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    Lovers Point Park, California; Bernheim Forest, Kentucky; Monastery Beach, California — by Sean Patrick Hill
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    By Sean Patrick Hill

    Cover photo: Lovers Point Park (California), Bernheim Forest, Monastery Beach (California) by Sean Patrick Hill

    I’m alone in the woods with my camera. I aim it at a sycamore root that snakes into the nearly still Rock Run Creek, at Bernheim Forest south of Louisville. It is the root’s animal quality, the tendril-like reaching of the burled and knotted wood, that first drew my attention. I’ve photographed it before, but I remain unsatisfied.

    On this spring evening, I brace one leg of the steel tripod against a shard of limestone and grind the other two legs into the gravelly bank. The camera body points at a downward angle toward the water. Should someone comment on the camera, as they frequently have when I’m in the field, they often refer to it as an “old-fashioned camera.” The accordion-style bellows resemble the cameras crafted of wood, leather and brass from more than 100 years ago. Mine, though, is far more recent, produced in Switzerland in the 1970s by a company called Sinar. Mounted on an aluminum rail, the camera is mostly hard black plastic, with a 210-millimeter lens that projects an inverted image onto a ground-glass screen. It’s called a “large-format view camera.” The negatives, I explain to passersby, are four-by-five inches (4x5), which can absorb more light and result in far more detail than smaller film. Every leaf, every stone on the creek bottom, every cloud reflected in the water. In the early 20th century, this level of superb detail was known as “straight photography.”

    I peer through the goggles attached to the bellows, making adjustments — camera movements known as tilts, swings and shifts — until the image is crisp on the ground glass.

    I close the iris on the lens, and the ground glass goes dark. At this point, I can do little but trust my judgment. I set the aperture and shutter speed. I slide a film holder, embedded with a 4x5 black-and-white negative, directly in front of the ground glass. It clicks into place. I attach the cable release to the lens.

    I cock the shutter. I release the shutter.

    Bernheim Forest // by Sean Patrick Hill

    I have photographed, more or less, for nearly 25 years. I took my first serious shots on a 35-millimeter camera I borrowed from a younger brother. Most of us are familiar with that type of camera: metal body (most often made in Japan), standard lens, the wonderful audible snap of the shutter. It remains the standard beginner’s camera for high school students. Years ago, my father gifted me his Pentax, which I kept stored in a cardboard box as thousands of images downloaded onto my computer from my phone.

    But in the same way that some young people are going to vinyl albums for their music, rather than digital files, a number of Louisville photographers, including me, are turning back to film.

    T.K. Broecker and his wife own the Print Refinery, which does printing, scanning, passport photos and framing in a shopping plaza on Westport Road. The 6,000-square-foot space also houses the film-processing shop Fulltone, which has moved all over the city since it opened in 1939 and continues its function of processing both color and black-and-white film. Broecker says that Fulltone runs, on average, 50 rolls a day. A lot of the business comes from small labs in the surrounding states: Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee. “All the labs in Chicago send their stuff to us,” he says. Though he has seen an overall decline in film usage over his 15 years in business, he says he has recently noticed an uptick in film’s popularity. “I’m going to call it a younger crowd,” Broecker says, “anywhere from 16 to mid-20s.

    Glacier National Park, Montana // by Fred DiGiovanni 

    “It’s a resurgence of slowing down, perfecting something, not necessarily having instant gratification. With digital, if you don’t get the right picture, you take it again, and you know immediately. Whereas film forces you to either accept that it’s bad or make sure everything’s right to begin with. And I think because that age grew up with cell phones or digital cameras…film is a novelty.”

    State Film Lab on Baxter Avenue is the only lab in town to process large-format film, both color and black-and-white. (In addition to State and Fulltone, Murphy’s Camera develops film, though only in color.) The whole of State Lab’s long room is roughly 700 square feet. Along the walls sit inkjet and wet printers, film scanners, a desktop computer station and racks of processed film, hung to dry. Air hoses dangle from the ceiling. Part of the space is partitioned off: the darkroom and the machines that process the film. “It’s very seasonal,” owner Billy Grubbs says of his business, which he launched in autumn 2013. Summer, for example, sees a lot of film, including the medium-format increasingly used by wedding photographers. Roughly 30 to 40 percent of the volume is local, Grubbs figures. Like Fulltone, much of the film comes from mail-in customers.

    Grubbs estimates that roughly 100 photographers shooting film in Louisville use the lab, from those going through only one to two rolls a year to those shooting 10 rolls a week. A wedding photographer — and this is how Grubbs got his start — can shoot 30 rolls in a day. A portrait photographer can do seven or eight rolls in a session, easily.

    Grubbs says most of these photographers are hobbyists, enthusiasts and University of Louisville students, and range in age from upper teens to low 30s. “I think young people are becoming numb to beautiful images, and I think that’s primarily because of Instagram. Maybe that’s inspired people to look beyond creating just a pretty picture, and maybe they’re starting to be attracted to the process of creating it,” he says. Some of the hashtags he adds to State’s Instagram page — #explorewithfilm, #filmnotfilters, #grainisgood — testify to his love of the old way of doing things. “I’m not saying you can’t shoot digital without a discipline, but for me, the film focuses me to see more of the effects of light in real life rather than taking the picture, then looking at a screen to see the light.

    “And every shot, considering that film and processing cost money, has a tangible value,” Grubbs continues. Between the cost of large-format film and the cost of having it processed, one could spend close to $10 per shot.

    Once, I stood outside State Film Lab and shot a brilliantly painted graffiti tag that somebody who goes by KONQR had splashed on the building across the street. I positioned the view camera near the railroad bridge, so I could, in the same frame, include both the tag and the colors of the comic book store beneath it. State developed both exposures, and they came out beautiful, rich and bright. I was grateful, because the next day the tag had already begun to be painted over in a flat, brutal white.

    Downtown Louisville // by Andrew Cenci

    “I love the traditional form of street photography,” says Andrew Cenci, who began shooting on 35-millimeter film and has since experimented with medium- and large-format. Though there is dispute over what constitutes proper “street photography,” Cenci says he is drawn less to architectural shots than to the chance to explore people. Cenci has traveled to Tokyo and Bangkok to take pictures, but he has also hewn close to his neighborhood in Shelby Park. He relishes the Derby, when the streets of Louisville prove more interesting, he says, than New York.

    A number of his street shots from Asia, all done on black-and-white film, were on display in the Green Building Gallery this year, as part of a dual show titled “Discover.” For the opening, the largely packed room bustled with conversation.

    Cenci’s digital work began when he took photos for an engineering and equipment company called MXD Process. Later, working for a local design company called Forest Giant, he met Dean Lavenson, a local professional photographer. The two hit it off, Cenci says, and started going out for drinks at Ward 426 on Baxter Avenue, across the street from Lavenson’s studio, which shares a building with State Film Lab. Cenci learned about the 4x5 view camera and loved how it excelled at portrait photography — the depth and the contrast one could achieve. When he learned that Lavenson, who does all his commercial shooting digitally, was fully proficient with the use of the 4x5 view camera, he asked him — “begged” is the word Cenci uses — to teach him to use the camera. Lavenson eventually agreed.

    Author's photo of his daughter, Teagan

    When I show up at Lavenson’s studio for the first Monday of his free three-week class on view cameras, pizzas are in the commercial kitchen that is part of the studio. There’s a pizza oven for his work with Papa John’s.

    The bulk of Lavenson’s studio is a simple, mostly white space. A 4x5 Cambo — a professional-quality camera — is mounted on an imposing monopod and links directly to the iMac on a small table. His mother helped buy that camera when he enrolled in the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California, in the mid-1980s. Lavenson is in his early 50s now, soft-spoken and articulate. A group of photographers settle into the couches and chairs along the back wall: besides Cenci, there are two University of Louisville students; Adam Mescan, an employee from Murphy’s Camera (and a Louisville Magazine freelance photographer); Andrea Koesters, who worked at State Film and has since moved to Arizona; and Rachel Waters, a professional photographer who until recently worked with Lavenson. (Lavenson plans on teaching the large-format class again. Once people found out about it, more wanted in. “I love playing a really small part in seeing the interest in film grow,” he says.)

    Lavenson readies slides he has prepared on the large desktop computer. “With digital,” he says, “it’s easy to get way ahead of yourself, and then you realize that you’re no longer really creating art — the camera is just a pretty expensive Xerox machine at that point.”

    With a large-format camera, he says, “You can actually create your plane of focus to be as flat as the desert you’re photographing, so that the branch in the foreground is as sharp as the mountains in the background.”

    Since Lavenson’s class, Cenci says he has shot perhaps 10 large-format frames. “I’m very selective,” he says. “Portraiture is a very slow process of taking pictures.” Recently, he stood on the corner of Liberty and Fourth streets downtown, taking portraits of people he’d ask to pause for perhaps five minutes in their comings and goings.

    “I feel like it’s growing,” Cenci says of film culture in Louisville. “I think part of it is that in this digital world we live in, everyone wants something they can physically touch and feel and hold.”

    Before I built my darkroom, I would go to my bedroom long past sundown and sit on the floor of my closet, a towel pushed against the gap under the door. Total darkness. By touch, I would open the first lid on the 4x5 film as Lavenson had taught us, then the second — a kind of puzzle box that protects the film from light. I’d pull a film holder’s cover, known as the “dark slide,” and guide in a sheet. The next time the slide would come out, I would be in the light, making a negative.

    Cherokee Park // by DiGiovanni

    Entering photographer Fred DiGiovanni’s house off Douglass Loop, you immediately see, hung above the fireplace, a signed silver gelatin print of Ansel Adams’ Moon Over Half Dome, which was shot in 1960 and is one of Adams’ most iconic images.

    DiGiovanni, originally from Queens, New York, has been shooting for 55 years, his first shots being of an airplane snapped on a sixth-grade field trip. He has shot nothing but film in all that time, and he does his own processing, printing, matting, framing and mounting. He has chided me over my insistence on perfection in my work. Any small mars on my prints, such as spots caused by emulsion inconsistences, bother me, but to him they suggest: photograph.

    For nearly 30 years DiGiovanni taught middle school art, including photography, here in Louisville. Yet, during the last Photo Biennial in Louisville, when dozens of photography exhibits were on display in galleries throughout the city, he offered a darkroom class and nobody signed up. Now, he is ready to offer one again. Interest, he says, is growing.

    I’ve spent time in DiGiovanni’s darkroom, which one enters through a revolving door that came from the Courier-Journal. When I drop in, he is busy preparing for a show at First Light Gallery on East Main Street. It’s a collection of shots from a recent trip to Kenya, taken on a 6x7 Pentax. He rarely shoots people, focusing instead on landscapes and abstracts, but in Kenya he actively photographed people in the small villages. “My whole purpose is to create art, to create something that someone would be pleased to be in the presence of and enjoy on a daily basis. This,” he says of the Adams print, “inspires me every day. For me, that’s what it’s about.”

    Glacier National Park // by DiGiovanni

    DiGiovanni has little patience for digital photography. The Louisville Photo Forum, of which he is a founding member, is largely, if not entirely, digital. But this spring he gave a talk on the history of film photography at the group’s monthly meeting, held at the Bon Air Library. “To me,” he said, “photography is about light. It’s not about pixels.” Photography, he said, means painting with light. “And that’s exactly what you’re doing. Because when you’re burning and dodging, you’re painting.”

    By now, I have learned the art of exposure, developing, printing and mounting — and much of it because of DiGiovanni. The sycamore root I shot in Bernheim is now dry-mounted on archival cotton-rag paper, matted and framed. I hung it on my wall, a way to say: I did this.


    I visit Lavenson as he’s photographing a bottle of bourbon in his commercial studio. He’s been in this industry for more than 20 years. Today, he photographs the glistening bottle with a handheld digital camera, the bourbon poured over plastic ice. Much of this commercial work he has done using a 4x5 camera with a digital attachment.

    Digital did not win out over film because it’s better, he insists, but rather because, on a professional level, it’s cheaper and has a faster turnaround. And it erased the anxiety of all that could go wrong with a shot. “The camera has this awesome ability to educate, to empathize with a culture, a group of people,” Lavenson says. “Whatever your message is — if it’s environmental causes, say — the camera is a powerful tool to change the world by what you see and how you see it. I’ve always felt like the camera is maybe the best way to change the world.”

    On the shelf in his office, Lavenson keeps a hardcover book of the photographs of Alma Lavenson, his great-aunt and an accomplished photographer and friend to Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and other leading photographers from the early 20th century. His father was an amateur photographer who built a darkroom in the family basement. As a child, Lavenson remembers watching his father make prints.

    Downtown Louisville // by Cenci

    “For me,” he says, “I fell in love with photography when I first saw…a picture that I took develop right before my eyes. And I’ve learned over the years that that’s the magical point where a lot of people fell in love with photography. This has an overwhelming emotional effect on people, and it did for me as well.

    “You take that negative and slide it into an enlarger,” he says. “You focus it down on your easel, you slide in a piece of paper and you expose it, and you develop it, and you watch that print turn from a white sheet of paper to the very picture that you took.”

    This originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Focused on Film." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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