The George Eastman House in Rochester is mounting a new show of photographs by Robert Burley, a show that documents the changing times of photograph (from film to digital). I was contacted by the museum to contribute to a blog they are running in conjunction with the exhibition, having photographers comment of their perspective on the medium today (and I was also encouraged to submit photographs of my darkroom). Below, I am posting the response I submitted.
Even today, I’d say about 85% of my photographic production is still done in the darkroom. I work primarily in black and white (in color, I still shoot film, but do digital prints). It does break my heart that the industry is moving so much in one direction, that it has to be this way or that, rather than embracing a more multiplicitous approach to photography. All said and done, I just love the darkroom, and black and white printmaking still seems magical to me.
I can think of a number of photographs, exhibitions, or photobooks that have had a huge impact on my view of photography over the years. There are two specific experiences, however, that I find worth mentioning here.
The first job I had in photography was at the Colorado History Museum in Denver. The museum holds a number of original photographs from the United States Geological Survey. The collection also houses the complete archives of the Detroit Publishing Company, the studio William Henry Jackson open after settling out west. My job at the museum was in the darkroom, printing photographs for exhibitions, sales, and the library archives. On my first day, the chief curator of photography brought down two 20×24 glass plate negatives, Jackson photographs commissioned by the railroads expanding out west. Together with my partner, we spent close to a whole day printing the negatives. I was only 21, and had just been photographing for a few months at that point. The medium was still extremely new to me, and in printing these Jackson photographs, I felt like I was taken back a 100 years, and was sharing his experience in making the photographs. I’d been living in Colorado my whole life at that point, and in printing these photographs, I felt like I was seeing the landscape of Colorado for the first time. The whole day left quite an impression on me, and gave me a great lesson on the power of photography.
Fast forward 5-6 years, and I went to graduate school in photography at the Massachusetts College of Art. After working at the Colorado History Museum for a short time, I pursued my photography in solitude. After years of working alone, I moved out east for the first time. During my first year of grad school, we took a photo department trip to NYC for a weekend. This was only my second trip to NYC in my life, and we went to MoMA. On view, the Roy Decarava retrospective. The exhibition moved me deeply – the tonal poetics of Decarava’s work were still new to me, and really awakened a new understanding in photography in that continues to shape my work. I spent the whole day walking through the gallery, delighting in the sensitivity and insight in his photographs.
Not long after seeing this exhibition, I saw Carrie Mae Weems speak in a public lecture. She spoke about the Decarava exhibition. I loved what she said about his photographs; she said that Decarava’s photographs taught her how to care for people a little more deeply.
There have been so many other photographs and exhibitions over the years, but these early experiences have stuck with me the last 20 years as I’ve pursued my life in photography.