quite a week here in new york! no printing, we lost power at griffin editions in tribeca, but the lab itself is on the 5th floor, so no flooding. i stayed home through the hurricane, my house is fine, and all the important projects suddenly took second -or third- place in things to do. new york is a disaster and printing photographs seems frivolous.
but, there's always a but, on wednesday i got a call from max snow, his entire negative archive in his studio in red hook got flooded. what to do? well, unfortunately, i knew exactly what to do because i've had to do it before. people store things in basements and basements flood, even without hurricanes. it was i think in the late 90's, when my good friend sy rubin -no longer with us- found his thousands of negatives soaked in water. dozens of boxes were brought to the lab -lexington labs was on 23rd street back then- and we started cleaning up the mess. acetate mixed with wet cardboard, slimy glassine and what not. i had to figure out what to do. first separate the acetate -the actual negative- from the rest. it had to be done in water so nothing would stick. but how long can you leave negatives wet before the emulsion just slides off? turns out negatives are very resilient, and even after a few days we were able to dry strips of 35 mm film without too much damage. sy was devastated but we saved about three quarters of his collection.
so when max brought in bins and bins of negatives to griffin in willamsburg -the digital part of the lab with electricity working- i already had a plan. manpower was needed because we only had so much time to dry everything. eli, mike, natalie, dennis -thank you- came to help and we set out to work. first we transferred the negs still in glassine or polypropylene into trays of cold clean water -film emulsion soften too fast in warm water- then we put up string lines with clothespins, and started to rip the glassine off carefully, and hang the film to dry. max has mostly 8x10's, some 2 1/4 as well, so it's a bit easier to handle than small strips of 35. the first round was getting dry, time to clean more, and repeat the process until the bins were empty. it took two and a half days. we even saved many contact sheets.
we cleaned up the most important negs first, max had to make a decision, and he wanted the images of his father and uncle first. that's what artists have to deal with in an emergency such as this one: what is really important and cannot be redone one way or another... perhaps we even have a new perspective about our work in the future. could one shoot only important images? probably not, but at least we can think a little harder about every project. anyway, on the third day max was starting to show some hint of a smile again, sandy didn't wipe out his work after all! prints don't survive that sort of treatment though, especially mounted fiber prints. there's not much i can do there. on a regular day, we look at mounted prints and reject them for a tiny -tiny- scratch... water damage doesn't go away on a print. the good news is: a print can be redone, and we have the negatives to do it.
so today i am home, thinking about sy rubin and his incredible collection of images about new york. he was still shooting the year he died in 2002, and i can only imagine what else he would have done. i know we were talking about his project about the water's edge over the five boroughs. he would have been done by now. i remember him sitting at the round table when he used to stop by on saturdays and tell me stories about street photography in new york over the years. i miss him.
when sept 11 happened, it was a different kind of tragedy. i was at work, but then it was about processing film, non-stop for 2 weeks after the event. everyone shot film back then, and my lab was above 14th street so i was operational. negatives that got damaged couldn't be saved. i'm thinking of a few i had printed before for jacques lowe -no longer with us- and had recently been moved to the world trade center. kennedy negs, jazz greats negs and so many more beautiful images. i'm thinking about jacques lowe today as well.
the 2 weeks after sept 11, the magnum -and other agencies- photographers were in town and many shot black and white, the film was coming in constantly, from early morning to late evening. i didn't watch TV that week, but i saw the unedited version through the lens of many. today i think about all the people in the towers that day. i think of the weekend before when i went to meet marc riboud at the leica gallery, about the importance for a photographer to be at the right place at the right time... even some places and times you wish didn't exist.
but things will get back to normal. when people are lost, houses broken and lives changed, artwork seems unimportant. but things will get back to normal, and artwork will get its place back, it will dress up our walls again, it will make us think again, it will get us through some good and bad days, it will be important again. well, everything is relative.
next week i will be back in my darkroom -electricity is back in tribeca- for projects to finish. prints to make for lorna simpson and others. i'm not sure at this point what i'll have to do, priorities have changed this week, but life still goes on.