CEDAR FALLS | Shannon Graham’s eyes take a few minutes to adjust to a room so dark he can’t see his hand in front of his face. Even so, his practiced fingers open the film canister, remove exposed film and carefully feed it onto a reel before placing it in a developing tank. He douses it with developing chemicals and agitates the tank, eventually replacing developer with stop, then fixer chemicals.
He flips a switch and a red light illuminates the setting. Holding his breath, he gets his first look at his work — the good, the bad and the blurred — on the negatives.
“The dark room – that’s where the magic happens,” Shannon says, smiling. “I can spend 12 hours in the dark room, but I can’t sit that long in front of a computer screen.”
He enjoys the anxiety and anticipation he finds in film photography. “With digital photography, you immediately see what you’ve shot and can take another shot, if necessary. With film, you have to develop it and wait to see if you’ve done everything right, see what you get when that image begins to appear in the developer tray. It’s a little like Christmas,” he explains.
Shannon is one half of the successful husband-and-wife photography team at S&C Studios. Shannon and Colleen have been working together for more than 17 years in commercial and fine-art photography. Their latest body of work will be featured in a Hearst Center for the Arts exhibition, “Studies in the Reactions of Silver and Light,” opening Jan. 14.
Colleen describe the fine-art series as “completely analog — all unplugged,” using film cameras and printing on light-sensitive paper infused with gelatin and silver salts. Any special effects or enhancements were done using multiple exposures or the enlarger. “There’s no photo-shopping involved. It’s all old school,” Shannon points out.
The gelatin-silver process was originally introduced in the late 19th century. The advent – and convenience – of digital photography in the late 20th century made the developing and printing process nearly archaic. Film and printing paper can be hard to come by, and expensive. In contrast to digital images, “film is organic. You’re dealing with molecules, not electrons,” he explains.
Shannon fears people are losing a sense of photography as a tangible object. “Everything is on a digital card, or flipped through on a cell phone, tablet or computer screen and not printed out. People don’t have prints anymore. It’s important to make prints, I think.”
He is a master of large-format photography using a Cambo 4x5 view camera to capture detailed images. College uses medium-format film and Speed Graflex and Hasselblad cameras to photograph scenes of everyday life. In addition to developing and printing, the Grahams also cut and mat their own prints.
This project may encourage amateur and professional photographers to learn or revisit the techniques and skills required in film photography. From decaying vegetables and gritty industrial machines to nostalgic vignettes and abstracts, the Grahams have gathered a striking collection representing 2 ½ years of work. Thirty-five images will be displayed in the show, and all of the black-and-white photos are high-contrast.
“We wanted that dynamic contrast. Nothing is flat gray. Chemicals formulas were designed to make the black as black can be on the paper,” says Colleen.
The photographers used a story board – they call it a “decision board” – to make their final choices among literally dozens of possibilities for the show. “We’re visual people, and it helps us to visualize how the exhibit will look when it’s hanging in the gallery. We made thumbnails of all the potential prints and pinned them up against each other. If one image looked flatter or less contrast-y than another, the flat one was kicked out,” Colleen explains.
Both Colleen and Shannon got their training through the photography program at Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo. They moved to New England after college where they worked with some of the East Coast’s best photographers before returning home to open a commercial photography studio, S&C Graham Foto Design. Several years ago, they revamped an old auto repair garage into a studio near the Hearst Center, S&C Design Studios.