PURE – Photographers Using Real Elements – A Group of Savannah Photographers Dedicated to the Art of Traditional Process Photography

“Fort Pulaski” by Kathleen Thomas

Photographers Using Real Elements, (PURE) is a non-profit organization based in Savannah, Georgia, working to preserve traditional film-based photographic processes. The goal of PURE is to establish a community oriented darkroom for those interested in working with film and chemistry. Additionally, PURE plans to develop educational programs to introduce the art of traditional process photography to those that have only experienced the medium through digital processes.

Wait – people still use film? Isn’t film…well…dead? Extinct? Kaput?

No. Well not yet, anyway.

Certainly, some aspects of film based image making have faded into obscurity. Kodak ceased production of all black & white photographic paper in 2004; AGFA completely abandoned all things photographic soon after; and many ancillary products like spotting dyes and washing agents are no more. The relatively few materials still in production are becoming more expensive and more difficult to find.

Community darkrooms were a common thing in most cities as recently as the early part of this century. Atlanta, Georgia had three of them at one time. Now, I only know of half a dozen still in operation across the whole of the United States, something to me that is very sad. PURE was founded in early 2007 by fellow photographers Kathleen Thomas and Michelle Phillips; I became involved soon thereafter.

“Witness” by Bill Ballard

So, the question begs: why a darkroom in the digital age?
The answer’s quite simple, actually: its how some photographers prefer to do their work. My background in photography is based on film and chemistry; light and paper. Even though I began shooting digitally over four years ago (much later than many, I might add) I am still far more comfortable doing my work in a darkroom. Another reason is that I enjoy the process. For years, I wore a near permanent ‘darkroom squint.’ In the time I’ve shown and exhibited my work, I’ve never had anyone look at one of my photographs and say “wow, you did that on a computer?”

Before I go further, perhaps I should clarify what PURE is not. PURE is not to purport film to be better than digital, nor was it created to foster the film vs. digital debate. As I said earlier, PURE exists to create an environment that will allow those wanting to do their work in the ‘analog’ world of photography, and those wanting to learn, the ability to do so – and that’s pretty much it.

From my perspective, there’s little difference in the methods of the medium. I use them almost equally. Both use a light tight structure and light refracting glass to focus reflected light through an opening in the lens onto a light sensitive surface. The result from either is a visible image of reflected light. A photograph.

The difference between the mediums is more with the photographer and the path he or she wishes to take to the visible image than the mediums themselves.

I can go to two cabinet makers and order new wooden cabinets. One will use pre-cut and machine formed materials, assemble them with pneumatic tools, and deliver them to my home by truck. The other will use only hand sawn woods, a hand saw to cut the wood to shape, a hammer and nails to assemble the cabinets, and a horse drawn wagon to deliver them.

Either way, I have high quality cabinets made from wood in my home. Are there differences? Yes, certainly. Are they noticeable? If both are done with due consideration given to materials used and the methods of assembly, not likely. At least not to an untrained eye.

Is there a difference in cost? Absolutely.

It’s much the same with film or digital based photography. I can use film based chemical processes or electronic digital process. Either way, I have a photograph. But one costs more to produce than another. And it’s fair to say at this point that while good digital color printing has been around for a while, such wasn’t always the case with black and white digitally produced prints. However, the gap is closing now, and it’s closing fast.

Darkroom equipment was very cheap to acquire in the early days of the rush from film to digital. Entire working darkrooms, often with professional equipment, could be bought for pennies on the dollar. Now, with equipment in good working order becoming more difficult to come by, the costs of building and operating a darkroom are increasing. The costs of chemistry, film, paper, and other essentials are also on the rise. Film cameras, however, are continuing to drop in cost. Many camera stores no longer stock them.

Untitled, by Michelle Phillips
Digital photography has presented peculiar considerations that film photography did not, particularly where equipment upgrades are concerned. With film, I always adopted the philosophy of using the least expensive body with the best lenses that I could afford. An upgrade was almost always to a lens and not the body, unless a wider shutter speed range or film speed range was needed.

Having the best glass to transmit the light was the goal and good glass is still vital to digital imaging. However, digital camera sensor resolutions continue to grow. Working professionals, particularly those in the commercial world, almost always have to upgrade when a higher resolution and faster digital body is introduced in order to stay competitive. In turn, higher resolution sensors create larger files sizes, so memory cards must also be upgraded. Computers used for image processing and storage often require an upgrade so that processing times and storage capacities stay reasonable. An upgrade to a printer capable of faithfully reproducing the higher resolution files will certainly follow.

A darkroom rarely required such extensive upgrades simply because a new body was introduced to the photographers gear inventory. The exception was if a larger film format camera was added, such as a 4X5 or 8X10 view camera. In that case, an appropriate enlarger and negative carriers may be needed. Otherwise film camera upgrades were generally an upgrade to the light tight structure only.

I work with both mediums and still use film fairly often, processing it in my guest bathroom at home. Until PURE achieves the goal of a working darkroom, I will continue to scan the negatives and print them digitally.

PURE will hopefully gain ground soon. It has been a slow and often frustrating process this far. Educating a community of artists and associated professionals to embrace a need they don’t readily perceive has been a challenge to say the least. Still PURE has hosted a successful gallery exhibition in the fall of 2007 and future shows are in the works. I’ll post show events here as they are planned.

I know of a few photographers, some very talented, that chose to end their career rather than shoot digitally. One continued to print his negatives until his supply of papers and chemicals was exhausted, then declared his work to be at an end. At a minimum, this is unfortunate, even short-sighted and selfish. The world is being denied very beautiful work.

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