A large-format photography studio and darkroom inside a vintage camper

Katherine Fugit owns and operates a large-format photography studio and darkroom inside a vintage camper. She runs it with her husband Conan and call it Lamphouse Photo Co. Since last June they have been traveling around their hometown of Wichita, KS taking 4×5 black-and-white portraits with our Burke & James Saturn 75 camera and developing them by hand using a paper negative process, on-site in about 10 minutes.

The Lamphouse Photo company vintage van

The Lamphouse Photo company vintage van

Note

Since the article was published (and added to our Facebook group) lots of people have sent in pictures of their portable darkrooms, so, agree, the headline was a bit of an overstatement, to see more portable darkrooms, take a look in our Facebook group. Thanks for sharing! :-)

What is it that you do?

Katherine Fugit: We take and develop 4×5 black-and-white photographs inside of a vintage camper using a paper negative process. The front two-thirds of our camper have been converted into a large-format photography studio complete with lights, a backdrop, and our camera, a Burke & James Saturn 75.

The back third of the camper is our darkroom and contains an enlarger, developing trays, wash station, and a print dryer. We are available to rent for weddings, private parties, company events and pretty much anything else where a one-of-a-kind photography experience is needed!

Portrait of Conan Fugit taken with the same process as they use inside the van.

Portrait of Conan Fugit taken with the same process as they use inside the van.

What is your background, before you started this project?

Katherine Fugit: Conan first started snapping pictures in 1989 with his blue Fischer Price 110 camera, and has worked in a few different photo labs and retail stores for the past 15 years, currently working at Wichita’s oldest family-owned camera store, Moler’s Camera. I have a background in customer service.

Portrait of Katherine Fugit taken with the same process as they use inside the van.

Portrait of Katherine Fugit.

“It’s been a terrific way to meet lots of people and share our little piece of alternative photography with the public. To date, we’ve taken and developed almost 500 portraits and we’re gearing up for our second season on the road right now.”

How does it all work?

Katherine Fugit: We advertise by word of mouth and by taking the camper to various public events around town (art crawls, street fairs, etc.) Our customers at public events range from empty-nesters to young couples and everything in between. We’ve even taken pictures of a few pets!

Our private rental customers are usually skewed toward the younger end of the spectrum and they’ve asked for us to take pictures at themed/costume events, fundraisers, and wedding receptions. We’ve gotten several unique requests and one bride is even using our portraits as “thank you’s” for her wedding guests.

The darkroom

The darkroom

How does your photographic process work? Do you do it all in the van?

Katherine Fugit: We do the entire process, start to finish, inside of our 1967 Conestoga travel trailer (or caravan if you prefer). When a customer comes to one of our private or public events, they step inside the studio portion of the camper and have a seat in front of the backdrop.

Conan asks them to strike and hold a pose, then he ducks under the hood behind the camera and focuses by looking through the ground glass on the back of our Burke & James Saturn 75 large-format camera. He takes negative holder loaded with paper, inserts it into the back of the camera then releases the shutter, taking a picture. He then removes the negative holder, flips it to the other side and repeats the process to take another picture.

The Lamphouse Studio Co

The Lamphouse Studio Co

After two photos have been taken, he slips the negative holder into a light-tight box that passes through into the darkroom. From there, I take the two paper negatives and develop them. I use the enlarger to make a contact print from that negative and then I develop the print using the same process as I used to develop the negative.

When the prints are complete, I run them through the print dryer and then slip them back into the transfer box between the studio and the darkroom along with the re-loaded negative holder. Conan takes the prints, puts them in a branded envelope and puts them outside to be picked up by their owners. The entire process takes between 10 and 15 minutes start to finish

Do things occasionally go wrong?

Putting a studio and darkroom inside of an old camper means that there are always going to be problems and there’s no instruction manual for how to fix them. We’ve pulled up to events and been three inches from the outlet that our longest extension cord could reach, we’ve forgotten chemistry, we’ve had our wash station inadequately remove the fixer from prints, and the list goes on and on. We’ve also had a lot of great times though, and getting to share such a unique photography experience with people outweighs any drawback.



5 Comments

  1. Posted March 24, 2014 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    Check out http://thephotopalace.blogspot.com – this darkroom in a 35ft bus has been running and providing art education for over 2 years now.

  2. Posted March 24, 2014 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    Not even close to the only one in the world . Far from it . Sorry guys . Fact check please .

  3. Posted March 24, 2014 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    Not the world’s only or first — there have been many campers, vans, u-hauls, motorbikes, ambulances, etc. converted for use as large-format (including wet plate collodion) mobile darkrooms long before this. Research your claims before making them.

  4. Posted March 25, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Yes, you guys are quite right… I’ve updated the article:

    Since the article was published (and added to our Facebook group) lots of people have sent in pictures of their portable darkrooms, so, agree, the headline was a bit of an overstatement, to see more portable darkrooms, take a look in our Facebook group. Thanks for sharing! :-)

  5. Posted March 25, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    First I should probably apologize if anyone feels that we’re stepping on anyone’s toes or failing to acknowledge the hard work of others. Truly we’re a part of a community of people that strives to bring these older mediums to the public and continue the traditions of photography that are sadly falling by the wayside.

    We are certainly not the only camper or bus with a darkroom in it, nor are we the only ones with a studio inside of one. There’s a long history of mobile darkrooms stretching back to the dawn of photography and continuing right up to the present day. In fact, traveling darkrooms and studios were commonplace in parts of the Great Plains up through at least the 1960s, and many of our customers have shared fond memories of them with us. I even have a 1930s era photo manual sitting next to my computer that describes how one might construct and operate a darkroom inside of a camper (wish I would have had this when I was building ours). And it wasn’t uncommon to find a mobile studio and darkroom set up in a shipping container at county fairs up through the 1980s. They were even processing 4×5 film negatives in about the time that we do with our paper negative, but they were cooking that stuff almost to destruction.

    So yes, we are fully aware of the existence of many other mobile darkrooms, and I congratulate their ingenuity, diligence, and respect for these art forms. We took our inspiration, however, from what are now popularly known as Afghan Box Cameras. As many of you already know, this is a camera that contains trays of chemistry for developing paper negatives by hand to produce ID-photos on the street in parts of the developing world; although, at one time photographers worked the same way producing tourist snapshots all over the world. We decided to simply scale it up, and move the subject, the photographer, and darkroom technician inside of the box.

    So are we the only ones with a darkroom and studio inside of a camper? No, absolutely not. But as far as we can tell, we are the only ones in the world using this same process to produce portraits rapidly, almost like a photo booth, and for a small price. We are a business, we are not an educational service, nor are we a producer of fine art. So yes, we are different from the other campers and buses out there, and until we see someone foolish enough to do what we’re doing, we will probably still be the only ones.

    Thank you for your comments and support, and thank you for reading. Maybe we’ll see you on the road someday.

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