consumption), Lawder's devotion to film was unwavering. "I had my first darkroom at age nine," he explains, "and I was always most interested in working with the images than I was with capturing them." And when the main attraction is the darkroom, you don't have much use for a camera that doesn't require one.
"A few years ago," Lawder reflects, "you could go down to the basement and find it full of people, hanging out and working together, and that was a pleasure -- it's just an experience in a way that digital is strictly not. People learn a lot from working together, from being in each other's company. And now, poof, that's gone."
The Denver Darkroom gets one last hoorah tomorrow from 5 to10 p.m. at 4037 Tejon, with a lineup of local artists and musicians paying tribute to Lawder. For more information, call the Darkroom at 303-298-0164.
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