In the Greater Boston area, a group of artists and collectives are keeping analog photography alive. You’re welcome.
A handful of passionate artists, inventors, and organizers in greater Boston are proving that the death of analog photography has been greatly exaggerated. The recently formed AgX Film Collective in Waltham, which is dedicated to photochemical filmmaking; CatLABS, a darkroom and vintage-camera resource in Boston that also publishes the art photography magazine PaperSafe; New55, a startup that has invented a new instant film for serious photographers; and artists such as Genesis Báez and Genevieve Carmel are part of the community that is keeping the art of “old school” photography and filmmaking alive and exciting.
While there’s plenty of collaboration between area colleges, including Harvard University and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt), and artists who teach traditional filmmaking, students of these institutions can find it challenging to access analog equipment and know-how once they graduate. Many of them abandon their analog work altogether. AgX fills the void by providing not only a space for artists, but access to a community of filmmakers and photographers who share a passion for analog film.
“I would say the vast majority of the people involved [in the Boston filmmaking community] either teach at the schools, work at the schools, or attended the schools,” says one of the collective’s founding members, Stefan Grabowski, who is also curator of Balagan Films, a well-regarded film screening nonprofit. Located in a former textile mill on the banks of the Charles River in Waltham, AgX is on a mission to rescue expensive film equipment being disposed of by institutions and organizations around the country that no longer see the viability of film in a world that continually demands more, cost-efficient work produced digitally.
AgX hopes to become a resource where artists are able to complete all the stages of the analog workflow. “The model we’ve fallen into here is interesting,” says Grabowski. “We are a collective as well as an artist-run film lab, so we’re definitely interested in the community element of it.”
“My interest in analog comes from a desire to push my own creative boundaries and to explore new approaches to nonfiction filmmaking,” says Genevieve Carmel, an artist and member of AgX. “I’m interested in making films that have to do with personal archives, and I find analog film an attractive format for pursuing this subject.” The handmade aspects of the analog filmmaking workflow, from loading film into a camera to splicing that film on a flatbed editing machine, allow Carmel “to feel present in the physical world”—a world that constantly pushes us to stare at our computer screens for work and other things in life.
Less than 20 miles from Waltham—once home to the Polaroid Corporation’s manufacturing plants before they were demolished in 2010—New55 has been breathing new life into a technology first introduced by Polaroid in 1961: Type 55 film. Well known to many artists, including Ansel Adams, who was a consultant to Polaroid, Type 55 was an instant, peel-apart, black-and-white film that also produced a high-quality, reusable negative. When Polaroid halted production of this large-format film in 2008, it dismayed Type 55 devotees—except for New55’s Bob Crowley. A seasoned inventor in Ashland, Massachusetts, Crowley began to research the physics and chemistry of how instant film worked.
“I wasn’t interested in making a new Type 55 at all,” he says. “This is different, and the reason this is different is because it has to be. You couldn’t legally or morally make the old stuff the way it was made,” he says, referring to the toxic chemicals used to manufacture the older film.
New55 instant film is not a resurrection of Polaroid’s famous product, but rather a new nanotechnology-enabled product that is more technically sophisticated and environmentally friendly than its predecessor. After a smashing success with a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 that raised over $400,000, Crowley’s startup is in the early stages of commercialization. “We thought it was frustrating, challenging, exhilarating—and we’re just getting started,” he says, hopeful from the encouragement he’s received since launching the product.
In Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, interest in analog photography has been blossoming, especially with the addition of CatLABS, a darkroom resource where artists can also find a selection of large-format cameras, lenses, film holders, and other photographic gear. To further extend their mission to promote analog photography, Omer Hecht, owner of CatLABS, and western Massachusetts artist Trevor Powers founded the biannual print publication PaperSafe. It aims to create discourse within the analog photography community and highlight the work of emerging artists.
“[CatLABS] came from an understanding that there is a new crowd of users out there who were born post- ‘the digital revolution’ and are interested in film, but … they have a hard time finding a way in,” says Hecht, referring to the scarcity and expense of analog photography resources.
The “new crowd of users” Hecht describes, which tend to be aged 30 to 35, is the same crowd that’s fueling the work of Crowley and the staff at New55. “That group has had absolutely no trouble learning how to do this,” Crowley says. “Why? Because they didn’t use the old stuff very much. It was gone before they even got into their 20s.” He adds that among those who have had the most trouble learning to use New55 film are photographers who really loved the older Polaroid film. Still, he says, “We’re trying to make large-format photography accessible and easy.”
Both Hecht’s and Crowley’s words resonated in my conversation with Jamaica Plain artist Genesis Báez. A recent graduate of MassArt, Báez creates work in both black and white and color, using large- and medium-format film. “Sometimes it feels inaccessible. It’s hard and it’s definitely a commitment,” she says of the challenges of doing photography the “old-fashioned way.” Collectives like CatLABS and AgX aim to make things a bit easier for Báez and her fellow artists.
“I just went to CatLABS for the first time,” she tells me during our interview. “I knew about PaperSafe, which I recently submitted to, but I didn’t quite know what CatLABS did, and [I] spent some time talking to Omer. Whoa, this is such a gem!”
Báez says that the act of working with film is meditative. “It forced me to slow down in a way that felt very important in order to be present with my subject. I don’t have an infinite amount of [film] exposure, so I have to be very intentional, very deliberate. It almost became like making a painting.”
“Film has its own qualities,” says Grabowski of AgX, who, like Báez, is a MassArt graduate. “I was more drawn to film as a medium, because I’m sort of interested in all different kinds of art forms, and I saw it as a way to amalgamate all these different forms into one.”
“We aren’t against digital formats, nor are we interested in the film-versus-digital debate,” says Powers of PaperSafe. “We simply prefer the magic that happens when shooting with film.”
That magic keeps artists interested in continuing to make work in an analog way. The act of slowing down and relearning how to see, and the feeling of amazement when an image appears in the darkroom, are all part of the appeal of working with film. “There’s nothing like it,” says Crowley. “We’re not keeping it alive—it just isn’t going to die.”