In the age of smartphones, image making and sharing are easier than ever. But just thirty years ago being a kid with a camera was something special. Darren Hull found the darkroom at thirteen. A seventh-grade film photography class gave him everything he needed to redouble his commitment to his “dirtbag” lifestyle. “The love of the craft was there,” he says, “but it was the access that was addictive.” The camera gave him an excuse to seek access to all sorts of abnormal situations, and often got him into places for free. After more than a quarter-century in the trenches, Darren is still at it, excited as ever to explore the world, camera in hand.
Darren spent much of his adolescence sitting on curbs drinking slurpees and skateboarding. He and his friends “definitely weren’t cool because we skateboarded. We were the dirtbags.” Six months out of the year in his hometown of Winnipeg were pure winter. “You couldn’t hang outside for long,” he recalls, “hockey players ruled the streets. They would drive around looking for people to beat up.” There were a few indoor skateparks, but they more often opted for underground parking lots, where they would sneak in ramps and ride them as long as they could avoid security, taking turns jumping abandoned oil drums.
After high school, Darren attended a vocational school for photography. Though he wasn’t so much interested in the classes as the facilities—their studios and darkroom were much better than the $100 kit he had built out in his parent’s basement. He ignored his instructors’ assignments, earning him zeros in most classes. Six months into the program, a teacher sat him down. They were a fan of his out of class work but were obligated to point out that his obstinacy was throwing off the grading curve. They implored him to play by the rules and do at least some of the assignments.
Instead, he packed everything he owned into his Suzuki Samurai and drove 2400 kilometers west to Vancouver. He stayed with a friend for a month on a couch until he found a place and a job. For a year he worked at a 1-hour photo lab, developing other people’s film. One night at a rock show he met a fashion photographer from New Orleans who ran a second studio in Vancouver. Darren soon left the photo lab and started work as his darkroom operator, photo assistant, and model test shooter. Together they spent hours in his unventilated darkroom. Darren would process pictures while his boss smoked through three packs of Marlboros. Eventually, he moved on to his own freelance career, piecing together portraiture jobs with subjects ranged from lawyers to people’s pets.
Darren supplemented his photo work with website development, a skill he knew would be essential in the coming years. “I knew early on that I needed to get my photos on the internet in order for them to be seen outside a small group of friends and clients,” he says. Still, he resisted the transition from film to digital. For a while, he’d show up to gigs with both his film and digital cameras. Now he says he’ll never shoot film again.
The rise of social media was another hurdle for Darren. Thanks to an all but instant learning curve of smartphone photography, pictures have become are a huge part of the way we socialize and connect. Now that everyone’s a photographer, it is by sheer grit that Darren has managed to maintain his career. “Instagram was a big wakeup call for me,” he says. “I thought it was stupid, dumb, silly, and unimportant. I shot 35mm, why crop square? Only a couple years ago did I really give it a full effort, and once I got into it I realized there were 12-year-olds in Detroit who could shoot better than me. I was in awe of the quality of the work and knew I needed to get better if I was going to keep making a living doing this. I learned not to fight the industry, that it’s me that has to adapt.”