Although largely known outside the world of photography, the name Sid Kaplan is legendary, particularly within the New York City photography scene. While a highly-respected photographer in his own right, Kaplan is revered for his photo printing expertise, a reputation he gained largely through his decades-long work with the legendary photographer Robert Frank. Through Frank he met Allen Ginsberg and began working on printing and processing the Ginsberg photos up until the poet’s death.
Although appraching his eightieth year, Kaplan is still active as a photographer, printer and educator.
This interview took place in the fall of 2017 at Kaplan’s Lower East Side apartment on Avenue A in New York City, where he’s lived for almost forty years and which contains a dark room in the back
JS: How did you meet Allen – was it through Robert Frank?
SK: I started working with Robert back in 1968, but I didn’t meet Allen until the 1980s. In one of Robert’s books, Allen wrote a really nice thing about the time we met each other for the first time. I went to Robert’s place on Bleecker Street, and Allen was there, and that’s how I originally met him. About five years ago, I was talking to Robert, and we were talking about someone we both knew that died, and Robert very casually said, “You know, I’ve seen a lot of close friends die, but of everybody, I miss Allen the most”. And to a degree, I feel the same way. Once I got to know Allen, he was kind-of like an older brother to me.
JS: How did you get involved in his photography?
SK: Being I lived so close to Allen – his was right on the corner of 12th Street and First Avenue – and Allen knew Robert, that’s when I started doing work for him. It was very good for me because I was making a lot of money off it at the time.
JS: How did you charge?
SK: I charged by print. I can’t remember how much – I don’t even know if I have the paperwork anymore. The first print was one price, and then after it got set up in the machine, there’s a price break. To make one print, to get it right, the tonality, the contrast, it may take an hour to do one of them. And afterward, once you get one, for the next hour you can do twenty of them.
JS: I’ve heard the negatives were mostly in good shape
SK: They were pretty much in good shape. When he went to Columbia, he got a regular Kodak folding camera. It’s an amateur camera, and probably the reason – and I don’t know, but this is just a presumption – it was a folding camera was because it was easier to put in his pocket rather than a big box camera. He knew nothing about photography, so he would send the prints to get processed in whoever was around in the neighborhood, like the local drugstore maybe. So they would send you back the prints in one package, and off to the side was an envelope with the negatives in them. He just left the negatives there. The condition of them was very good. But when you send it out to the drugstore, they have no idea, and probably Allen didn’t know at the time that you had to develop film longer. Technically, in printing some of those photographs, there were a lot of things in the darkroom that you had to do, like pulling rabbits out of a hat. But as far as negatives not being clean, they were in pretty good shape.
Except, but this is a good example, one time they were redoing Allen’s book of the Indian Journals. They had to reprint a lot of the negatives, so I started to print them. There was one of them that was really bad. So bad that if you put your fingers over it, it felt a little bit like sandpaper. You see something like that, the standard procedure is you have to clean the negative from zero, which means you take the negative and soak it in water for a while. I soak it in water and the whole emulsion slides off. I think, “Ok, now I’m in trouble.” I call up Allen and I tell him. And then he tells me the story; that he got it developed in India. There’s some guy in the darkroom, the chemistry he was using was in a rusty can. Apparently, it was so rusty, whatever the rust flakes were, they attached themselves to the film. But that was the only thing that was in bad shape.
JS: I heard a story about you having to use some kind of toxic chemical to make a good print from a particular negative.
SK: It’s a special chemical to juice it up. It was one of those prints from a negative that was very thin. They had something which they took off the market, maybe thirty-five or forty years ago, because it wasn’t supposed to be safe. It’s an intensifier, that’s the technical term, called mercuric chloride. They took it off the market, but I made sure I had enough to last. But there were only a couple of those that required it, and only the ones taken with the folding camera.
JS: How good were those folding cameras?
SK: They were good. They would shoot decent pictures. Kodak made a lot of them. They didn’t have much aperture control, but they had a little. They were also called atthe time vest-pocket cameras. And thy had apretty good technology. They didn’t have too many settings. The instructions were pretty simple: they said, basically, with one particular film, shoot it in daylight from two hours before and two hours after sunrise, with the sun over your left shoulder. If you look at a lot of family photos from that period, the sun is always over the left shoulder. So basically in the beginning, that was Allen’s thing.
JS: What did you think of those early photos?
SK: They’re great. It was just a bunch of guys taking pictures of each other, and that’s it.
JS: Were those the photos that you were mostly printing at the beginning?
SK: I started with the early iconic ones, but after a while, I can’t remember when he started to bring me film to develop – it was when Jacqueline (Gens) was still working there because there were a couple of times he gave me some film personally and he’d say, ” I don’t want the women to see these.”
JS: What do you remember about Allen then in terms of taking pictures?
SK: Allen was always carrying a camera around with him. I have a lot of pictures of him taking pictures. There’s even a few where we’d meet on the street and we’d both point a camera at each other and take picture. But he always a had a camera with him. They were mostly 35mm. cameras. He did have a Rollieflex, but he also had a 4 x 6 Fuji camera that was really nice. So Allen, he had some good, serious, cameras.
JS: Was he learning about the mechanics of the camera?
SK: He was interested to a degree. But he was always having trouble in dark places. I gave him a film once, it was 1000 ASA, and I said to him, “When you go in a dark place just shoot it like your regular film,” which was Tri-X 400 (a Kodak film). And he asked me what the real ASA was , and I said 1000, but shoot it like the Tri-X. Because his indoor photos were always underexposed, so if yoou had a 1000 ASA and you were shooting it ASA 400, you’ll have the detail you need. So what did he do? Well he gives me the roll of film, and now it’s the same way. And he says, “You told me the real ASA was 1000.” He forgot that I told him to shoot it like the Tri-X 400.
JS: So you were giving him advice along with Robert Frank
SK: He did have a collection of people that were important at the time. I think those couple of things Robert said to him, about being sure you don’t cut the hands or the fingers off and be sure the background is cluttered, probably helped a hell of a lot.
JS: What other pieces of advice did you give him on photography?
SK: Basically how different cameras work, or he’d ask questions like, “What does this button do?” Or, “What’s this knob for?” He was curious. If only he’d taken my advice and used that film as Tri-X. But Allen was serious, he was serious about his photography.
JS: When making the prints, would Allen have any input into the print?
SK: Sure, and there are some prints of myself and Allen in the darkroom together. When I’d say, “Hey Allen, I’ve got a print that maybe you should look at that I’m not too sure about,” and he’d come over. A good example, again going way back to the New York City photos where him and (William) Burroughs and (Jack) Kerouac all were, he looked at a print, and one of them was a very light print, or one was substantially lighter than the other. And the one that was the lighter one, in the shadow area in the back, there were pictures hanging up. And Allen looks at it and says, “Hey, that’s important, I’ve never seen it in that light before; we got to have that picture.” There were some pictures on the wall in the background. And if Allen didn’t come in and didn’t see the brighter print, I probably would have printed it darker.
JS: There’s a thought that you can’t be taken seriously as a photographer if you don’t do your own printing. What do you think?
SK: Oh, I don’t know. I’ve heard that thing forever. I don’tthink it’s something he was ever really interested in. The thing with Robert (Frank), when we were working together, he had to be here because he knew exactly what he wanted. And more than that, he knew exactly how to get it. But Allen didn’t have a clue. Allen might say, “Make it a little bit lighter,” and then he’d see it and he might say, “Well maybe a little bit lighter than that.”
to be continued