Drunk as a
Photographer brings 'em
back pissed to the gills
Larry Wolfley isn’t the first photographer to go around shooting
embarrassing photos of intoxicated people making fools of themselves in
bars and other public places. Hasn’t he ever heard of the Street Team?
Bay Area fotog Wolfley, however, aims to raise this impromptu style of
photojournalism crossed with social commentary to a high art form, and
if he’s not exactly the new Weegee, he at least gives it a try in his
second-time-around black-and-white show at Berkeley’s Photolab Gallery,
"Drunk and Happy (or Not): It’s Party Time!" His subjects are not
ordinary drunks, either – they’re punk rock fans, aka “people in peak
party mode.” Photolab’s Andrea McLaughlin understands what Wolfley is up
to. The photographer is 66 years old, and most of his subjects are teens
or twentysomethings. Says McLaughlin: “He almost leads a double life.
It’s a little bit of ‘born in the wrong generation.’” The gallery’s
publicity claims that, “Larry Wolfley has a serious romance going with
people he photographs in the Bay Area punk scene. While not exactly one
of them, he’s not an outsider either.” Claims Wolfley: “One might ask if
my pictures glorify or romanticize alcohol and drug use. My answer is
that they do, but that’s not the whole story.” Part of the whole story
from Wolfley’s point of view, no doubt, is to avoid getting punched.
“Drunk and Happy” stays at Photolab through March 18. The gallery is
open Mondays through Saturdays. PhotoLaboratory.com Larry Wolfley's
black and white photos depict "people in peak party mode," i.e., drunks.
Through March 18.
Photolab Gallery, 2235 Fifth St., Berkeley, 510-644-1400,
Tell It Like It Is
The documentary will see you now
Seen any good photography lately? Perhaps you detect the
mountain-size heap of sarcasm in that query. Finding fine art
photography in the Bay Area that’s not of a recent trip to Nepal can
feel like searching for Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley or the last golden
ticket — tricky and damn near impossible. So why, in an area rich in
cultural diversity and laden with talented artists, is it so difficult
to find the good stuff? Let us direct you to a little-known gem that’s
just slightly off the beaten path. The Photolab Gallery at 2235 Fifth
St. in Berkeley consistently displays innovative, challenging
photographic works by emerging and established artists. Its current
show, 5 South/Oncology by Diane Malek, is no exception.
Perhaps just slightly more traditional than Photolab’s usual fare,
Malek’s photo essay is about life in the cancer ward of Oakland’s
Children’s Hospital, where she was employed as a social worker for seven
years. As such, it’s a testament to the enduring importance and
popularity of pictures in telling a story. In the tradition of history’s
great documentarians like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, Malek lets
her subjects do most of the talking, allowing these deeply poignant
black-and-white images — 28 in all — to serve as an archive of
compassion, beauty, and unimaginable strength. Obviously this is a labor
of love, or catharsis, or possibly both. However, in a body of work that
addresses such sensitive subject matter,
Malek rarely relies on clichés
or affectations. Her images are the essence of understatement — so much
so that some of them begin to feel like family snapshots. But don’t let
that fool you. Malek’s printing technique serves as a swift reminder
that while photography may not be her primary occupation, she is darn
At least that’s what her former patients think, who in the midst of
their crisis allowed the camera into their lives and then encouraged her
to pursue an exhibit and a book of the same name, compiling their photos
as well as some text edited by Malek. They wanted their story to be
told, to help others who may be going through the same thing, explains
Malek. Proceeds from the sale of the book, published by Fastback Books
in Berkeley, go directly to the Oncology Fund at Children’s Hospital.
The show runs through January 28, 2006.
For more info on this archived exhibit, go to
Photos by Diane Malek from
Children's Hospital, Oakland, part of a print and book sale. Through
Jan. 28, 2006. Photolab Gallery, 2235 Fifth St., Berkeley, 510-644-1400
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Niche black-and-white labs
make conversion to digital at measured pace
As if trying to refute the old saying, “There’s nothing new under the
sun,” some fine-art photographers try to dicker with volume prices at
Photolab, Berkeley, Calif. while simultaneously being the lab’s most
demanding customers.This isn’t anything new, however, says Photolab
owner Andrea McLaughlin. Photolab has always specialized in
black-and-white processing and printing. And though fine-art
photographers can test a lab owner’s patience, they constitute an
important – though not necessarily most profitable – part of the revenue
Indeed, fine-art photographers are exhibited in the gallery McLaughlin
has incorporated into her facility. Though its affect on profits is
impossible to compute, clearly the space contributes to the lab’s
reputation as having a commitment to the art community of the San
Francisco Bay Area, especially given the value of square footage in the
The exhibitions, which remain on the walls for six weeks, aren’t juried,
per se. “I’ve shown the work of more than 90 photographers in the past
10 years, and now I am very selective about the work I show. I have an
18-month waiting list, so I guess we’ve become a useful venue for
emerging photographic artists.”
The larger percentage of Photolab clients come from wedding
photographers, staff photographers, and commercial photographers, as
well as art photographers who are working on books, exhibits, or
collections. “The gallery brings in all kinds of new customers, but what
makes the business work is the focus on the needs of photographers who
work, and specialize, in black-and-white,” says McLaughlin.
One-time specialty labs turn into “niche” marketers
Specialty labs, today referred to as “niche” labs, still flourished in
prime market areas well into the 1980s. Photolab obtained its “niche”
status as the dwindling number of full-service commercial labs began
looking for added revenue to replace lost income due to digital
Viewed from this perspective, McLaughlin herself could be said to have a
“niche” background as a lab owner. She had never worked in photography
prior to Photolab, though both her parents had a degree from Rochester
Institute of Technology, Rochester, N.Y., and remained active in
photography throughout their lives.
“Though I had no formal training in photography, I kind of grew up in
the darkroom,” she remembers. “My parents discussed photography all the
time, but I never thought of it as a way to earn a living.”
© Photolab 2004. Photolab printed most of the images for “The Whole
World’s Watching,” a museum catalog for a photographic exhibit at the
Berkeley Art Museum.
After finishing her undergraduate degree in City Planning at
ThomasJeffersonCollege, Grand Rapids, Mich., she took a year off before
continuing to graduate school, and found a job at Photolab.Working as
lab manager, McLaughlin learned all aspects of the operation, took
classes in business management and, after just a year, negotiated with
the owners to purchase the lab in a three-year leveraged buyout.
Owner’s business training helps bottom line
The lab was headed for serious financial trouble and, as the new owner,
McLaughlin needed to work quickly. “There was a recession on, but I had
a feeling black-and-white could really take off; so, I took a chance on
buying the business. I focused on quality, bought better equipment, took
out a larger ad in the phone book, and business doubled,” she says.
Now, after 20 years in the business, during which many, many labs – both
full service and “niche” operations – have disappeared, staff size at
Photolab has increased from two to nine and then, adjusting to the
economic times, decreased to seven. McLaughlin’s main roles now are new
product development, marketing, and web development.
As a specialty black-and-white lab, McLaughlin offers her clients
traditional services that include prints on fiber-based paper and
various selenium and sepia toning options, custom RC enlargements,
dip-and-dunk film processing, and custom film processing by hand for
customers who prefer it. Photolab can easily process Kodak Technical Pan
film, and all black-and-white infrared films.
The lab acquired an 8-by-10-inch Durst enlarger at a good price from a
nearby lab that was folding, and uses it for enlarged contact sheets,
plus the occasional sheet film that size. (After all, Berkeley isn’t too
far from where fine-art photographers such as Edward Weston and Ansel
Adams shot some of their most famous landscapes using 8-by-10-inch view
Antiquated analog minilab used for 4-by-6 “proofs”
Photolab hasn’t made as many enlarged proof sheets since McLaughlin
acquired a refurbished Noritsu analog black-and-white minilab, which has
allowed her to make 4-by-6-inch prints economically instead.
McLaughlin is lucky to have a Noritsu technician in the area, and she’s
discovered a small company that makes replacement parts for obsolete
Noritsu minilabs. The in-house standard paper is from Ilford. Kodak Xtol
and Dektol are the standard developers for film and hand-processed
McLaughlin began offering digital services in 1993. From the start of
her measured and continuing conversion to digital, partnering with other
local labs has made it possible without the need for large capital
“Because of my business experience, I always view purchasing new
equipment from the standpoint of asking myself, ‘Am I going to make
money with this?” she says. “I’ve seen too many labs convert to digital
before the market could support it, and then go out of business.’”
But that hasn’t stopped McLaughlin from being as geeky as the next girl!
Previously only a Mac user, she built her own computer with the
assistance of a PC expert, customizing each component. “I remember
ordering 64MB of RAM, and the computer guy said nobody needs that much
RAM! Now, we can’t seem to work with less than 1.5GB.”
She took the earliest classes available in Adobe Photoshop, and was soon
able to scan prints for digital restoration. McLaughlin partnered with a
nearby lab to make a 4-by-5-inch black-and-white negative from their
film recorder, which greatly enhanced the final output. McLaughlin also
partners with the owner of a color minilab to process the C-41
chromogenic black-and-white film many wedding photographers bring in.
Once developed, Photolab prints the negatives on silver-halide
black-and-white paper. The same color lab matched their color print
borders to those used by Photolab, allowing photographers to use both
labs with a unified look.
Most recently, McLaughlin has acquired a 24-inch Epson inkjet printer.
To maximize quality on the seven-color printer, Photolab uses Kodak and
Ilford paper designed especially for making inkjet enlargements from
Always pushing for the best in digital black-and-white, the lab
experiments with different ink, paper, and software combinations,
including those from Jon Cone’s archival products. And speaking of
archiving, customers receive their processed film in archival sleeves,
which allows for making good contact sheets without removing the film.
Customers can also choose to get their images on a CD, which is
presented as a short-term backup.
To maximize the investment in the inkjet printer, the lab now offers
fine art color and black-and-white prints from digital files. Though
digital technology is something new to the specialty lab, it’s not to
new hires. “The entry-level people I hire have gone to photography
school and have so much training in Photoshop, I don’t have to teach
them basic digital imaging skills,” McLaughlin notes.
What does the future hold for McLaughlin’s “niche” lab? Well, topping
her list is a machine that can print digital files on true
black-and-white paper. “We have a market for digital black-and-white
fiber and RC enlargements; and I believe if I can supply that market, it
Still, the newest equipment isn’t mandatory for continued success at
Photolab. “We’ll wait for the right timing before our next big purchase.
We love what we do; and what we do best is the overall production work
for photographers, handling all aspects of a client’s job, and doing it
faster while focusing on quality.
“We’re more efficient than a smaller company and more skilled than a
larger company, for whom quality black-and-white work represents an
Art in a Snap
Black-and-white photos offer sophistication and
Kim Severson, Chronicle Staff Writer
Suzy Locke loves the impressive collection of black-and-white
photographs hung throughout her 1930s Art Deco home in Oakland's
She is particularly proud of a series that runs up the
stairwell. It suits perfectly a vintage aluminum banister. But,
more important, the photos
suit Locke's soul.
"I purchase a photograph because it is something I want to look
at every day,'' says the collector, who makes a living advising
corporate and private clients on buying and hanging art.
"Black-and-white photography is extremely accessible, which is
what is so wonderful about it. It's a medium people understand
because everybody has used a camera.''
That, in part, is the appeal of collecting black-and-white
photography. But the pursuit is also gaining speed among Bay
Area art lovers because it is an affordable avenue for people
new to collecting art, dealers and collectors say.
`It's a real exciting growing market,'' says Chris Mahoney, a
photographer and art expert who works in the photograph section
of Sotheby's in New York. "A lot of younger people are really
getting into it.''
Even vintage photographs, whether 19th century works, rare
platinum prints or more common gelatin silver prints, are still
affordable. On the high end, a photograph considered a master
can be had for $100,000 to $200,000, compared with millions of
dollars to acquire a masterwork by Picasso or Van Gogh.
Interesting pieces can be found at several price levels. For a
few hundred dollars, good sources of prints include estate
sales, outdoor art fairs and even the Internet.
For beginning collectors, anonymous vintage photographs --
especially those depicting a certain era -- can have economic
A beginning collector who wants a piece with more authenticated
significance could buy a promising new artist's print for about
$500 or less. Figure another $200 to $250 for the right frame
and mat, which in most cases with black-and-white photography
should be simple and elegant rather than ornate. Collectors
might want to use cheaper frames on less-expensive prints, but
for archival-quality paper, mats and frames, expect to pay more.
At the higher end of collecting, Sotheby's offers some
photographs beginning at $3,000.
In addition to the photographer, how the photograph was printed
also matters. Much of the art in photography comes not from
capturing the image but from the way it was printed. Whether the
photographer printed it, when it was made and with what sort of
equipment all matter.
Whatever the collector's price range or interest, the Bay Area
is a good place to hunt.
"We're finding that San Francisco is a hot photo town, second in
the country to New York,'' Mahoney says. That is, in part,
because black-and-white photography is in the Bay Area's blood.
Images of Yosemite captured by Ansel Adams are some of the most
prized among collectors. Many of Imogen Cunningham's sometimes
whimsical and achingly honest images, including her self
portraits and urban shots, were made in the Bay Area.
A Brisk Market
It doesn't hurt, either, that the economy is hot.
"There are a lot of people with burning pockets right now -- a
lot of money is coming in our doors,'' says Michael Shapiro,
owner of Shapiro Gallery on Market Street in San Francisco and
one of a handful of Bay Area dealers who handle black-and-white
photography almost exclusively.
`The story is the same at the Fraenkel Gallery on Geary Street
in San Francisco, one of the nation's premier resources for 19th
and 20th century black-and-white photography.
"It seems like we have an awful lot of young people coming into
the gallery who know nothing about photography but are anxious
to start a collection,'' says Lizanne Suter, associate director
at Fraenkel. "And they have the money to buy things.''
But just having the money to buy black-and-white photography
doesn't mean you should jump into the deep end, scouring
galleries for a Carleton E. Watkins or Diane Arbus print. First
of all, you might be hard pressed to find significant vintage
"It used to be a real challenge to find clients. Now it's a
challenge to find work,'' Shapiro says. "When I get a special
work, it's not a question of if I will sell it but to whom I
will sell it.''
Buy What You Love
Although the price of exceptional vintage black-and-white
photography can reach six figures, buying it should not be about
money, dealers and collectors agree. It should be about loving
an image. If you find something you like for $25, go for it. You
will likely be happier than if you bought an expensive
investment piece that you didn't like as much. And many
galleries will allow buyers to buy pieces on a payment plan.
"The biggest mistake is buying something for investment that you
really haven't considered whether you like or not,'' Shapiro
says. "There are loads of things in the gallery that I love, but
what do I want to live with?''
That's why it can make sense for people to check out open studio
tours, flea markets or art festivals in search of an image they
love rather than a name they know. This weekend, for example,
photographers will be among the hundreds of artists displaying
work at the Sausalito Art Festival (415-331-3757). And Sept.
16-17, the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival will host
photographers among the 130 juried artists on hand
Dealers and collectors advise reading books and looking at lots
of images in galleries, exhibitions -- even coffeehouses and
bars in neighborhoods like the South of Market and the Mission
areas of San Francisco, where beginning photographers try to
make names for themselves. Some Berkeley and Albany cafes and
coffee shops also display black-and-white photographs, and flea
markets in Oakland can be a source for some bargain finds, East
Bay photography buffs say.
The gallery at Photolab on Fifth Street in Berkeley will be
dedicated to nothing but black-and-white photography for 2001,
owner Andrea McLaughlin says. And several photographers in
Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and elsewhere often host open
studios. Watch listings in The Chronicle.
Ultimately, look for an image you love. Shapiro and Locke
started that way.
"The first photograph I purchased I acquired because it was
something I wanted to look at,'' Locke says. Her collection
encompasses a range or vintage, modern and sometimes seemingly
disparate subjects. Some images convey a sense of beauty; some,
a sense of humor; and others have historical significance. And
that's exactly why she loves black-and-white photography.
"The variety you can achieve, whether nature, figurative,
historical or academic, is just boundless,'' she says.
For Shapiro, buying black-and-white photography boils down to
three questions: Do you absolutely love it, can you absolutely
afford it, and do you trust your dealer? (See "Hints for
Buying'' on this page.)
"The first experience should be a really good-feeling one,'' he
says. "I don't think you should shock yourself.''
HINTS FOR BUYING
Consider these tips before you head out to buy black-and-white
photography from a dealer or gallery:
Shop around. Go to a variety of galleries and shows. Get a
feeling for both the work and the personnel at the gallery
before you commit. A buyer should get to know a dealer
through repeated visits and discussions.
Do your homework. Looking at a variety of work in a variety
of settings will help train your eye and teach you the
questions to ask. Also, a good gallery will have a list of
recommended books on black-and-white photography. Call to
find out which titles it recommends.
Go slowly. Don't succumb to spur-of-the-moment shopping or
high-pressure tactics. "Take your time and look at a lot of
work. Start to think about what you like and why,'' suggests
Lizanne Suter, associate director of Jeff Fraenkel Gallery
in San Francisco. Another dealer likens buying photography
to snowboarding: "You shouldn't jump on a really fast
snowboard at the top of a hill the first time you try it
just because it looks cool or someone is egging you on. You
need to start slow and build a relationship with a dealer,''
says Michael Shapiro of San Francisco's Shapiro Gallery.
Trust your instincts. Buying art is very personal, and
working with a dealer or gallery owner is much like building
a personal relationship. Questions should be answered with
frankness. The dealer should be able to tell you who made
the photograph and back up the claim with documentation. You
should never feel pressured or unsure. If you do, go