S.R. Robinson - Curating an exhibition of Women Who Shoot Film

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S.R. Robinson is a film photographer based in Joliet, IL, whose meticulous darkroom explorations breathe life into abandoned spaces. Their atmospheric black and white photographs show a deep connection to the unseen history of the places that they portray, while simultaneously allowing this history to blend with the present and possible futures. Our interpretations of the spaces in their work oscillate between a sense of foreboding and hopeful eternal sunshine without forcing one or the other into the foreground.

In this interview S.R. Robinson talks with us about their workflow and motivations as well as their next exhibition opening in February 2017. Originally meant to be their first solo show they decided to turn this opportunity into a collaborative exhibition celebrating Women Who Shoot Film.

To start things off, please tell us a little about how you got involved in photography. Did you dream about becoming a photographer or did it just happen somehow?

I’m not really sure why I gravitated towards photography. I bought a cheap Diana replica back in college and shot a few rolls of expired color slide film that sat in a drawer for years, until one day I decided to try and get them developed. I went to my local camera store, which unfortunately no longer had a lab to develop, but informed me they could sell me the chemicals and tools I needed to develop my own film. I went home empty handed, but came back the next day and spent almost every penny to my name on chemicals, a developing tank, and a vintage omega darkroom timer that caught my eye. When I got home, I started to recall my father talking about how he used to have a camera and took photos during his college years, and asked my mother if that camera was still around. She told me it was in the box in their closet underneath his Snoopy dog stuffed animal. I found it and got it out of the box without his permission, and proceeded to walk downstairs to ask him if I could “borrow” it. He hesitated for a moment, then quietly told me I could have it, because it’s not like he’s touched it in the last decade. From the first click of the mechanical shutter, I was hooked. Because SLRs are mechanical, something about that definitive click of the shutter resonated throughout my whole body. Mechanical cameras are immortal; that’s my favourite fact to tell any newcomer to shooting film. Digital shutters die a little after every exposure, but film cameras will be shooting until the end of time as long as they have a good CLA now and then.

When I’m out shooting a roll of film, it gives me the sense of creating something that will outlast me.

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“Blue Collar Colisuem” | Joliet Iron Works Ruins
“Blue Collar Colisuem” | Joliet Iron Works Ruins

So, did I get that right that you developed some slide film during your first attempt of developing film?! That’s quite brave!

Yes, I was a naive young person and bought into the cross-processing fad that Lomography sold me. I decided to cross process expired slide film with a C41 kit in my bathroom. The situation was so traumatic, my memory of the process is somewhat of a blur. Basically, it can be summed up as 45 minutes of a sweaty, hyperventilating mess of nerves and shaky hands, during which I was crouched holding the dev tank over my bathtub, attempting to simultaneously count inversions, keep an eye on the cheap thermometer in my holding bath, and make sure the hot water pot I had precariously balanced on my toilet was ready for emergency doses of hot water. To this day, I have never again attempted to develop color film.

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The roll I cross processed had a few funky, instagram-esque saturated shots that turned out after I scanned them, but it never occurred to me that cross processing meant I would not get the gorgeous color positive slides I’d dreamed about. The whole appeal of slide film for me was having positives that were exactly as they were meant to be, instead of requiring a scan and color inversion. Luckily I’ve found a lab that can develop all my color film, and am happy just processing my black and white rolls peacefully at room temperature, no sweaty panic induced inversions required.

So, you develop your own BW film and you also print in the darkroom, right? What was it like to get started with that? Did you have any prior experience? And are you more focused on the outcome - the finished print - or are you someone who just enjoys the experimentation in the darkroom?

I had zero prior experience with developing film, let alone printing in a darkroom. I am somewhat of a “hack” in that I have done my due diligence researching the “guidelines” of the darkroom, and reaching out to veteran photographers to pick their brains, but at a certain point you have to embrace that what happens in the darkroom stays in the darkroom and just do what feels right. You also have to accept that you will waste a lot of paper, especially at first.

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After I developed my first black and white roll, and rigged my old scanner to produce some pretty decent scans of my negatives, I was hungry for more. I wanted to bask in the red safelight and watch my pictures bloom in the developing tray. With nowhere else to turn, I posted in a Facebook group called “The Darkroom” making a plea to anyone with a darkroom in my area to let me use their space to learn to print. The response I got was a lovely man named Lyosha offering to give me a Beseler 45, simply because he wanted to help a young film photographer experience the magic of the darkroom. Thanks to my best friend Kristen and her SUV, I soon was the proud owner of my very own enlarger. I rummaged around my house for the rest of the materials I needed, and the final product was what I like to refer to as a “redneck darkroom.” It has no running water, and the “sink” is fashioned from a long shallow rubbermaid balanced on two TV trays. Because the room I commandeered for my darkroom did not have proper ventilation, I opted to use 10x12 containers with lids as covered trays to minimize any fumes. Instead of a washing sink, prints would sit in a “holding tank” on a wheeled cart, which I taxi back and forth between my makeshift darkroom and my bathroom across the hall.

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As far as my main focus - it’s everything. I am meticulous and deliberate from mixing my chemicals, to the rhythms I use to agitate my trays, to the corner of the print I pick up with the tongs to drain and transfer. I have spent 10 hours printing before, in almost a trance. I prefer to work in total silence, though I know most people are all about their “darkroom playlists” and I respect that.

For me, the silence in my darkroom is my personal symphony.

As I become more experienced, the process of printing has become almost automatic, and I can allow my mind to use that time to process, heal, and wander.

My most important piece of advice for any new photographer who is overwhelmed by too much visual stimulation is to go ahead and use a full sheet of paper for test prints. I am autistic and often have a hard time processing visual stimuli, especially when it’s limited and varied, like what you get from test strips. I found that I was actually wasting more paper trying to gauge the best exposure from a limited sample than I would be if I just let myself see the entire image with the gradient exposures. In fact, some of my friends love my test prints and ask to keep them over prints that I spent hours perfecting exposure on, dodging, and burning. Test prints and contact sheets are something I’d love to find a way to incorporate into the public eye more as they’re rarely viewed by anyone other than the photographer. I suppose that’s because they’re considered rough drafts, and artists tend to be very secretive about letting anyone see their creative process. I’m the opposite. I love to show people the journey a negative takes from camera, to the developing tank, to that magical moment in the dev tray.

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This meticulous way of working in the darkroom makes me wonder whether you have a clear vision when you set out to take pictures too. Or is that an attitude that you reserve for the darkroom? Do you rely on serendipity or planning?

You called it! I am a meticulous person to my core. However, this is not to say that my process is void of bursts of spontaneous and unexplainable inspiration! Sometimes, it takes me hours of mental preparation to just mix chemicals and set up my darkroom trays. Other times, I will find myself overcome with the strong urge that I need to go out and photograph something. Usually, that something is an abandoned or decaying structure that I’ve discovered within driving distance. The first photo I ever took with my father’s inherited OM-1n is of an old bunker in the middle of a tallgrass prairie about 40 minutes from my house. Perhaps it was my beginner’s eagerness that drove me to venture out by myself to this old bunker, or maybe even the spirit of Ansel Adams spoke to me. All I know is that morning, I decided to go on a solo 5 hour hike and did not tell anyone where I was going. Nothing was going to keep me from finding that bunker, not even the 2 miles I accidentally hiked in the wrong direction, leaving me retracing my steps in the sweltering June heat and humidity. I forgot to bring water, and experienced a vaguely calming state of mind probably caused by dehydration and/or the early stages of heat stroke.

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Wow, that’s quite some dedication there! Why were you drawn to that place?

Though admittedly I should’ve made sure to bring water, the heat stroke was worth the experience of photographing that relic of a concrete structure slowly giving in to the gentle decay of Mother Nature. From behind, the bunker looks like a hobbit’s house, and from the front the echoes of a forgotten ammunitions plant reverberated into my lens as I snapped the shutter. Always drawn to the macabre, I researched beforehand and learned that in June of 1942, a massive explosion in one of these bunkers killed 48 people, and its aftershock was felt as far as 150 miles away. The workers who died manufacturing the bombs and explosives are in a way the forgotten victims of the WW2 era.

I have a soft spot for honouring the memory of those who history would easily forget.

I recently learned that one of the last photographs Ansel Adams ever took was of an abandoned bunker from WW2 that he came across on one of his hikes. As I mentioned earlier, perhaps it was his spirit that came over me that day. Like Ansel, my photography has centered around the preservation of forgotten or abandoned places. Where he focused on photographing the purity of nature, I focus on documenting decay - my photographs thematically gravitate towards the slow moving battle between nature and the fading hubris of man-made structures as they succumb to something more powerful than themselves.

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Photography is a queer archival practice for me. I see light wherever there is darkness. I see beauty in the grotesque. I see life in places long after it has disappeared. Oftentimes, there is more animacy in places that we’ve abandoned and left in disrepair than on a bustling city street full of brightly decorated shop windows and an endless stream of active bodies going about their day.

It is not difficult to see if you simply slow down, look through your viewfinder, and focus your lens.

What a story! Thank you for this insight into your workflow and the motivations behind your photography. Now, let us talk a little about the exciting exhibition you are working on right now! Obviously for us here at She Shoots Film it is extremely relevant, since it is all about women film photographers, is that right?

Yes, it is. Currently I have been putting my energy into curating my first gallery show at Feed Arts & Cultural Center in Kankakee, IL in February 2017. When I started shooting film, I never thought it’d be anything more than a hobby. If you had told me that within a year of stealing my father’s old Olympus I’d be curating my very own photography show, I would’ve laughed you out of my redneck darkroom. The show initially was going to feature my solo work, but ultimately I made the decision to put together a collaborative show featuring the work of women film photographers. Like so many other things in life, film photography is often a boy’s club. However, thanks to social media, I have connected with a group of brilliant women who are sending their photographs to hang in my show from around the world. I am so glad I decided to put my artistic energy into something that was bigger than myself - my words to live by are “If you want to go fast, go alone; If you want to go far, go together.” Bringing people together has always been my strongest skill. I am half Korean, and in Korean culture the “we” always takes precedent over the “me.” Though my photography is archival, my method of collaborating is very modern: The name of the show is the name of the Facebook group where I posed the idea of showcasing the work of “Women Who Shoot Film.” Because I feel simplicity adds a necessary balance to my intricate meticulousness, naming the show after the group made perfect sense to me.

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This show is dedicated to the memory of Melanie Otto, the recently departed partner of Judy Bienvenu, who has been like a second mother to me. Judy has mailed me countless packages with random tools and materials for my analog pursuits. Thanks to her, I now have a very comfortable backpack to carry my cameras in when I go on those crazy, long summer hikes to abandoned places! Her partner Melanie was also a photographer, and she spent her life teaching photography to others and it was impossible not to catch her contagious passion for all things photography. Her ashes were placed in a 4x5 camera, as per her last request to Judy. On each table at her celebration of life, there was a vintage camera for people to tinker with. I am sure at least one person caught the vintage camera bug that day, and that even in spirit Melanie managed to inspire some new and budding photographers.

Judy Bienvenu and Melanie Otto
Judy Bienvenu and Melanie Otto

That’s such a beautiful tribute to her memory, I really love that! I also think it’s pretty amazing that you decided to open up this opportunity for the women film photography community instead of just doing the solo show on your own. That’s very generous of you!

Actually, I would like to thank Fermin Barbosa and Michael Costanza, who gave me the wonderful opportunity to curate my first gallery show at Feed Arts and Cultural Center in Kankakee, IL. Without the vital support of these two fellow artists, my feminist film photography show never would have happened, and I am eternally grateful for the space and guidance they have given me. The fact that my photographs of resilience and decay are debuting in a gallery that has, from its inception, thrived beautifully in the proverbial cracks in the sidewalk of a small town is something that has a deep impact on me. I hope to use the proceeds from this show to help build a community darkroom in the shared studio space at Feed, and create a collaborative space under that soothing red safelight I love so much for the community of Kankakee.

The opening reception for the upcoming exhibition Women Who Shoot Film is on Feb 3 2017 from 6-9pm at Feed Arts & Cultural Center, 259 s. Schuyler Ave, Kankakee, IL 60901, US.

For more of her work, visit S.R. Robinson's Facebook Page.

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