How photographers are making it click all under one London roof
24/10/2011 “We wanted to create a community where freelancers could work together and inspire each other” – Alexa Montgomery, Roof Unit, east London
Problem: How do aspirational, cash-starved freelance creatives get a chance to move away from a lonely desk in the spare bedroom and into a London office environment with a professional studio attached and with like-minded professionals to bounce ideas off?
Solution: Roof Unit. Photographers Toby Smith and Chris Littlewood launched this pioneering enterprise in an old soap factory five years ago when they found there was nothing quite like it in the capital city. Now Roof Unit – set up to offer affordable desk space and studio hire facilities – has been so successful it has moved to new and larger premises in Bethnal Green, east London.
Hasselblad News wanted to chat with founder Toby Smith about the project but at the time of our deadline he was in the middle of an undercover operation monitoring illegal logging in the Peruvian jungle and his mobile phone couldn’t take the strain – so we tracked down Roof Unit manager Alexa Montgomery instead.
“We have a slightly different team now” she explains. “But the idea was always to create a new environment where creatives could take desk space and work together within a communal spirit. At Roof Unit photographers can hire a desk from as little as £160 per month – and that also entitles them to use the studio for a full day each month. A £250 monthly outlay buys a larger desk, which includes secure storage facilities, plus two days’ studio hire a month.”
“Photographers just love it. Many people who come to us have been able to stop working at their desk at home and immerse themselves into a truly photographic environment without huge expense.”
She adds: “We outgrew our first premises and now we can offer space to a total of twenty photographers at any one time. They buy into the concept of cost-effective desk and studio space in central London - complemented by an ongoing and thoroughly engaging programme of talks and events embracing a wide range of imaging disciplines.”
The project has attracted an eclectic mix of freelancers and sees itself as a stepping stone for photographers who start out working at home but eventually move on to establish their own studios and support teams. Montgomery notes: “Photographers can use the studio according to the desk space they rent. They use their own cameras and they have access to expert help if they need it.”
Roof Unit has just invested in a new top of the range Hasselblad Flextight X5 scanner too. Says Montgomery: “A lot of photographers who must of course shoot digitally and produce files for their commercial clients, still love to shoot on film for personal projects. They just love the quality and the beauty of silver halide and so we bought this new scanner to help with their workflow. It is a fantastic piece of equipment. Roof Unit creatives can use it for just £30 an hour or £150 a day and we also offer a remote service for customers at just £5 a frame at the highest quality setting for any size negative.
Right now we are scanning in seventy six negs and the turnaround time must be two days including clean-up and color balance. Before we made this scanner purchase we couldn’t even contemplate tackling those numbers in such a short turnaround time.”
She concludes: “The whole idea at Roof Unit is not to make huge profits but to support the industry.”
Jason Larkin, a Roof Unit resident says: “Moving out from working at home into a large collective space was ideal. The sharing of ideas, equipment, and outlook on career is greatly appreciated in this sometimes isolated freelance environment.”
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