Every time you’re ready to give up on all things analog, the old ways come back to remind us all that the digital world ain’t everything. Recording artists insist on the warm beauty of long playing records, as well as old-style tube amps and other anachronistic recording equipment. Filmmakers return to 70mm, 35mm, 16mm and even 8mm for their works. People read novels in book form instead of on a Kindle. Or they spend a Thursday night reading their local newspaper cover to cover.
Now the latest ancient art medium to raise its head and demand a second act is black and white photography, and the darkrooms where it’s long been created. People enjoy the crud of chemicals in darkness, an easy price for the magic of watching life come back to visibility in a tray, like magic.
Our very own Center for Photography at Woodstock has just completed a major overhaul of its classic darkroom…alongside upgrades to its digital editing and printing capabilities.
Meryl Meisler’s photos of the 1970s downtown and disco scenes have been hot of late. After a long career as a New York City art teacher, the part-time Woodstocker pulled out troves of old negatives that found new life in a pair of well-received books and a series of exhibitions that will see her work showing on both coasts this month.
Meisler is quick to note how important the Center for Photography at Woodstock’s darkroom has been in her work of late. Which attests to just how important it is that the hallowed space on the second floor, up where Bob Dylan once composed albums worth of songs back when downstairs was still the Café Espresso, one of Woodstock’s musical meccas, has been reopened after a few months of careful updating and refurbishment.
“I was at a party and mentioned how long it had been since I had developed images in a darkroom, having been sending stuff out for years. So I was invited in to the darkroom at CPW, given an update lesson, and learned how to use filters for the first time,” Meisler said this week, excited to have a chance to extoll the many virtues and pleasures of the place she feels did much to push her own work forward several notches. “I loved the whole atmosphere at CPW. It’s cozy but supportive; I experimented, I made mistakes, I got feedback when I wanted feedback, and all the chemicals I needed were mixed for me before I got in there. The place has a good vibe; it’s inviting and has the feel of being like a holy space.”
Jan Nagle, program manager at CPW, said that use of the darkroom started increasing in the last two years, leading to the institution’s decision to upgrade it.
“I think a lot of people just assume darkroom photography’s disappeared,” she said, describing all that’s been done over the past three months since the space was closed in December. “We cleared the whole place out, including a lot of old photo paper left over the years. Much of it went to interns and artists in residence for use making lumen prints and photograms. We also gave away a lot of old equipment and streamlined everything.”
Where there were once four enlarger stations, there are now two. Which leaves room for a film drying cabinet and print drying racks, more counter space to develop film and work on prints from, an improved dry mount area, and a new UV exposure unit for non-silver printing use, an area that’s also been growing of late. There’s also better, state-of-the-art installation.
“We’ve been getting more young people in; in fact, there’s someone in their twenties in there right now,” Nagle added. “We also keep finding that anytime we offer teen classes in old darkroom techniques they fill up fast. People forget the amazing sense of magic involved in watching images come into view in a darkroom.”
We checked in with CPW founder and board chair Howard Greenberg at his New York photo gallery, talking a bit about my own family’s plans to install a big new basement darkroom in our house, as much for the use of our kid and his friends as my wife’s art. He talks about how long it’s been since he’s actually printed from negatives, and a project he’s been planning for years to draw on the many images he took of Woodstock in the 1970s.
“You know, I’m a dinosaur,” Greenberg said, after noting some disasters with his negatives’ storage over the years. “My mission is to not let people forget what photography is and was.”
He joked about the wet hands, yellowed fingers, and the distinctive stink one gets working a darkroom, but then noted, “Isn’t that what photography is all about…there’s still a primordial pleasure working in a darkroom. A little magic and mystery leaves photos when they’re not done there.”
According to CPW executive director Hannah Frieser, “It has been a priceless opportunity through Arts Mid-Hudson and the State of New York to update the facilities with a proper ventilation system and other improvements. These updates are at the core of CPW’s mission to support artists in making producing new work.”
Frieser said the darkroom renovation, along with the purchase of new state-of-the-art digital lab equipment, is all part of CPW’s “bigger picture.”
“We really embrace how we can best help artists, and do things better for them,” she said. “We are creating better spaces for them to explore their work within,” the executive director continued, after thanking Andrew Baugnet for planning and then overseeing the darkroom renovation project, and Linda Badami for leading a number of local contractors getting the job done. “We’re creating a hum of activity.”
She then gave a shout out to photographer Fionn Reilly, who’s been returning to CPW year after year, most recently to complete the gelatin silver prints for his handsome book, Kolkata Calcutta. “You can imagine how proud we are.”
“Good darkroom just got better,” said Reilly. “Not least because they got rid of a whole load of clutter.”
Back in the center itself, Jan Nagle said she’d snuck into the refurbished darkroom to develop some film
“Once everyone leaves for the day I may go back in,” she added. “I want the magic of developing some of what I’ve shot.”
For those looking to use the CPW darkroom, reservations are required at least three days in advance, and often 1 to 3 weeks before one wants to go, in person or by phone. Orientations are required, and are included in the darkroom’s reasonable rates.
Call 679-9957 or visit www.cpw.org, or just stop by the Center on Tinker Street in Woodstock, for more information.