Shedding Light on Darkroom Friends

TASI’s renovated facility offers opportunity to rediscover joys of developing film, prints

Photo by Joe Winston

With the rise of digital photography, it seems everyone can lay claim to being a photographer. But a dedicated minority has gathered to explore a process that is more hands on.

The Art Studio, Inc. Darkroom Friends is a group who have joined together to develop and print photographs the old fashioned way, using film and chemistry in a real darkroom.

The group will present the fruits of their labors in the exhibition “Untitled,” opening Nov. 1, and on display through Nov. 29. The show opens with a free reception, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., Nov. 1.

Joe Winston and John Fulbright took on the task of renovating The Studio’s defunct darkroom, with the goal of creating a space where artists could gather and explore the full photographic process. The darkroom was ready for use in the summer of 2013.

Photo by John Fulbright

“One of the big goals of the darkroom was reaching out to the community,” Winston said. “We want it to be an educational resource for the entire community.”

The group has held several workshops that cover basic printing and developing, and Winston said the group plans to hold more in the future.

“It’s an environment where, if you are interested in film-based photography, you have all these experts that are part of the community and can teach them,” he said.

Winston, who is an adjunct professor of fine art at San Jacinto College, said he is not anti-digital. But there is a different methodology involved with shooting film. With digital photography, one has an immediate LCD image and can continue to shoot until it is “right,” Winston said.

Photo by Will Stark

“I affectionately call that ‘chimping,’” he said. “With the image you are creating on film, you are slowing the process down, and you are very deliberate where your settings are and your lighting, and approaching it from what I call a pre-visualized aspect.

“Then as you transition into printmaking, it is a tactile experience — it smells a little bit, you get a little bit dirty, you stand on your feet to create it.

“There is a magic that, I think, anyone who has ever been in the darkroom is still a little bit captivated by — how the print is a latent image and becomes a positive through a series of chemical baths. In the end, it is much more archival than most of the inkjet prints that are available at the mid-level. You can produce a lot of black-and-white prints for much less than you can a color inkjet image.”

Photo by Beth Rankin

Over the past 10 years, Fulbright said, most photographers have gone digital.

“And they have lost the interface with the print and figuring out what to do with the image after you create it,” he said. “Digital has made photography work. In the past, in the history of photography, we’ve been trying to solve a lot of problems with photography and the cameras. Now it seems we’ve got them all solved. Everyone is getting really good at making images because everyone has infinite chances to get it right. It’s very inexpensive and very egalitarian, most everyone can afford a digital camera and everyone is on Facebook, so the way we share the image has changed and mutated.

“But throughout the years, everyone has started to miss the art of printmaking. There’s a lot of interpretation that can go on in the darkroom. It’s expressed in different ways. All of those tweaks that are available in Photoshop are based on real-life actions.”

Photo by Nathaniel Welch

There is a romantic feel to getting back to basics, Fulbright said, adding that part of the appeal is the community that builds around a darkroom.

“Part of the appeal is having a group of people working together for the same goal of getting prints on the wall and having a show,” he said. “That’s what Darkroom Friends is all about — getting prints on the wall, instead of sharing them online, which is a solitary experience. Looking at photographs on a gallery wall is a group experience and very much more stimulating.”

Will Stark said the darkroom community is a “perfect storm.”

Photo by Marilyn Tennissen

“The youth coming in, I’m sort of in the middle and I worked with John since I was the age of the younger people, and Joe and them have been printing for 25 years — that is what you call the perfect storm, being in between that,” he said. “And we also have the resources of paper and space, and a lot of things that are going to make this a wonderful thing.”

Winston and Fulbright decided that a show would raise awareness of the darkroom’s existence. The work in the show is all hand made. Some of the work may involve digital at some point, but they are all hand-made photographs originating in the darkroom — film based.

Winston said he actually uses digital negatives and then contacts them with a 19th-century albumen process. The process involves combining the albumen of egg white with silver nitrate.

Photo by DJ Kava

“It’s a silver process that pre-dates the use of gelatin and is actually a superior binder for the silver and salt,” he said. “There’s an aesthetic look that the albumens have. It’s really an interesting process to go back and visit with 20th-century technology.

“We’re making our own albumen using farm eggs and buying chemicals online, so we’re making our own compounds.”

Winston said that using farm eggs instead of store bought is more than just a philosophical idea.

“There’s really very few resources that are current, and reading historical texts, it was pointed out that at that time they did not have refrigeration,” he said. “Using unrefrigerated fresh eggs compared to production modern eggs may have some effects in the highlights.

“This is still highly experimental for me. I’ve been working in this process for about two years.”

Photographers are playing with ambrotypes and tintypes, applying their skills to what were considered outdated techniques, Winston said, adding that the film process appeals to people whose professional life may have revolved around film and shifted into the benefits of digital photography for speed and efficiency.

“One of the great things about photography in the darkroom and film right now, is that it has been relieved of its commercial burden,” he said. “No one is fighting deadline and processing film to get a 5×7 printed so it can be re-sized and dropped into a layout. Film is solidly in that art form now, as much as its printmaking predecessors were. No one is out there carving photograveures to get it into the New York Times Sunday edition. In that way, it is really an exciting new time for darkroom and film-based photography, because it’s back to being very experimental.”

“Not only do you have these technology advances of the 20th and 21st centuries, but now you aren’t trying to make a deadline or make a dollar off the image, you can go back and experiment with some of these pre-silver gelatin processes. It’s really liberating.”

Once the “digital revolution” came, Fulbright said the market was flooded with film cameras as people switched. People started to get into medium format cameras, which he said offers a different experience to standard 35 mm cameras. Some photographers turned to toy cameras, and lomography came along, which allowed people to shoot pictures in a more intuitive way — also, shooting film exclusively as a statement against the digital revolution.

“They thought that images could be created spontaneously without a bunch of looking and checking — the most creative images could be made without a lot of thinking,” he said. “Not knowing what you got is an integral part of the creative process. Being able to look at the images as you are shooting them affects how you shoot, and not always in a good way.

“Sometimes you might stop and say, ‘I got it,’ and miss out on the magic at the end of the roll. You’ve got yourself covered. The first part of the roll is doing your idea. The second part of the roll is reacting to what just happened. And the last third of the roll is generally about having fun with it and breaking some of the rules.”

John Fulbright works in The Art Studio darkroom. Fulbright and other Darkroom Friends will exhibit their work in “Untitled,” on display beginning Nov. 1.
ISSUE photo by Andy Coughlan

The idea of taking time over the image plays into the old argument between painting and photography, which Winston said is still very much alive — the idea that painting takes time whereas one can get an image from a one-hour photo shop, and even more instantaneously now with digital.

“The photos in the November show have all been labored over,” he said. “They’ve been crafted from beginning to end with the intention of being fine art. It’s not a commercial byproduct. Particularly with the 19th-century processes, we are in charge of everything, from raw minerals to hand-made rag papers.”

Digital technology now has its own identity, Winston said, and that has allowed artists of all forms to explore new ideas in their chosen media.

“Photography has its own identity back, separate from commercial applications,” he said. “As an artist, it’s really exciting, and the educator in me really embraces the technology — I love being able to do them both.

“I love getting into the darkroom and using painterly techniques to create images, because I am still so interested in the idea that is conveyed through these processes — the emotions that you experience — as opposed to slick and glossy that came out of the latest and greatest printer. I think there is so much room for all of it.”

Photo by Joe winston

Shooting film is exciting in its own way, Fulbright said, because you don’t really know until the film is developed and the print is made.

“There’s choices all along the way and there’s time to reflect,” he said. “It affects the final output. The only way to really see your image is to make a really decent print of it. Than that perfect print, which you struggled for an extra 30 minutes on, usually you give that one away to your client. Rarely have I kept my best print.”

Fulbright said his current “best prints” will be on The Art Studio gallery walls.

“And if you like, you can buy it,” he said, laughing. Winston said that The Studio’s darkroom offers a space that is unique.

“One of the things that’s inspirational to me is that there’s no other place like this, there’s not a place like this in Houston,” he said. “There’s a place in New Orleans dedicated to all printmaking, including photography, but a darkroom open to the community is a really rare bird.

“I want the people of Southeast Texas to be proud of that. That’s my heart and that’s reason we are doing the show.

Stark said he has previously done photography in Houston in a space that charged $160 a day, and a space in New York that cost $360 a month.

“To have this opportunity, I have seen different classes of darkroom and this is on par with both of those at a much better price — and also people within a network that I can work with,” he said. “Honestly, you can shoot whatever you want to shoot, but as far as making a print, if you have that expertise, that’s priceless. If you have someone you can call upon, and work between brothers, that’s a very powerful thing.”

Like Winston, Fulbright emphasizes the unique opportunity The Art Studio’s darkroom offers.

“The sense of community is more important now than ever,” he said. “I’ve tried to do it at home and it’s too messy — you don’t want to sleep where you are using all these vinegary smelling chemicals.

“Then there’s the dialogue about, ‘What kind of paper are you using?’ Everyone is always honing their craft. That’s where The Art Studio comes into play. Not every town is lucky enough to have an Art Studio.”

The membership fee to become a Darkroom Friend is $35 a month, which covers the cost of utilities. Members supply their own paper and chemicals.

For more information, call 409-838-5393.

Story by Andy Coughlan, ISSUE Editor