Sid Kaplan’s ‘Darkroom Magic’


The first time that Sid Kaplan saw a photograph being developed he was 10 years old.

In a makeshift darkroom in the corner of a bedroom in a friend’s Bronx apartment, he watched the image emerge onto the paper in a bath of chemicals.

“I just got hypnotized and addicted to the whole thing,” says Kaplan, now 75 and many, many images later.

You may never have heard of Sid Kaplan, but his hand and eye are behind many of the greatest photographs that have been on view in museums and galleries since the 1960s. A master printer, he has done darkroom work for Robert Frank, Weegee, Cornell Capa and many others.

Kaplan is also a fine photographer. He has been taking photos since the late 1940s. His streetscapes show New York City in unwatched moments. In one 1957 scene, two couples on the Staten Island Ferry look out the river in the early morning light, after their senior prom. One girl’s full skirt swirls in the sea breeze.

Early on, he became a New York City history buff. Some “snaps,” as he calls them, were taken from neighborhood rooftops as he’d climb and lean out to get the best views. From the Williamsburg Bridge, he took an exquisite photo of the Twin Towers in 1985, and framed it so that the roof of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol on Norfolk Street is visible, its Star of David between the Towers. He shot many photos of the Towers, varying the time of day and available light, as though he knew then the necessity of recording what would soon be no more. Many of his photos try to capture what was vanishing, like the Third Avenue El.

Another photo of the facades of Lower East Side tenements is an intricate and beautiful pattern of fire escapes and shadows. Every one of his photos tells a story. In an early photo, two young girls on a stoop carefully apply lipstick. While the lipstick may have been borrowed from their mother’s pocketbooks, their pouts seem studied.

He admits that he was not a great student during his childhood in the Bronx, and was much more interested in taking pictures than in his studies. He went on to a vocational high school with a photography department, and after that took on a series of jobs doing darkroom work, or more accurately, doing the grunt work in darkrooms. All the while he did his own work after hours, many hours. His father the furrier was disappointed that he wasn’t going into law, medicine or dentistry, like his cousins, while his mother, on the other hand, was pleased that his interest in photography was keeping him out of trouble.

Kaplan then got a job at the prestigious custom lab that had printed the “Family of Man” exhibit for MoMA a few years earlier. The guys working there were trained in the military, and they passed on their knowledge to Kaplan. In 1968, he opened his own lab, the Custom Work Darkroom, across from Madison Square Park in Manhattan. Robert Frank was an early client.

Most, but not all of the people he made prints for, would spend time stand with him in the darkroom. He recalls drinking MacGregor’s with W. Eugene Smith, and smoking cigars with Weegee, Cornell Capa and Robert Frank, as they printed. He says that Alan Ginsburg, who lived across the street, didn’t smoke or drink in the darkroom and was “totally a gentleman.” Kaplan now has Weegee’s flash, given to him by the photographer’s executor.

He explains that some photographers knew exactly what they wanted, and others left it up to him. It’s surprising to hear him say that the technical aspects aren’t his strong suit. Others say that his mastery is in his ability to intuit what others want in their prints.

“The Jewish thing” in his work developed over time. His Jewish education was brief: He began bar mitzvah training at 12 ½ and quit soon after his 13th birthday. When his mother died in 1984, he noticed on some papers the address on Hester Street where she was born, on the Lower East Side. He went there, but the building was no longer standing.

Kaplan became fascinated with remnants of what had once been a vibrant Jewish neighborhood. Every week, he returned to take photos of the streets, buildings and unfolding scenes. Once, while he was shooting on East Broadway, a man came up from behind him, offered to help, and then asked him to come help make a minyan in a shul on Henry Street. That was the beginning of his regular shul attendance, and he’s now often the 10th man at a shul on East Sixth Street. He has taken lots of photos in the shuls, and enjoys shooting at kiddushes and weddings, whenever he’s allowed.

“Of course, the photos I can’t take — those were the best pictures,” he adds.

About 60 of his black-and-white photographs, taken from the 1950s to the present, were recently on view, “The Last of a Vanishing Breed: Master Printer & Photographer” at 25CPW Gallery in Manhattan. The exhibit was curated by Joan Roth, a photographer who is Kaplan’s agent, and Barbara Koppelman, along with gallery director Bess Greenberg. Roth says that they hope to move the exhibit to a museum and combine it with work that he did for other photographers, including a print by Robert Frank with the inscription to Kaplan, “Thank you for walking through life with me.”

Walking through the exhibit with him, he comments on the back stories of the photos — the light and weather that day, the event or thinking that brought him to that place at that moment.

“If you want to get a good picture,” he says, “ it starts the moment you pick the camera up.”

He’s always using different film, developers, filters and paper “just so it doesn’t look like it all came out of a well-oiled machine with everything fine-tuned, which gets a little boring.”

Kaplan has been teaching darkroom techniques for 41 years at the School of Visual Arts. About new technology, he says, “I tell all my students, all the new digital stuff, with everything built in — you don’t have to focus, you don’t need an exposure meter. The jet [printer] prints out a respectable image. But don’t get lulled into thinking you’re a craftsman. All this new technology is maybe a step or two above a high-quality Xerox.”

Kaplan still does darkroom work in his East Village studio even as his profession is growing obsolete. Kaplan, says that if he were to spend the rest of his days printing only his own photos from old negatives he hasn’t yet printed, he would not get through all of them. But he finds it irresistible to keep shooting, so he adds to the pile. He’s out on the street with one of four cameras he likes to use, all outfitted with different lenses. And he’s still printing for others, and knows of a few other printers in the city who are also still doing the same. He has an 80-year-old client who gives him a lot of work.

“Most people don’t realize that the way you see is different from the way the camera records things, so what you have to do in the darkroom is to compensate,” he says. “That’s when the darkroom magic begins.”