Saturday, August 13, 2011

Wilderness Studio - History

Wilderness Studio has completed a huge expansion project.  The new studio area is about one thousand square feet - and the shooting studio has a 16-foot high ceiling.  I also added a new classroom for teaching digital photography classes.  

I have been doing photography for 50 years.  At age 15, I owned a research-quality, old, brass microscope (I bought it with money from my paper-route) - and I taught myself to make photographs of bacteria as seen in my microscope - with a bellows camera that I bought from a pawnshop.  For about 33 years of my life I did photography as a cell biologist - and as a professor at the University of Iowa.  I taught students how to do scientific photography - using macro lenses and cameras on microscopes.  I ran a darkroom for many years at the University, and I gave lectures on photography as part of microscopy classes.

In about 1991 we started to replace our film cameras with digital cameras in my lab.  I remember learning about this new program called Photoshop - it was at version 2 then, and it came in a big box with about 20 floppy disks to install.  Photoshop was written for Mac computers, so I dumped my IBM computers and switched to Macs because only Macs could do graphics.  One of my first digital cameras in my lab was a huge monster that cost about $30,000 - it came with a big cooling unit and a bunch of SCSI cables.  The camera was 1 mega pixel (yes, ONE) - and it was only black and white.  I think about that some times - now my $49 cell phone contains a 5 mega-pixel color camera - and it also makes movies.

I can probably claim to be an early digital photographer pioneer.  I had a background in electronics (I once was a radio/TV serviceman), and since about 1980 I had been building circuits for computers.  One of my specialties was circuitry based on analog-to-digital converters - A/D converters.  Starting in about 1981, I wrote programs for turning small voltages into digital numbers - and recording information rapidly from lab machines (I was measuring the entry of sugar molecules into cultured cells back then).

My background in computers, A/D converters, and wires in general - coupled with a life-time of photography experience - gave me an opportunity to be part of the film-to-digital revolution. The A/D converter is a key part of modern digital cameras, and my experiences with them helped me to understand how the digital cameras worked.  By 1999 we had closed the darkroom associated with my lab, and most of my colleagues and students were capturing their data with digital cameras.  I purchased a huge Sony 3-gun projector (on a huge cart), and I had one of the first classes (Human Biology) on campus that could project digital images and movies from VTR machines during class.  I had to get the University to remove a few seats from the front row of the large lecture room - room 225 of the Chemistry Building - to be able to wheel in the cart and the projector.  What fun!

Although my professional life in photography was taking place in a cell biology laboratory, I also had a darkroom and studio in my home - since 1968.  At first, I made black and white prints in the basement of a house in Coralville, Iowa - and I sold them at the Thieves' Markets at the University of Iowa.  I also had many one-man shows in Iowa City back then.  In about 1970 I started making color prints in my basement studio - using a Kodak Model 11 drum processor (how many years did I take off my life by working with those chemicals - including formaldehyde - in an 8x10 foot, sealed room?).

In 1976 I designed a darkroom to be located on some land that I owned on Sugar Bottom Road - just north of Iowa City.  I drew up my own plans - and I added a house to the darkroom specs. In short order I had installed a 32-inch Colenta roller-transport chemical processor, and I was making 30x40 inch color prints in the basement of my new house.  What a mess.  There were several tanks that each held 10 gallons of toxic chemicals - I had to wear rubber gloves, a facemask, and a rubber raincoat to mix them.  And - since my forest studio was on a septic tank - I had to collect every drop of those chemicals and store them in a 1,500 gallon tank in my lower garage.  Every few months I paid 2 services to take the chemicals and wastewater away.  I was sensitive to the environment, but the dollar costs were enormous.

In the year 2000 I retired from the University of Iowa, and I began a second career as a professional photographer.  I shot with Hasselblads and a 4x5 view camera - with color film - and I printed with my Colenta processor onto Fuji Crystal Archive paper.  I made 30x40 inch color prints - and I'm pretty sure that I may have been the only place in Johnson County, Iowa that could do that.  But, I lived in a dark room with chemicals, and that 1,500 waste tank in the garage that filled up with each print that I made.

One of the reasons that I was eager to pursue a second career was that I had already been witnessing the digital revolution in my laboratory for 10 years.  In the world of science we were all digital converts. I was convinced that the same revolution was about to take place across the entire world of photography - and that the days of film and chemicals were numbered.  I was excited about the possibility that I could play a small part in that revolution in my own studio.  I looked forward to helping people turn from the 150-year history of film and chemical prints - to the new world of digital cameras and computer-based images.  

So - by 2002 I was making big prints with chemicals in my studio, and starting to find customers for my efforts.  I shot back then with an early digital camera, an Olympus 620L. It was a true SLR, and I did a lot of jobs with that camera.  It cost me $1,300 - and it was 1.4 mega pixels!  I paid for the camera many times over - and it was a good starting point.  I used Photoshop to improve the digital images, and then I did an interesting step.  I used an Agfa Alto film recorder to make 4x5 color negatives from the digital files, and I then printed them with my enlarger and my Colenta chemical processor.   It was a real hybrid operation.  I tried to use several true digital printers back then, about 2002, including an Epson 1270.  The result was prints that faded and changed colors in a very short period of time.  There was no way that I could sell a print to a customer when I knew that they would not last - in some cases even for a few months. Digital printing in 2002 was a nightmare.  Epson bought back my 1270 printer and refunded me for all my ink and paper.  It was a disaster.  Digital printing just did not work then - so I stuck with my rubber gloves and chemicals.

A few years later I attended the PMA (Photo Marketing Association) show in Las Vegas, and the Epson Company introduced a new kind of printer - the big Epson model 9600, a 44 inch-wide digital printer.  The real breakthrough was that the 9600 printer printed with a solution of pigment particles, rather than with dyes.  Suddenly, we had a printer that could produce a 40x60 inch photo that would last for 80-100 years.  Wow!  I ordered one from the PMA showroom floor- and I went back home to sell my enlarger, sinks, the Colenta processor, and all of my safelights.  In short order I left the world of chemical prints and sinks - and I gave away my 1,500-gallon waste tank (I dragged it up to the road and put a sign on it: Free. It was gone that night. Some farmer filled it with hog waste the next morning, I expect).  At that point I became totally digital - and I started to make fantastic prints with the lights on - without a drop of chemical waste.  I was also making prints that would last twice as long as my best chemical prints.

I ran my studio from 3 rooms then - one for computers - one for the 9600 printer - and one for studio work.  The shooting studio also housed the equipment for dry mounting, framing, and trimming.  It was in the lower garage attached to my house.  My studio space was about 20x24 feet - with a 6 foot 7 inch ceiling.  Everything was on wheels - because I need to move the last job out of the way in order to start the next job. I had no room for anything, and I could not raise my lights up high enough to even think about opening a portrait studio.  Compared to 75% of the professional photographers who work out of a corner of their living room, I was in great shape, I had a studio space - but the reality was that I could not keep up with my jobs, let alone think about expanding my operation.

And, so, I began to think about buying or leasing a building for a studio.  I looked at several buildings - the ideal was to find a building with apartments attached to help with the monthly payments.  But, Rina, my wife, challenged me with this question: "Do you really want to go to town every morning and open the store - and then sit there all day long?"  The answer was, "No."  I could imagine long days with few customers, followed by a rush job that had me starting at 6 AM and working straight through to 10 PM- and then having to drive home.  Not a good prospect for an old guy.

Since we own 7.5 acres here in a forest, there was another choice: build a modern studio and attach it to the house.  The downside would be the lack of walk-in traffic that would have gone with a downtown building having a sign on the front window to attract business.  The plus side was the opportunity to get up in the morning and to commute to work in my socks.  And, that is what I did.  We hired an architect and a builder, and we planned a 1,200 square foot addition to the house.  My garage studio now opens up into one of the largest shooting studios in the state of Iowa.  I often am up at 5:30 AM - and I often work until 10 or 11 PM.  But, when I need a break, I walk up the stairs and take a nap.

It was a challenge to design the studio - I remember making dozens of drawings just to decide on how high to make the ceiling.  I planned to install a Bogen/Manfrotto ceiling grid, with all the lights on tracks - with pull-down pantographs.  I settled for a 16-foot ceiling, and my builder followed my instructions to make a ceiling that could support the rail system.

I also added a classroom to the new space.  For 10 years I had been teaching digital photography classes - across the State of Iowa – in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Coralville, Iowa City, and at the University of Iowa.  I own about 15 iMac computers, 2 big screens, 3 Epson digital projectors, and boxes of extension cables.  On a typical class day I would go to a storage shed, load up my truck with computers, screens, projectors, and stuff - and then drive to a city where I had rented a conference center for the day.  I'd set up the computers, screens and projectors, and then teach my class. After that, I'd take everything down, load up the truck, and bring everything back to the storage shed.  It got very old - especially on cold and snowy days.

I think that the final straw that killed my classes was a day that I had a class in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  I had rented a small conference room for big $$$ - and the manager asked me if I'd like some coffee for my class.  I live on coffee, so, of course, I said, "Yes."  "Did I want regular or decaf?" he asked. And, of course, I said, "One of each."  When I got the bill, I found that the two small carafes of coffee were $50.00 each!  If I even started to compute my travels costs, room rental, coffee fees, and any financial contribution toward my purchase of 15 computers, screens and projectors, the result was that I had a net loss of income for my day's efforts.  Although the students loved the class, and although I loved the opportunity to teach them, from a business perspective it was a loss - and a waste of my time.  So, instead, I now make monthly mortgage payments on my own classroom - and I walk to class in my socks (but put on shoes for the class).

I have several shooting partners now, and we book weddings and portrait sessions in the big, new studio.  I also have space for a Better Light Digital Scan Back - and a 4x5 view camera - with huge HID polarized lights.  We use this system (made in California) to photograph artist's paintings - at 245 mega pixels.  We print the files onto canvas, and we make GiclĂ©e reproductions from their art.  We also use the system to copy old photos, maps, and documents for restoration.

We are getting busier - and I am adding help.  It is now 10 years since I took the plunge  - and left academe to start a small business.  And, I love every minute of every day.  I hope that there are many yet to come.

Dick  Sjolund