Features, Interviews

From darkroom to daylight

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Charles Harbutt. 2010. © Harvey Wang

Photographers including Sally Mann, Jeff Jacobsen and Charles Harbutt discuss the tensions between analogue and digital

Brighton-based camera manufacturer Intrepid Camera Co. has teamed up with British Journal of Photography to launch the Intrepid Enlarger. The Kickstarter campaign for the new Intrepid Enlarger is now live and will end on 03 November 2018.

American photographer Harvey Wang began shooting with black-and-white film, and developing his photographs in a darkroom in the basement of his home, aged just 13. In the early 2000’s, and around the same time that he published his book Flophouse: Life on the Bowery, Wang began shooting in digital. Changes in his own practice reflected the tide of time in the wider photography world: “The first digital camera I used was a point-and-shoot but, for me, it didn’t have any meaning. I found myself missing the old ways of working and wondered how other photographers were navigating this change.” Curious to understand how his contemporaries were dealing with the transition, in 2008 Wang began a personal project to explore the beauty of film and capture the processes of an endangered art form. “In the beginning, I thought the project would just be a love letter to, and a nostalgic piece about, film,” he says.

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Charles Harbutt (United States, 1935-2015). Chrysler Building, Park Ave, New York. 1970. © Estate of Charles Harbutt. Courtesy Peter Fetterman Gallery

Wang’s photographic eye has always been drawn to disappearing trades and the ever-evolving face of New York. His nostalgic photographs tell the stories of individuals who engage with ways of life that are disappearing – from printers and typesetters to rabbinic tailors and blacksmiths. Darkroom printers and film photographers fall into this category and have remained a source of inspiration for Wang. The project culminated in 2014 when he released a book and documentary film of the same name: From Darkroom to Daylight.

Personal relationships with many of those in the film photography scene, along with his own lived experiences, provided Wang with a unique position from which to access those caught in the crossfire between film and digital. Involving interviews with 40 photographers including Jeff Jacobson and printer Sid Kaplan, the making of From Darkroom to Daylight took Wang across the country and beyond. His journey opened up intriguing conversations about what has been gained, and what has been lost, through the adoption of digital photography. Many of the photographers are sanguine in the face of new technologies, which threaten their beloved film medium, while others, such as renowned black-and-white photographer Sally Mann, strongly lament the adoption of iPhone photography. The overriding sentiment, however, is one of confidence: the future of film in the 21st century is promising.

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Amor Revealed, Proud Flesh, pa XI. 2007. © Sally Mann. Courtesy Gagosian.

Jeff Jacobson – Former Magnum photographer. Interviewed in Mount Tremper, New York, 2009

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Jeff Jacobson. 2009. © Harvey Wang www.harveywang.com

“Still photography used to be, you go out, you may be on the road for a week, two weeks, a month, whatever, you wouldn’t see anything. So the process is going on in your unconscious, and digital brings that up to the conscious. I think that’s a real change in photography, and I’m not at all sure it’s a change for the better.”

Sid Kaplan – Photographer, educator and printer. Interviewed in his darkroom in New York City, 18 November 2008

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Sid Kaplan. 2008. © Harvey Wang

“In the darkroom, no two people are ever going to make the same print. Too many variables. To begin with, no two people ever make the same negatives. Add the variables with the enlarger, the brands and surfaces of paper available, the amount of different developers and chemistry available, and all of a sudden you got a couple hundred combinations to deal with.”

Charles Harbutt – Former president of Magnum. Interviewed at his home in New York City, 20 May 2010

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Charles Harbutt. 2010. © Harvey Wang

“You know, I think we’re stuck in this discussion of the moment about digital versus analog because we mistake technique for form. I don’t believe that … the problem for photographers still is very simple: What do you point the camera at, where do you stand to point it, when do you shoot? How do you record and deliver the image? That’s not changed so much as expanded. So I think that’s such an American attitude, that technique changes everything.”

Alison Rossiter – Photographer. Interviewed in 2012

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Alison Rossiter. 2012. © Harvey Wang

“I remember my first experience in a darkroom, of watching an image come up in a black-and-white developer tray, and it is astonishing. And I remind myself every time I’m in the darkroom that I am dealing with silver. These prints are silver; they’re not pigment. It’s not done with lead pencil. It’s a sheet with silver, metallic silver on it. To me, that’s an astonishing thing, the value of the material as content.”

Sally Mann – Large format photographer. Interviewed at her home and studio in Lexington, Virginia, 23 November 2012

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Sally Mann. 2012. © Harvey Wang

“There is something about this (wet plate) process that’s a little more contemplative. And also, here’s another thing about these long exposures, something goes on with the eyes. There’s a certain sadness and depth that’s revealed in someone’s face, I think. You know you’re sort of sitting for the ages, and I don’t think an iPhone picture makes people think that they’re sitting for the ages.”

Chester Higgins Jr. – Photographer. Interviewed in 2012

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Chester Higgins Jr. 2012. © Harvey Wang

“I don’t feel I’ve lost anything [with the switch to digital]. In the beginning, I had issues — the digital sensors are a little flat. But the digital does not make a picture, as film does not make a picture. There’s no camera, there’s no lens, there’s no sensor that makes a picture, only your eye can make a picture.”

Adam Bartos – Photographer. Interviewed in 2011

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Adam Bartos. 2011. © Harvey Wang

“If I could take a picture with my Leica that looked exactly the same as the one I’m taking with my 5×7, why would I bother? But even if that were technically possible, the way of working with a view camera is completely different. The weight of it, the business and theater of setting it up, and finally, the quality of time it injects into the image itself, are unique.”

Words: Alice Finney

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Sacred Women Ceremony in the Vally of the Kings. Luxor, Egypt. © Chester Higgins

Click here to contribute to the Intrepid Enlarger Kickstarter. Pledgers will be given a reward of their choice and will be able to purchase the enlarger at a special price, before the release date.

The Intrepid Enlarger Kickstarter is supported by British Journal of Photography. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.