Welcome all Chromacoma brethren, I am looking to try something new this month and going for a 'two for one' kind of deal involving a useful place to know for film photographers (digital too for sure) with good facilities, people and equipment that also happens to be a place you can shoot at (even if the area is small) as there is a studio for rent there too!
Airlab has already been mentioned in this blog and within the main guide article (click the banner at the top of this page) but I thought it might be nice for bit more detail and a dedicated round up this month in the style of 'Chromacoma meets Airlab!', so let's get it started. First up, I think that there might well be a parallel to be drawn between this entry to the guide and the 'Chang Chui' post last year. This place also being the brainchild of a fairly well known chap within photographic/artistic circles (and Thai society circles also) who decided to create and open up his own place as a sort of hangout and cool zone for his artistic vision. Just to be clear, this isn't the same person or in anyway connected to Chang Chui, it's just another, similar example of a Thai artistic type with the vision and resources to make a place like this happen in Bangkok. If you check out their website HERE, I'm pretty sure you will be able to see more details about this individual himself but for the sake of his modesty and protocol, I'm choosing not to name him specifically in this article. Suffice to say, if you choose to visit Airlab, you'll probably meet him yourself and find that he is very cool, laid back and relaxed with a nice, welcoming down to earth sort of vibe.
The location itself isn't exactly one you are likely to accidentally stumble over, even if you live in Bangkok, but the good news is that it really is easy for anyone to get to. So easy in fact that I am not including a map as there is one on their website and I have a very simple way of explaining it to you: Take the BTS skytrain out of Bangkok heading down the main (old) Sukhumvit line towards the East (Bearing etc) and get off at On Nut station. Go down one floor and keep walking in the same direction that the train was heading in before you disembarked. Walk all the way in this direction as far as you can go to the station's end before you go down to street level. Before you exit down, you should clearly be able to see Sukhumvit Soi 81 and its road sign ahead of you, on the left. Go down the stairs to street level, walk along to this street and turn down it (all on your left hand side), keep walking a little way and turn down the very first soi off of Sukhumvit 81 on the left hand side, follow that around a blind right hand corner and walk for a couple of hundred metres at the most, Airlab will come into view after a couple of minutes walk on the right hand side, it's a compound with a house inside and very clear signage. Trust me, it's very easy indeed and hard to go wrong, just wear a hat for the sun.
So, what did I find there? Well, lots of good stuff really. First up, there's a nice air con cafe with decent Thai food at local prices and proper fresh coffee on offer. So, even if you were to visit with people who might not be as keen on photography as you are such as with a partner or kids in tow, there's a haven for them to occupy for a while in relative comfort. There's also a huge all glass and air con shooting studio for rent plus a nice little leafy lawn area with some cool tiny artsy shops. Cool t shirts and the like were for sale here and there but it didn't come off as tacky, definitely a faint whiff of hipster (maybe that was coming from me) but overall this is only too much at busy times. Apparently however, such really busy weekends as I had seen before at this venue are not as common now. That said, they do hold events from time to time and these are not only 'Airlab' events per se but also sometimes things done in conjunction with outside companies and brands as crossover into advertising and brand hyping circles so I guess it all depends on what's on. There's a small shop selling very high end and good condition camera gear including lots of Leica and classic Rollei gear, bodies, lenses etc. but it opens towards the later part of the day and not in the morning time. I can't comment on that much more as I have never purchased here and so I'm simply putting it out there.
Meanwhile at the other end of the lawn area there's somewhere to sit in the shade and have your coffee or tea (even a smoking area) and this backs up to a really impressive and fully equipped darkroom facility inside an old (air conditioned) familiar looking metal cube shape. I guess one man's shipping container is another man's darkroom, this is also for rent to those who would like access to it. You'll have to contact them for details re. pricing
I would just like to say that I didn't inform Airlab that I was going to be dropping by and taking photos for inclusion into the guide or recommendations to others, rather preferring instead to just turn up on spec as a random foreigner to see what sort of reaction or welcome I received. I'm not saying that I was trying to be deliberately sneaky or judgemental (I really wasn't) but rather I merely wished to try and see what would happen if you, dear reader, were to do the same and how it would be. I'm delighted to say that people either left me alone (as was the case when I first strolled in around 11am) or they then eventually came up to me and politely spoke in English. This wasn't done to hassle me either, a couple of people were genuinely making sure I was okay and letting me know they would help me if I had any questions, was I looking to buy or develop film? etc. Expanding on that last point, there's film for sale of many different types and they do a whole load of processing here, colour and black and white and even some really long lost ancient wet plate processes which is really cool. Again I won't comment too much on pricing but its reasonably competitive at the time of publishing this post and suffice to say that they accept most kinds of film for processing including even slides (E6) and will do very accurate push and pull processing too. It's not a Mickey Mouse all hipster and no skills outfit, it's a proper lab. There's also an 'express' option for those maybe leaving Thailand soon, scans of a very high quality also available. The guy behind the whole endeavour is certainly deeply into film photography and so you are not just going to be handing your film over to a random outfit without any interest or skill. They have a lot of processing equipment, chems and machines actually onsite in addition to the fully set up darkroom. It's pretty full on. I deliberately didn't attempt to talk to the owner until the very end and he was very polite and friendly indeed. I am certain that if you turn up on spec and behave respectfully as you would at anybody's 'open house' kind of business, the people here will be very accommodating indeed. It's open daily from around 10am and goes on till about 7pm ish. You might even bump into a Thai celebrity here and there....
As an aside, there were some lovely quirks that had been really well thought out here and there. One personal favourite example was perhaps in the public toilets extending off from the garden lawn area where I noted that the toilet roll holder was actually an old style Polaroid camera body adapted to this new role (maybe that should be 'roll'? ha!). If you've ever felt like your photographic skills are slipping and your last roll was about as good as toilet paper, well hey...maybe you're not alone in such an assertion. Another nice touch was that the food menu of simple, classic Thai dishes was a full colour, medium format positive contact sheet showing the dish to be ordered, a simple but very effective idea that really caught my eye.
There's limited parking inside the compound but looks like you would be good to go on a weekday, although the street outside is legal to park on. Motorbikes would have no issues. Honestly though, it's probably easier to just take the BTS there. So, I hope this month's little entry proves useful both in terms of picking up film there, dropping it back off to have it devved or even booking their soft light, glasshouse (thankfully there's air con in there too!) kind of beauty/photo studio as a stunning location that is just crying out for great portraiture to be done there (as the owner has done many times and examples of which can be seen around). You could even then go on to rent their darkroom in which to develop the films that you've just shot in the studio at the same location. That's seriously cool and a fully contained (albeit 'shipping contained') 'one stop shop' option for serious dedicated film photographers in Bangkok. For that alone, and with no affiliation whatsoever, I have deemed it well worth inclusion in the places to shoot series for this month, enjoy.