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Drunk as a Punk
Photographer brings 'em back pissed to the gills
By Kelly Vance , February 3, 2006
 
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, http://www.photolaboratory.com/gallery.htm.

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Tell It Like It Is
The documentary will see you now

By Justine Nicole, December 14, 2005


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 good at it.

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
photolaboratory.com/ gallery_page_archive/dianemalek.htm.

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 stream.    


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 Berkeley area.    


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 technology.  

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 cameras.)    
     
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 prints, respectively.    
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 outlays.    
“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 digital files.    
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 will grow.”     

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 occasional request.”    
 

 

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Art in a Snap
Black-and-white photos offer sophistication and investment

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 Piedmont neighborhood.

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 value.

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 work.

"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 (415-381-8090).

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.''

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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 somewhere else.
 

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