Dark­room de­vo­tion

As world goes dig­i­tal, pho­tog­ra­phy club keeps fo­cus on film.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - SEAN CLANCY

There are those among us who aren’t that in­ter­ested in the easy way. They drive ve­hi­cles with man­ual trans­mis­sions, make their own salsa, grow their own veg­eta­bles, lis­ten to vinyl records and re­model their kitchens them­selves.

With this same do-ity­our­self brio, there are pho­tog­ra­phers who pass on the con­ve­nience of dig­i­tal im­ages for the chal­lenges and re­sult­ing mo­ments of beauty found by work­ing with film.

“I have six or seven peo­ple do­ing black-and­white se­ri­ously,” says Rita Henry, in the com­fort­ably clut­tered Stifft’s Sta­tion home where she and her Blue-Eyed Door­knocker Pho­tog­ra­phy Club meet.

Henry has fash­ioned a dark­room out of do­nated ma­te­ri­als, in­clud­ing three en­larg­ers used to make pho­to­graphic prints, in what was once the home’s kitchen.

“This is stuff that was go­ing to be thrown away,” she says, a bun­dle of en­ergy as she shows off the var­i­ous timers, spe­cial pa­per and other dark­room gad­getry.

A Der­mott na­tive, Henry worked in ad­ver­tis­ing for years in Lit­tle Rock and for a spell in Dal­las. She has also taught pho­tog­ra­phy at the Arkansas Arts Cen­ter Mu­seum School and in the Lit­tle Rock School Dis­trict.

She’d been in­ter­ested in pho­tog­ra­phy since the early ’80s, and fi­nally started tak­ing cour­ses at the Arts Cen­ter. She worked for a while in the dark­room at the for­mer Peer­less Pho­tog­ra­phy in down­town Lit­tle Rock, “one of the last big photo houses in town,” she says, and now does Pho­to­shop work for Lit­tle Rock pho­tog­ra­pher Ge­orge Cham­bers and his Cham­bers Stu­dio.

Henry takes her own

pic­tures on dig­i­tal and film and uses Le­ica, Nikon, Pen­tax and Po­laroid cameras.

Yes, she and many of her film-lov­ing fel­low shut­ter­bugs hap­pily use dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy, but the won­ders of the dark­room and mak­ing prints from film are hard to ig­nore.

“Ev­ery term we’re talk­ing about,” Henry says, re­fer­ring to the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of ana­log pho­tog­ra­phy, “it’s all in Pho­to­shop. Pho­to­shop tries to do our cre­ative stuff. It even goes into the painterly arts. But it’s not the same. It’s so me­chan­i­cal and in­hu­man.”

Of course, purists in 1839 prob­a­bly thought the da­guerreo­type, an early form of film us­ing a cop­per plate coated with sil­ver io­dide, wasn’t as soul­ful as an oil paint­ing.

Da­guerreo­types were re­placed with thin glass plates by the 1850s, and the East­man Ko­dak com­pany in­tro­duced the first flex­i­ble film in 1885. A cen­tury later, there were film-de­vel­op­ing shops on prac­ti­cally ev­ery other street cor­ner and in de­part­ment stores and drug­stores, promis­ing pho­tos in an hour or less.

By the late 1990s, con­ve­nient and handy dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy would be­gin to el­bow film out of the mar­ket. Now smart­phones and so­cial me­dia make pho­tog­ra­phy not only in­stantly avail­able but able to be shown to a po­ten­tially world­wide au­di­ence. It’s head-spin­ning stuff, an im­pres­sive and wide-reach­ing tech­no­log­i­cal march.

But for some, film of­fers an out­let not com­prised of pix­els but that is sub­ject to im­per­fec­tions and whose im­ages must be con­jured through the alchemy of the dark­room be­fore its re­sults can be fully seen.

FILM FREE­DOM

Lit­tle Rock pho­tog­ra­pher Bran­don Markin, 42, got in­ter­ested in tak­ing im­ages with film on a trip to his wife’s na­tive Ecuador.

“We went with a friend who had al­ways been a pho­tog­ra­pher and worked in labs,” Markin says. He’s wear­ing a T-shirt from punk rock band Bad Brains and sit­ting at a ta­ble in the pho­tog­ra­phy club’s home. “He showed me some stuff he had printed, and I was just en­thralled.”

Markin, who pri­mar­ily takes dig­i­tal pho­tos in his pro­fes­sional work, says he bad­gered Henry long enough to get her to let him use the dark­room, and things took off from there.

It’s the free­dom of­fered in film, de­spite its re­stric­tions, that he finds in­trigu­ing.

“When I’m pick­ing up my dig­i­tal cam­era, I’m try­ing to get the per­fect shot — the per­fect ex­po­sure, per­fect com­po­si­tion, all of the el­e­ments of what is a good pho­to­graph. With my film cam­era, it frees me up even though there are more con­straints. There’s a strange free­dom within the con­straints.”

These can range from ag­ing film, film speed, light, the de­vel­op­ing process and, most ob­vi­ously, the lim­ited num­ber of ex­po­sures.

“We’ve all had that ex­pe­ri­ence with our dig­i­tal cameras where you get a lit­tle trig­ger happy and you’re just snap­ping away,” says Markin, who shoots with an old cam­era from Sears. In ana­log, ev­ery shot counts when you have a lim­ited sup­ply of film.

“[Film] slows down the process so much,” says pho­tog­ra­pher Rob­bie Brind­ley of Hot Springs. “I’ll shoot a wed­ding and have 600 pho­tos, but if I was do­ing it on film, you can’t ma­chine-gun it. You have to slow down and think about it. I like the fact that you have to think a lot more about what you’re do­ing.”

Brind­ley, 26, uses a 120 Medium For­mat cam­era in which he holds the viewfinder at waist level to get his pic­tures.

He de­vel­ops film in a makeshift dark­room in his storm cel­lar, though he has to keep an eye out for the oc­ca­sional cop­per­head.

“It’s a lit­tle janky,” he says.

THERE WILL BE DUDS

“You never know what you’re go­ing to get with film,” says Rachel Worthen, an­other Blue-Eyed Door­knocker and a Pen­tax user who has been shoot­ing with film for 18 years. “It gives you the op­tion to be a lit­tle more free. It’s more hands-on.”

Lit­tle Rock graphic designer Vince Griffin, who has two pho­to­graphs in the 59th Delta Ex­hi­bi­tion at the Arkansas Arts Cen­ter, found pho­tog­ra­phy in­tim­i­dat­ing at first.

“I was shel­tered in an area of think­ing pho­tog­ra­phy could only be one thing,” he says. “Once I re­al­ized it’s not con­fined to these cer­tain pa­ram­e­ters, I came back to it.”

He’d also dis­cov­ered the work of New York street pho­tog­ra­pher Ryan McGin­ley and dove head­first into us­ing film. Now, Griffin takes his Le­ica ev­ery­where with him, doc­u­ment­ing the peo­ple he sees and what­ever else catches his eye.

“I’ve shot ev­ery­where from my fa­ther’s funeral to the State Fair,” he says.

It’s a process that re­wards pa­tience, says the 36-year-old.

“Some­thing that wasn’t re­ally ex­pressed to me early on,” Griffin says, “is this idea that ev­ery­thing you take has to be per­fect, that ev­ery­thing you do is go­ing to be rel­e­vant, that’s just not the case. You’re go­ing to take a lot of pho­tos that are duds. A ma­jor­ity of them are duds.”

Get­ting two pho­tos that are keep­ers out of three rolls of film, “that’s suc­cess,” he says, and it makes the process worth the ef­fort.

“You’re go­ing to hit these re­ally beau­ti­ful pho­tos that come to­gether and speak to you and it’s just so re­ward­ing to work that hard at some­thing and then have those mo­ments where you look at the film and you’re like, ‘Wow.’”

There’s also the lure of the dark­room.

“Ev­ery time I would talk to an older pho­tog­ra­pher, they would say, ‘The dark­room was my fa­vorite part, even more than tak­ing the pho­tos,’ so I was al­ways cu­ri­ous,” says Sa­vanna Mitchell of Lit­tle Rock, who works as an ad­min­is­tra­tive tech­ni­cian at the Lit­tle Rock Po­lice De­part­ment and who be­gan de­vel­op­ing film with Henry about a year ago.

In the ana­log dark­room, a sheet of light-sen­si­tive pa­per is briefly ex­posed to a beam di­rected through the neg­a­tive film. An im­age grad­u­ally emerges, as though un­fad­ing, on the white pa­per as it is im­mersed in a tray of de­vel­op­ing fluid.

“When you see the im­age for the first time, you’ve cre­ated some­thing,” Mitchell, 26, says. “You’ve cap­tured a moment in time that would have been gone other­wise, and there it is, in the phys­i­cal, tan­gi­ble form.”

“If it’s Wed­nes­day night, I’m here in the dark­room,” says Worthen, who prefers tak­ing shots of na­ture and an­i­mals with her Pen­tax K-1000 and Nikon cameras. “This is my hobby. It’s my artis­tic out­let.”

And it’s not an anachro­nis­tic, ironic hip­ster pur­suit, at least not for the 26-year-old Mitchell.

“I used to [worry that] peo­ple would think I’m snobby, that I think this is bet­ter just be­cause it’s old,” she says. “But re­ally, I’m just not with-it enough to do dig­i­tal. I’m over­whelmed by it.”

Adri­enne Tay­lor of Lit­tle Rock, 62, an­other Blue-Eyed Knocker, has been tak­ing pho­tos since she was 17 and just never got the hang of dig­i­tal.

“I can’t wrap my head around that stuff at all,” she says. “I’m real hes­i­tant to en­ter the tech world. I guess I’m a purist. I love the magic of the dark­room.”

NEGATIVES = POS­I­TIVE

In 2005, Chicago real es­tate bro­ker and writer John Maloof bought at auc­tion a box he hoped would con­tain re­search ma­te­rial for a book he was writ­ing about a Chicago neigh­bor­hood.

The box had be­longed to a long­time nanny named Vi­vian Maier who died in 2009, and among the items was a cache of negatives she had taken that chron­i­cled her life — the peo­ple around her and the places she lived.

Maloof be­came ob­sessed, and even­tu­ally rounded up more than 100,000 negatives and 3,000 prints from Maier, whose pho­tog­ra­phy was largely un­known while she was alive but has since been com­pared to the work of Henri Cartier-Bres­son and Diane Ar­bus.

This kind of his­tory, Worthen says, can be lost in the dig­i­tal age when peo­ple can click and delete im­ages they don’t like that are then gone for­ever.

“There’s some­thing about hav­ing the neg­a­tive,” she says. “Look­ing back at some of the most im­por­tant things about our cul­ture, about our lives and how we lived as peo­ple will only be shown through negatives. The dig­i­tal would have been deleted.”

Track­ing down film isn’t too big of a has­sle — stores like Bed­ford Cam­era & Video in Lit­tle Rock still carry it — but film wind­falls are al­ways wel­come.

When Fin­ger Lakes Com­mu­nity Col­lege in Canandaigua, N.Y., was selling film on­line from a can­celled pho­tog­ra­phy class, Mitchell pounced. “They were so nice. I bought 30 rolls of their film and they sent me 170,” she says. “They said, ‘We love that you’re do­ing this. Send us a pic­ture.’”

Brind­ley, who of­ten shoots in­stant Po­laroids, says film for those cameras can be hard to come by, es­pe­cially af­ter the com­pany dis­con­tin­ued its once near ubiq­ui­tous In­te­gral film line in 2008.

A New York-based com­pany called the Im­pos­si­ble Project is mak­ing a sim­i­lar film now, but it’s ex­pen­sive, Brind­ley says.

Those old Po­laroid cameras and film, though, were his gate­way into pho­tog­ra­phy.

“You could get a cam­era for $20 and the film was $10,” he says. “I just couldn’t af­ford the dig­i­tal stuff at the time.”

Work­ing with Po­laroids and their in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion ap­pealed to him.

“They have a dif­fer­ent mean­ing. It’s al­most like a paint­ing.”

The painterly ef­fects that show up on his haunt­ing Po­laroids, splotches of color and odd mis­takes, are a di­rect re­sult of us­ing film that has gone out of date, he says.

Po­laroid film, like wine, has cer­tain vin­tages that are pre­ferred, Brind­ley says. “Be­tween 2002 and 2008, 2009, that stuff is re­ally good film,” he says. “But ev­ery year that goes by, the qual­ity gets worse and worse.”

De­spite such hur­dles, film still calls to that cer­tain soul who isn’t daunted by tak­ing the long way around.

“It never went away,” Markin says. “It went down, but now it’s com­ing back, like vinyl records. I see more younger kids shoot­ing with film cameras. They’re go­ing back to it be­cause there’s ob­vi­ously some­thing they rec­og­nize as dif­fer­ent and spe­cial about the process and about hav­ing a phys­i­cal re­sult of your work.”

Last Day of Sum­mer by Lit­tle Rock pho­tog­ra­pher Bran­don Markin

Po­laroid photo from the “Hia­tus” se­ries by Rob­bie Brind­ley of Hot Springs

by Rita D. Henry

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/SEAN CLANCY

Vince Griffin holds a Petri Flex V cam­era, the sort of thing seen when­ever the Blue-Eyed Knocker Pho­tog­ra­phy Club meets.

Trans Rally by Vince Griffin of Lit­tle Rock

Un­ti­tled pho­to­graph by Adri­enne Tay­lor of Lit­tle Rock

Floor Win­dow by Sa­van­nah Mitchell of Lit­tle Rock

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