A photo studio in Clapton is dreaming of taking on the UK academic system. As Double Negative Dark Room celebrates its five year anniversary, we speak to founder Sebastian Sussmann about what the future holds for his business
Like most business owners, Sebastian Sussmann’s inspiration for what is now a growing photo enterprise, the Double Negative Dark Room (DNDR), stems from humble roots.
“When I was living in Gothenburg, in Sweden, a friend of mine ran a small wedding photography business. It also had a darkroom which was shared with the public,” Sussmann tells us. “When I started business in the Wick in 2009, that studio was my initial inspiration.”
Sussmann is referring here to DNDR’s original incarnation: a 20 square metre room in Hackney Wick’s Peanut Factory. Back then, DNDR existed as a single dark room with two enlargers. Tacked onto the back was a small lightroom. Compared to what it is today, it’s clear that Sussmann has shown a fair amount of entrepreneurial savvy, despite his own modest description of the place as “pretty much washing its own face.”
Sussmann opened the studio in August of 2009, offering fine art printing and a little bit of teaching on the side. “I did a few darkroom courses and some art process sessions, and it became evident very quickly that I needed more space. I wanted to hire out the darkroom, but it would have meant that I’d be out of work for the day,” Sussmann explains. “In 2010, a friend of mine showed me the Glyn Road Studios in Clapton. I’d been living on Chatsworth Road for 10 years and I didn’t even know it existed!”
With more space at its disposal, DNDR was able to establish its tutorial function, where people could come and learn their way around the photographer’s darkroom, outside of traditional academic settings. Now students come from across the globe to take part in DNDR’s courses.
“The first person from outside the studios that I invited to teach was John Brewer, an already-established artist who works with historical photographic processes. He loved the space I had at Glyn Road, and slowly we were able to grow the number of courses. In 2012, we ran just three or four, but in 2013, we did a full series of eight courses. We’re planning to repeat this in 2014 and 2015.”
DNDR’s reputation has grown to the point where tutors are now knocking at the door to put on their own classes in the space – but in order to maintain its status as a high-quality teaching institute, Sussmann will only accept tutors that fulfil certain criteria. Namely, they must be a specialist in their field, and either use this specialism in their professional practice or be doing serious research into it. “We are building a network of very interesting tutors at the moment, including some who currently teach at universities.”
The ambition is that one day those university lecturers who teach the odd class at DNDR might consider taking on a full semester of teaching at the studios. “Right now, DNDR is a complement to traditional academic teaching. A lot of students who are studying fine art or photography degrees are coming to us for the teaching they can’t get at school,” Sussmann says. “What I’d like to become is an alternative to the traditional arts school – a much bigger institution than we are now.”
Again inspired by Swedish business culture, Sussmann’s ideal institution would encourage a far greater degree of collaboration between students and teachers, doing away with typical hierarchies and establishing a more egalitarian environment.
“I also want the education to be collaborative – almost as if the students are assistants to their tutors. The tutors should also be enablers, which is exactly how I try to teach. As an enabler, I want to give someone the space to do whatever it is they want to do,” Sussmann explains. “I ask my students to bring me images they like, so we can teach them how to create that same narrative. There’s no judgement on aesthetics – it’s all about technique, it’s practical.”
When it comes to practical experience, Sussmann’s opinion is that art students are currently being left in the dark, focussing more on abstract theory instead, and he wonders if DNDR can fill some of these knowledge gaps. “There are a few universities in the UK where you can combine the study of photography with chemistry. To me, that’s bonkers. How can you be teaching photography without having somebody showing the students who are passionate how to grind glass, how to build camera threads? How can there not be that practical association?”
Sussmann believes that if a student is interested in, for example, the chemistry behind their photography, then they should have the freedom to collaborate with a specialist in that field – a chemist – in order to experiment with new developing agents or to recreate historic development methods. “I just don’t see that being widely available to students at the moment. At DNDR, we encourage experimentation with unlikely processes – we ask that our students don’t poison the darkroom, but otherwise they are free to do whatever they want. That’s rare in terms of renting darkrooms. If we were bigger, we could get a chemist on staff and really encourage our students to research and rediscover these techniques.”
“Right now, DNDR is a complement to traditional academic teaching. What I’d like to become is an alternative; much bigger than we are now.”
Combining practical skills with the study of artistic photography is something that Sussmann craves for DNDR’s future, and there are almost endless avenues through which this could be explored.
Sussmann recalls teaching his father, a physicist, how to take pinhole photos with a Nikon DSLR. “He was getting frustrated about the way it worked, so he sat down, figured it out, and then sent me a powerpoint presentation: Pinhole from First Principles. I thought it was brilliant. We don’t just need chemists, we should be getting physicists who understand optics in and out, we should have metal workers coming to teach students how to make camera parts, and more. That practical knowledge is getting lost.”
Getting a diverse range of tutors on the books is not something that will come cheaply, and DNDR will need to address its current funding situation in order to achieve this goal. When the studios opened in 2009, arts funding budgets were closely guarded, and since the beginning the business has relied exclusively on private funding. Initially, this was from Sussmann’s savings and some family investment, and now through members and enrollment fees. “This is a five to 10 year plan, and we would need to get external funding,” Sussmann concedes. “But I don’t want state funding, I’m keen to keep the investment private.”
With private investment on the cards, Sussmann thinks the key to expanding DNDR’s capabilities will be to preserve and enhance the core values that the business currently embodies: practice, education and research. “We wouldn’t allow private investment to stifle this. We’d make it very clear that the only investment available would be into the research arm of the studios.”
Any money coming in to fund research would be used to simultaneously encourage entrepreneurship among DNDR’s students. The goal is to create a venture capital-type scenario for the investor, whereby they are able to invest in any start-ups that emerge from DNDR, with the hope of nurturing a few that are successful. “The institution would provide teaching, collaboration and the opportunity for the students to create businesses. DNDR would allow the students to be brave and experiment in an environment which is also a safe place to fail,” Sussmann elaborates. “Nineteen out of twenty ideas might be unsuccessful, but the one that works is what will keep the investors hooked.”
After all, even if only of one in 20 of your big ideas works, you might just end up with something like Double Negative Dark Room.
Words by Sarah Drumm