Sid Kaplan has been working in his personal studio-darkroom hybrid, on Avenue A in New York’s East Village, for over four decades. “He’s an analog man in a digital world, focusing on what’s disappearing, not on the next big thing,” journalist Jim Estrin wrote of Kaplan on The New York Times’ Lens blog.
Born in 1938, the New York native grew up in the south Bronx; his family emigrated from Eastern Europe. He went to a vocational high school and, as a teen, met the infamous photographer Weegee at a signing for Weegee Secrets (his book on his use of flash, published by a bulb company). The two photographers also later crossed paths at the Village Camera Club, a professional haunt that drew people from the milieu. Kaplan’s own mantra is based on a Weegee quote: “If anything looks like a good picture, I take it.”
Weegee was one of many prominent artists Kaplan mingled with. Another famous artist, Ralph Gibson introduced him in 1969 to legendary photographer Robert Frank (whose photographs he printed for 35 years); Robert Frank introduced Kaplan to poet Allen Ginsberg, his neighbor (83 steps away!) and longtime friend, who would come directly to the darkroom to advise him on how to print portraits of Peter Orlovsky and William Burroughs.
Despite this esteemed circle, Kaplan’s career was primarily spent in obscurity, literally as much as figuratively. He toiled in the darkroom, printing impeccable images not just for Robert Frank but also historical figures such as Philippe Halsman, Cornell Capa, and Louis Faurer. In the 1960s, he began printing at Compo, a prestigious laboratory widely relied upon by master lensmen and lenswomen. At first Kaplan printed anonymously amongst the lab team, without any direct relationship to the artists and photojournalists who utilized the service. He started as an apprentice and worked tirelessly: he developed images for the legendary The Family of Man exhibition at MoMA, overseen by curator Edward Steichen, as well as a retrospective featuring the documentary photographers commissioned by the Farm Security Administration. He went on to start his own printing business.
While Kaplan facilitated others’ work with his technical prowess, he also regularly took images himself. He remained fiercely independent, never wanting to wrangle commissions from anyone in the art or advertising worlds. It’s only in recent years that his reputation extended beyond that of an industry insider, and people began to take an interest in his work (which spans more than 90,000 images taken over five decades). “To make a short story long, I always have a camera with me,” he said in a phone interview, delivered in his inimitable old-school outer-borough accent. “I don’t have time to go to some exciting place in Brooklyn or Jersey City, or something like that. Usually, I’m out doing errands, and hopefully a good picture will find me.”
A show of Kaplan’s work is currently on view at Les Douches La Galerie in Paris; it’s the first time his oeuvre has been shown in France, aside from a handful of prints displayed at the gallery’s Paris Photo booth last year. Hand-picked by gallerist Françoise Morin from Kaplan’s vast output, this selection, titled New York Rhythm, “is very personal,” she said. “The prints are rather extraordinary, and the compositions of the street and the details are very pertinent.” Morin learned of Kaplan’s images by way of New York photographer Arlene Gottfried (whose vibrant body of work Les Douches also represents). Kaplan was, unsurprisingly, Gottfried’s printer.
The show focuses on two main thematic strands. One is the graphic nature of New York architecture, notably the verticality of buildings and the interplay of shadows. Kaplan noted that he often used a Nikon PC (Perspective Control) lens to help “straighten out” the buildings, akin to the way parallax simulates correction with a view camera. “What I’ve been doing a liiiiittle bit more,” he mused of his photographic habits, “is putting old buildings in the foreground and new buildings in the background. Maybe I got the idea from seeing some of Steiglitz’s work.”
His gaze upon the city conveys his affection for it, like the playful way the sunset filters through Manhattan skyscrapers (from a series Kaplan calls “Urban Stonehenge”). Or the hypnotic quality of hazy street fumes, or the hush of snowcapped landscapes. There’s an image of the Twin Towers, gray sentinels emerging from a white fog, half a century before their devastating demise. Kaplan considers himself a New York history buff, and views his work a kind of archive of the city. “Of course!” he exclaimed. “Because whatever you photograph ain’t gonna be here tomorrow.” For example, he photographed the dismantling of New York City’s steel-structured Third Avenue Elevated line in 1955-56; those images doubled as urban documents and were shown at the New York Transit Museum’s Grand Central Gallery Annex in 2017.
Kaplan is eager to photograph anything “that I know is going to disappear or change,” he said. This sense of change is tied, sadly, to the reality that today’s New York has starkly shifted from accommodating the working class to hugely privileging the rich. These socioeconomic factors are part of the way the metropolitan landscape constantly evolves. “The things that date the photograph: the cars, the clothes people are wearing… in ten years from now, they’re going to be different.”
The other work exhibited at Les Douches is Kaplan’s early output from the 1950s, featuring children in the streets of the Lower East Side. Here, brick walls and parked cars double as youthful entertainment for frisky youngsters. The images are a sort of autobiographical reflection of Kaplan’s own upbringing: “The kids at play—that is what I grew up with,” he said. “At one time, I was one of those kids at play. That was a part of my past.”
To date, Kaplan still teaches darkroom printing at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Despite this being a rarer and rarer practice in our increasingly digitized world, Kaplan expresses no preciousness and accepts that the medium evolves. When French printer Guillaume Geneste—who interviewed Kaplan for his book Le tirage à mains nues [Bare-handed Printing]—asked Kaplan: “What do you think of the new generation who will never have worked with film?”, he replied: “I have never worked with daguerreotypes, tintypes, or ambrotypes. So, I’m sure it will be fine.”
By Sarah Moroz
Sarah Moroz is a Franco-American journalist and translator based in Paris. She writes about photography, art, and various other cultural topics.
Until November 7, 2020
Galerie Les Douches