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CTRL + P: Shari Wilkins' Cleveland Print Room Revives the Era of Film Photography

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The Cleveland Print Room is open to photographers and artists of all stripes. The photography cooperative, opened and run by Shari Wilkins, features classes for budding photogs and wall space for inspiring exhibitions. Wilkins' goal is to get the place buzzing alongside the rest of Cleveland's burgeoning arts scene. We recently walked around the place — darkroom and all — and talked about the resurging art of analog photography.

This place looks really great. How did all of this get started?

SW: We opened our doors last January, but I started working on it two years ago. I went over to Liz [Maugans, at Zygote Press] to talk about my found-photo business; I'm a found-photo dealer. She said they have a dark room and enlargers, and she'd like to keep them in Cleveland. There's nothing else in Ohio that has this. So we built the dark room and decided to do a gallery. There are so many photographers in Cleveland who said that there's not a dedicated gallery for photography. It was a quick, natural progression.

Are all of these photos part of an exhibit going on right now? (Photos and physical art line the walls of the Cleveland Print Room.)

SW: Yeah, this is our Hidden Mother show. It's been up for awhile. Here, you can see the mother sitting there with a cover over her. [These are all very old photographs depicting children whose mothers are sort of concealed behind them under sheets and the like.] Being a found-photo person, I saw these and thought it would be really cool to ask some female photographers in Northeast Ohio to kind of give their version of the "hidden mother" motif. We got 20 different entries, including video. We had about 450 people here on opening night.

Apart from shows, you run classes here as well, right?

SW: Right. Here is where we do our developing. We try to set up everything for the amateur. So when they take a course, they can come in here. It's very easy to do. Have you done developing like this — in a darkroom?

I took a class in college and remember it being quite dark.

SW: We try to make it easy. Here's our darkroom. [We pass through a circular door that clangs metallically as we enter the room. The lights are on.] We built this and modeled it after schools around the area. I took a class at CIA two summers ago; I actually hadn't been in a darkroom before and wanted to get a sense of how it works. It's not really that hard once you learn the basics.

So for the uninitiated, someone could come by and learn the process and leave fairly confident in these new skills?

SW: Absolutely. I think a lot of people don't understand that. But it's like a recipe — like baking a cake or something. Once you know how to do the chemicals — which we do 90 percent of the time — it's very easy. We frequently have photogram parties too, which are really great and kind of a different way of doing things. Here, I'll show you. [We return through the circular metal door and review recent sun prints, photograms, pinhole camera photos, etc.]

Is this growing interest in analog photography a pushback against our "Instagram culture" or do you think digital photography is positively spurring people to learn about the old way of doing things?

SW: I kind of feel like Instagram has opened photography up to a whole new group of people. It's made them aware of what you can do with filters and everything. At the same time, there's really nothing like going into the darkroom and doing it with your hands. It's really different than sitting on a computer with Photoshop. We've seen a huge resurgence, and the research that I've done shows a tendency to hold on to film with a death grip. The thing that I can't really figure out is why Polaroid hasn't restarted making their film.

What is it about Cleveland that's so fertile for interest in photography and a place like this?

SW: I couldn't do this anywhere but Cleveland, seriously. First of all, the support is amazing in the arts community here. And if I tried to do this in New York, I wouldn't be able to afford it. Cleveland is affordable for me to set this up. The scene is great; people work together really well here. I mean, I haven't been in the scenes in other cities, but I feel like there's a lot going on here. Especially in the last I-don't-know-how-many years here, it's become a real burgeoning arts scene.

You really can't turn around in this city without seeing creative art — in public, in local businesses.

SW: We have the art at the Cleveland Clinic and at University Hospitals. It seems like the heads of these places are more actively purchasing art to show either in the hospitals or in factories or wherever they are. And there are a lot of collectors who are involved in just business sales here.

And you're keeping just as busy as the rest of the scene from the sound of it.

SW: Next April, we're doing the inaugural Cleveland Art Book Fair. We're modeling it after the New York City Art Book Fair and the L.A. Art Book Fair. It's a festival, and we'll have 40 tables, poetry readings, bands playing around a three-day weekend. We'll be featuring printed matter of any kind; people will be here with a mimeograph machine photocopying 'zines, for instance. We'll have dealers from around the world, but the focus is still local. We're hoping it'll be able to grow, even outgrowing this place.

Cleveland Print Room

2550 Superior Ave., 216-401-5981, clevelandprintroom.com.

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