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College Issue: Clickin' it old school
PURE photography cooperative promotes the value of the traditional darkroom
Michelle Phillips, Kathleen Thomas, Annie Patrick, Bill Ballard, Carly Price

WHILE MOST of us have taken the plunge into digital photography — whether as eager enthusiasts, casual cellphone clickers or reluctantly through the demands of our profession — a small but dedicated local group seeks to keep alive what they call the “magic of the darkroom.”

And they’re gaining a lot of support.

Callling themselves the PURE Community Photo Cooperative -- PURE is an acronym for “Photographers Using Real Elements” -- this growing group of aficionadoes celebrates the unique art form of traditional black and white photography, which they say no digital light-sensor chip can ever completely replicate.

In order to do so, they’re working to fund and set up a community darkroom equipped with the venerable but rapidly-disappearing tools of their trade: enlarger, sink, trays, film paper, processing chemicals.

“How can you paint without a paintbrush and paint?” is how one of PURE’s founders, Kathleen Thomas, puts it.

“We’re about the raw materials. You use more of yourself when you’re physically engaged in fine art photography,” she says. “It’s a craft as well as an art form, where you’re in charge of everything. So much digital photography is preprogrammed for you.”

Cofounder Bill Ballard, a veteran photographer, says he’s been shocked at how completely digital technology has altered the landscape of his field, making its traditional tools phantoms of the past.

“Some kids come to school here having never shot a film camera,” he says. “In 2005 Kodak ended production of all black and white film paper. The German company AGFA shut down its entire photo division.”

While both Thomas and Ballard make it clear that PURE certainly doesn’t expect to reverse current industry trends, they say not only is the final result of traditional photography better-looking, it’s also just more fun.

“We don’t want to be seen as anti-digital,” says Thomas. “We know that in some areas, like in the publication world, digital is much more convenient. But we think it’s wrong to cover over traditional photography and not make available the materials to continue it as a fine art.”

With darkroom photography, “so much is open to the creativity and vision of the photographer,” Ballard says. “You can print ten different prints from the same negative and they’re all different, but equally good.”

“There are so many different nuances with black and white photography,” Thomas adds. “There’s a whole tonal range with different papers and temperatures. No two will be completely alike.”

But the real pleasure, they say, is in the process — both individually and working beside other like-minded photographers.

“When I photograph digitally it’s not that different. But post-processing is dramatically different,” Ballard says. “It’s not something I look forward to or feel creative in doing. But when I shoot film I can’t wait to start working with the images.”

Ballard currently has work on display at The Gallery in City Market, most of which is digital.

“I’ve never had anyone look at one of my digital images and say, ‘Wow, you did that in Photoshop?’” he laughs. “Whereas with one my silver gelatin images, they’ll say, ‘Wow, you did that in your darkroom?’ That’s the satisfaction of it.”

Thomas agrees.

“Part of the beauty of traditional film is anticipating the latent image, not knowing what you’re going to get,” she says. “There’s a certain feeling with darkroom work, an alchemy, a special magic. The darkroom is the only place to get it.”

Ballard says one fellow photographer who moved to all-digital work told him, “I miss the darkroom — it gets lonely staring at a computer screen all by myself.”

Thomas says the seed of PURE became planted in her head while she was writing in her journal the day after Christmas.

“I realized I was stockpiling all these images, just shooting and shooting piles of photos in rolls and in contact sheets, but I had no place to develop them, no place to make images,” she recalls.

“I thought, I know there’s others out there like me. So I began talking to other people in coffee shops and places around town, sort of exchanging notes about how we don’t do darkroom work anymore.”

Billard got involved with Thomas when the two had back-to-back shows at the Starlander Gallery and Coffeehouse -- site of the current PURE fundraiser show -- in 2005.

“I had just moved here from Atlanta in 2004 looking for a place to show my work. I had a commercial darkroom I worked out of in Atlanta, but coming to Savannah I soon discovered there was nothing here,” he says.

“I approached SCAD to see if I could use their darkroom, and they said absolutely not. Armstrong said theirs was too small to rent to anybody. All the people with private darkrooms said, no you absolutely cannot use my darkroom.”

Ballard say the dearth of darkrooms sped up his transition to digital photography.

“I wasn’t happy about it — I felt forced into it with no recourse.”

Eventually PURE gathered other core members along the way — including Tamas Horvath, Annie Patrick, Michelle Phillips and Carly Price -- and began to explore ways to generate funds in order to purchase the all-important darkroom equipment they’d need to make their dream of an independent, self-supporting photography cooperative a reality.

The show at the Starlander Cafe, up now through the end of the month, is a fundraiser to do just that. The eventual goal is to have a working space PURE can call its own within a calendar year from now.

In the meantime, donations are welcome.

“We’ve got a call out for everything,” Thomas says. “We’ve gotten some donations already -- an enlarger, a sink, some chemicals and trays and other equipment. We’ve had a lot of support from people like Linda Jensen at Armstrong, and places like Bay Camera and PhotoSCAD. We’re also really indebted to Jerome Meadows for helping us get ready for the show — he has a darkroom for his acid etching that he let us use.”

Thomas says PURE’s vison is to be near downtown, perhaps in the Starland Design District, renting an affordable, shared warehouse-type space with about six enlarging stations and a central washinig area.

In the meantime, PURE continues to staff a booth at the weekly Starland Farmer’s Market every Saturday morning.

“It’s a good place for us, a good community-based environment,” Thomas says. “A lot of people come up and have the same feelings we have on the issue.”

Visitors to PURE’s Starlander show can expect to see a variety of landscapes, figurative works, architectural photos and portraiture, with both framed and unframed work available.

“We have these packages of notecards we’re selling,” Thomas says. “Each one is an original silver gelatin print, so it’s valuable.”

PURE (Photographers Using Real Elements) hosts a group benefit exhibition at Starland District’s Starlander Café, 11 East 41st St. during September. All images in the show were printed from silver gelatin negatives utilizing traditional darkroom methods.

For info or to donate items, e-mail PURE at