This week’s contributing writer, Jessica Williams, is a Ph.D. student at Harvard University. As the current Agnes Mongan Curatorial Intern at the Harvard Art Museums, she is researching and building an online special collection to highlight the museums’ recently acquired Schneider/Erdman Printer’s Proof Collection. The launch of the digital resource will coincide with the Summer 2018 exhibition Analog Culture: Printer’s Proofs from the Schneider/Erdman Photography Lab, 1979–2011.
In 1979, Gary Schneider and John Erdman opened a printing studio in the heart of downtown Manhattan. Working with countless photographers, technicians, assistants, and other printers in the years that followed Schneider/Erdman Inc. produced iconic photographs and publications that defined an era.
Coming of age in 1980s New York, Schneider/Erdman Inc. was at the forefront of experimental printing processes and darkroom techniques. Indeed, conversations with the couple are filled with anecdotes that shed light on the larger history of photography in the age of analog culture—from how they and other printers tried to cope with the loss of various materials (including the now mythical Agfa Portriga Rapid) to whether and how the specific aesthetic failures of film, toners, or papers could be mitigated. For example, when Agfa stopped production of Portriga paper in the late 1980s because the process used to manufacture the paper inadvertently created environmentally destructive amounts of cadmium, the printers actively sought alternative papers and processes in an effort to replicate the beloved chlorobromide paper’s warm signature tones. Cherished by artists like Peter Hujar, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, and Nan Goldin (whose works Schneider and Erdman printed), the paper’s termination in many ways marked the end of an era, leading in part to the lab’s transition from silver to pigmented ink printing.
Drawing attention to the technical processes and materials of photographic production, the Schneider/Erdman Printer’s Proof Collection, recently acquired by the Harvard Art Museums, offers new avenues of inquiry into this pivotal period in the history of photography. What exactly is a “printer’s proof,” or a “vintage print” for that matter? Why did certain photographers use certain printing papers, and what tonal qualities and surface textures did different papers afford? How did materials condition the aesthetic of a photographer’s print, and how might these pristine proofs be used to explain darkroom processes and techniques to students unfamiliar with analog technologies?
An upcoming exhibition at the Harvard Art Museums, Analog Culture: Printer’s Proofs from the Schneider/Erdman Photography Lab, 1979–2011, co-curated by Deborah Martin Kao and Jennifer Quick, aims to address these and other imperative art historical inquiries. At its core, the exhibition seeks to consider how the printer’s proof collection, which consists of more than 450 photographs by artists as diverse as Richard Avedon and Lisette Model, can be used as a means to teach both students and the general public about the material and cultural history of photography.
Both the show and the online special collection rely heavily on anecdotes and technical information gleaned from extensive interviews with Schneider, Erdman, and a number of the clients for whom they printed. Because each client had their own distinct working relationship with Schneider, these conversations have become key to both the exhibition and online resource which aim to consider the necessarily collaborative space the Schneider/Erdman lab afforded. For example, while Avedon’s work would arrive at the lab marked-up with specific instructions, numerically indicating exactly how bright a particular highlight should be or how subtle details in a specific area should be submerged, discussions with Lisette Model on the front steps of her basement apartment in Greenwich Village were more open, leading to considerations about narrative and how the story of a print could be revealed through various tonalities. While collaborative relationships with other technically astute printers, such as Gilles Peress, led to Schneider’s discovery and use of new papers and developers, collaborations with various technicians provided him inroads into how particular technical problems might be solved.
An important consideration for the exhibition as well as the online special collection that will accompany it is how stories regarding the processes of making—of “dragging prints through chemistry,” as Schneider has put it—can be collected and presented so that they remain accessible to a larger audience. This, in part, will be the role of this expansive collection’s digital component, which aims to make archival material and recorded interviews with both the printers and photographers broadly available. Structured around in-depth case studies of select works, the resource will allow for close considerations of not only iconic prints and important cultural works (such as Madonna’s Sex book), but also copywork that the lab undertook for commercial clients (for example, The New York Times Magazine). This format, as opposed to one that focuses solely on processes or that divides the collection more generally into groups by artist, has allowed us to closely engage with individual works through Schneider and Erdman’s collaborative means of making and to highlight the collection’s pedagogical potentials.
In addition to recorded interviews, the hope is that archival material from the Schneider/Erdman collection, such as a letter that Sally Mann wrote to Schneider on the back of two prints asking about Portriga alternatives, will also be included. Set to launch in late Spring 2018, the online special collection will offer a searchable platform for the printer’s proof collection and will serve as a resource for researchers, practicing artists, and members of the public interested in (or nostalgic for) a vibrant analog culture.