Sunday, 28 December 2008

Ninety hours in darkness

The Magnum Blog - December 14, 2006

Ninety hours in darkness

By Ann Tornkvist

A three inch tall James Dean rests on the black work top. And another one, and yet another. After some hands-on dodge and burn adjustments with a Dennis Stock image, three small cut outs of the trench coat-clad film icon - hands in pockets, cigarette in mouth - litter the work surfaces of the darkroom at Magnum Photos' New York office. The man with the scissors, the Ilford 500H multi grade enlargers and access to innumerable priceless negatives, is Pablo Inirio. He has claimed the small cubic space as his own since 1992, often working up to 90 hours a week.

Two weeks before Christmas, one of the monthly photographers' meetings has just wrapped up, meaning frequent visits to the darkroom. "Just a minute," comes the reply as Hiroji Kubota taps gently on the light gray door. Later, once it is open, Chien-Chi Chang silently runs back and forth over the threshold asking questions. Many of the photographers place large orders at this time of year, the reason for which Inirio hasn't pondered, probably hasn't had the time to ponder as he deals with the work flow calmly, not a word of complaint, not a single stress-induced, cross word.

Buccaneers baseball cap on head, discretely framed glasses on nose, Inirio locks the door, shutting out not only the corridor light but a barrage of music samples washing over the office from the Magnum In Motion desk. A flick of the light switch later, he is patiently going through a Thomas Hoepker order, initially using Ilford RC paper to determine correct exposure times. A small fleet of handmade dodge-and-burn tools lies close by, intermingling with the James Dean paper dwarves. Pictures of Inirio's two-year-old daughter Isabella are pinned to the walls next to assorted memorabilia from assistants and interns - a photo of former Magnum photographer James Nachtwey in action is positioned precariously close to one of a melancholy Marilyn.

Inirio's introduction to photography involved a trash can. As a child, growing up in the Bronx, where his family had moved from the Dominican Republic when he was still a baby, he found a first edition copy of "Family of Man," edited by Edward Steichen, by his building among the trash. He quickly salvaged it. He kept the book for years, turning its pages for the images edited by Steichen in the 1950s.

He consumed a lot of photography exhibits, and recalls one at the Met which left an impression, long before he started thinking of his future career, before the word "Magnum" meant anything to the young man. "It was all photography and it just so happened, that there were a lot of Magnum photographers represented," he says with a jovial joker's look-at-where-I-ended-up tone, "although I didn't know that at the time." With a soft laughter he adds, "Didn't care at the time."

He's particularly come to appreciate the work of Magnum photographer Larry Towell, whose work he calls poetic. Of Towell's Mennonite project, Inirio says, "It's one of the best essays in photography, as far as I'm concerned." He also references Susan Meiselas' Kurdish work.

Inirio became seriously interested in photography in high school. "Like any young man at that point I liked mechanical things and how they were made," he says, "I really was interested in how cameras worked." Inirio's photography teacher, who was working on an MFA at the time, tutored him in the dark room.

He went on to the School of Visual Arts but did not quite finish his studies. "I needed to work, coz I was a poor boy, so I stopped." Inirio credits many of his teachers for their input and inspiration, especially Sid Kaplan who had done work with Weegee.

He assisted photographers across the industry's spectrum as he studied. "The whole range," says Inirio, "food photographers, people who shot cars, people who did fashion, people who did portraits." He freelanced full-time as an assistant for several years before finding employment with fashion photographer Hal Oringer, who had Saks Fifth Avenue as an important client. "He was a great teacher and had a great eye for faces and beauty and lighting."

He credits Oringer for being experimental when the occasion called for it, but also being good at scaling back creatively, producing very classic, safe advertising photographs for companies such as Avon.

After six years with Oringer, Inirio decided it was time for something new and spotted an ad for a darkroom printer in The New York Times. He dialed the number, reaching a receptionist who said "Welcome to Magnum," sparking his interest further.

About 25 people applied. Because he lacked experience duplicating slides, Inirio originally didn't get the job. The successful candidate left, however, to pursue a documentary film project and Magnum phoned Inirio back. Fourteen years later, he is still at Magnum printing black and white images.

He works mostly with older photographers, as the younger generation shoots digital. Although Inirio is enthusiastic about the advances in digital technology and the ease with which one can enhance the image, he says "I hope film doesn't disappear, because just aesthetically I like how it looks. I like the random grain in film."

Fittingly, he prefers black and white photography to color. "There's something about the black and white image that goes straight to the story's core," he says. This respect for story telling is valued by the photographers. "Essentially, the print is the final version of the story, it's like the author's final draft," says Paul Fusco. He feels no need to hang over Inirio's shoulder during the printing process because he trusts him. "He knows how we look at our photographs. Because he knows us, he works towards our vision of the photograph. He makes me look like me."

Original article available here.

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