Laura Weaver could have taken an expensive course on graphic design at a local university, but she wanted to dip her toes in the water - not plunge in head-first.
So she enrolled in a class at Photo Works in Hampden's old Post Office building.
For 12 nights over four weeks, the Ikea decorator labored in a computer-based, digital imaging lab, learning the basics of graphic design with Adobe Illustrator, Quark XPress and Adobe Photoshop to get a feel for the new medium and decide whether her career should head in a new direction.
On the other side of the remodeled landmark, traditional photographers work in individual and group darkrooms equipped with enlargers, print washers, dryers and a massive Kreonite Promate II Color Processor that will print murals up to 30 inches wide - the only one available for public use in the Southeast, instructors say.
The combination of "wet" and "dry," of old and new, makes the Photo Works Traditional and Digital Imaging Center a unique resource in Baltimore's visual arts community and one of a handful in the country that cater to hobbyists and professionals of both persuasions who want to learn and practice their craft.
With an eclectic mix of classes - which range from using Adobe Illustrator to feminist perspectives on photography to summer camps for teen-agers, the year-old center is becoming an attraction.
Owner Martha Welsh credits her husband, Mike, a stock broker and amateur photographer, with coming up with the idea for a place for people "who graduated from school where they had taken photography and went, `Oh my God, where am I going to do my dark room work now?' "
Building a darkroom at home can be messy and expensive - renting one can be affordable, which is why many larger cities have rental centers. According to Welsh, there was another plus in using the old Post Office: "The front area just screamed to be a gallery."
She said the couple chose Hampden in part because an increasing number of artists are moving into the old, blue-collar neighborhood.
In recent weeks, photographer Hugh C. Wynd's black-and-whites of engineering marvels and Arizona landscapes have captured the attention of passersby, while Robert McClintock's photography of Mt. Vernon, downtown Baltimore and Hampden will be on display until June
Dave Massey, the center's director of imaging arts, said the operations tries to keep costs down. At the low end, three-hour courses, such as Getting to Know Your Camera (film or digital) start at $55, with 12-hour classes ranging as high as $660.
Private darkroom time costs $15 for the first hour for black-and-white development and $9 an hour after that, with communal darkrooms somewhat cheaper. Customers can rent computers for word processing or Internet access for $8 an hour, while digital image editing and scanning equipment go for $12 an hour.
The communal darkroom can be a smart investment of time and money for novices who have had some introduction to photography, but still face a steep learning curve because instructors offer advice on how to get started quickly.
"You can show newbies the ropes in 15 to 20 minutes," says Massey who had done just that on a recent morning. "Anything more and you'll need to get a tutor."
Not all of the students are people who live and love art for art's sake; many have specific, practical considerations when they walk through the front door.
"A lot of people don't do graphic design, per se, but they have desktop publishing needs," says graphic designer Luci Morreale, who teaches Weaver's class. Morreale says that people from all walks of life have found their way through Photo Works' doors because they've discovered that they need a few of the skills that a graphic designer has, whether to create a brochure or menu.
But novices aren't the only people hanging out at the center.
"A lot of these people have dark rooms at home. But they also have the kids at home and the dirty dishes," Welsh says. "You come here and you can get away from that."
On one afternoon, Ava R. Lee spent hours in the communal darkroom developing and printing portraits of a client - Santa Claus, or at least a man who wanted to look that way on film.
"You get to chat with other photographers," says Lee, who has a darkroom at home. "That's the kind of camaraderie you just can't get (when you work) at home."
Photo Works LLC, which should not be confused with the Seattle-based photo finishing company PhotoWorks, can be found at 3531 Chestnut Ave. in Baltimore or on the Web at www.photoworksllc.com.