Josh Ryan got his start developing film in his bathroom, with all the lights off, and a towel shoved under the door.
His first time developing out of that environment was in The Gateway‘s “dark room” — which was filled with dirty dishes and had been converted to a lunch room about a decade prior. The results were suboptimal.
“What a nightmare it was,” Ryan laughed. “The film was caked in, like dust and Dorito bits, just whatever was floating around in that room.”
Despite the imperfect “dark room” situation (we are cleaner now, we promise?), it served as a good lesson for how film photography, despite its challenges, can foster community.
“A shockingly good way to bond with someone: give them a really frustrating, tedious activity and make them stand a foot away from you in the dark,” Ryan remembered.
Ryan is now a member of the Stratus collective, where they have been developing a new film scanning and developing service in Edmonton: Stratus Photo*Lab. Stratus is both an Edmonton-based print journal and a collective of photographers and artists that are committed to hosting experiential art events.
Ryan said that for him, his interest in film photography started with a Pentax SLR, and he quickly fell in love with the multi-step process associated with it.
“Pretty quickly, I was bulk rolling film, from 100-foot canisters into little individual canisters, shooting the film, developing the film myself, and then scanning the film myself.”
If you don’t want to develop yourself, options in Edmonton are somewhat limited. There’s McBain and London Drugs, but for many local photographers, the place to go was DC Photolabs, which Ryan described as “kind of a hidden gem.”
But due the challenges of operating a photography business during a pandemic and a couple additional factors, DC Photolabs had to shut down December 2021. Fellow Stratus member Kasun Medagedara, got Ryan to sign a card thanking the owner of DC Photolabs for his service to Edmonton’s photo community and the two got to talking about what it would take to set up a similar operation.
“I kind of bragged about how easy it would be to do it a completely different way,” Ryan said, explaining that the analogue equipment used for developing was expensive, often broken, and difficult to source parts for. “And [Medagedara] called my bluff, and he’s like, ‘okay, do you think you could write up what it would take to get that done?'”
One of the first steps was finding a space they could operate in. For a long time, Ryan thought it would be in his basement, but once the logistics of removing dust came into play, he realized that wasn’t going to work. But it wasn’t long before an alternative space opened up, Ryan explained.
“[Medagedara] reached out and said ‘hey, I’m thinking about buying a house.’ And I said, ‘hey, that’s insane. Okay, where? How much?'”
The house became the home for Stratus Photo*lab and had its fair share of unique traits, Ryan said. “It’s quirky, a kind of Winchester house, like you can’t get to the second floor from the main floor.”
When asked about how Stratus fits into the arts scene in Edmonton, Ryan said that they want to hold events that can be community gathering spaces and showcase art.
While the Stratus team is committed to film photography, Ryan said he recognized that the associated costs can be high for a beginner. You can save money by going all in and doing parts of it yourself, but “that’s a big ask for someone that doesn’t know if they enjoy the hobby at all.”
He explained that if someone just likes the visual result of film photography, similar effects can be made with filters and a digital camera.
For Ryan, he enjoys the process and the older cameras themselves — “I have a problem with using cameras from the 50s and all of them are in various states broken, because they’re really old!”
“If you’re into film photography, you have to do it for these sort of weird, esoteric reasons, because there’s so many easier ways to do it.”
To use the Stratus Photo*lab go to Site 94, at 12002 94 St. NW, Edmonton, AB. The film drop-box is open 24/7. They will develop, scan, and send back film on every second and last Sunday of the month. Currently they process 35mm in colour or black and white.