We are pleased to share the workspace of photographer Brian Kosoff.
Please tell us about your work space.
I started as an advertising and editorial photographer in New York City, mostly working with still life. This means that I’ve always been reliant on having a studio. I’ve built several so far, the largest being 7500 square feet, which was the last studio of my commercial career. Back then I needed a large space in order to be able to work on multiple sets at a time. When I switched from assignment work to fine arts I didn’t require such a facility or one in Manhattan so I built a studio and darkroom onto my home in Piermont NY. I worked there from 2003 until 2014, which is when I moved to my current home in Portland Oregon.
The home I purchased in Portland was not really ideal for a studio, it was on the side of a steep slope. The house appears to be a single story from the street because the bulk of the house is below the slope. It was a two story house and the original plan was to convert the lower floor into a studio. However once we were in here we decided that we wanted to keep that level mostly intact. As is common with homes on steep hillsides there is often a rather large crawl space underneath. Our crawl space went from 4 feet to almost 18 feet of head room as it followed the slope of the hill. We decided to dig out and level the ground in the crawl space and add a third level under the existing house. As no heavy machinery could access this it would have to be done by hand, it was no small task.
I consulted with structural and geotechnical engineers as to the feasibility of this project. I did extensive renovations to my last home and I drew the plans in PhotoShop, I followed the same process here and then submitted my drawings to the engineer, an architect and my contractor. As a fair amount of the foundations would require alterations, something called underpinning, and some even required removal. Because there was also framing that supported the existing lower level this was a complex plan and required that my drawings work within many of the parameters of the existing house.
One of the issues was load bearing framing in the crawl space that acted as support for the floors above. In order to have an open space these needed to be removed and replaced with three long beams, one of which weighed 826 pounds. As I wanted to maintain as much ceiling height as possible these beams had to be buried into the existing floor above. This meant that the framers would have to cut all the floor joists supporting the second floor of the house, fit in these beams and then re-attach all the joists to them. I was living in the house while this was being done and there was a baby grand piano sitting on the floor joists that were to be cut. Two framers turned down the job because they did not want the liability that came with such a task. As one put it, ”I don’t feel comfortable cutting your house in half.”
What I eventually built was 1200 square feet on the new lower level, this included a studio and an equipment storage room. The ceiling in the studio is 10 feet, I really wanted 12 feet but the cost involved with digging out that much more dirt and a huge increase in under pinning the foundation made it economically insane. As it is we added 110 feet of new footings and 55 feet of new foundation walls.
On the existing lower level, which is now the middle level, we were able to add 600 feet of space into the hillside and an existing storage room, this space incorporates my darkroom and a print/negative storage and mounting room. In all we added 1800 feet to the house all of which fit within the building’s original footprint.
The darkroom has 21 feet of sinks, two Durst L184 10×10” color enlargers and an Amerigraph ULF-28 UV light source with vacuum easel for platinum printing. Over the sink is a shelf that also houses the exhaust venting, which pulls fumes straight off the chemical trays and vents it outside. The print and negative storage room has 25 feet of flat files and two fire safes for storing negatives. I have a drafting table in there that I use as a surface for spotting prints and examining negatives under a microscope.
In the studio we added a fair amount of windows and LED lighting all around. I added a 4×8’ metal sheet on one wall on which I can view prints hung by magnets, this print wall is illuminated by a twin circuit track light. One set of lights are standard halogens, on the other circuit are museum grade LEDs specially designed to view art. With this arrangement I can view prints with the proper lighting on how they will be be shown.
For archival pigment printing I use an Epson 9900, I scan my own negatives using a Kodak IQSmart3 scanner. I usually scan around 5000ppi optical.
In the studio, equipment storage and print storage rooms I have built large and deep niches into the walls to store paper and equipment. This feature allowed me to extend into and suspend storage areas over the slope of the hillside, which is just behind the walls. This has proven to be excellent added storage as things like 44” rolls of paper take up no floor space. In the print storage room I faced another problem, the slope of the hill would not allow enough room for the flat files. My solution was to devise a shelf that would be braced over the slope and to have the flat files sit on top of it.
For my previous studio I built storage cabinets that were designed specifically to hold some of the gear with unusual requirements, like adding a special roll out drawer for tripods, shelf designs for hanging L-shaped Century light stands and even a pull out shelf for when a little extra counter space is needed. I brought these cabinets with me to Portland and installed them in the new studio.
What objests of inspiration do you have in your space?
In the studio, darkroom and storage rooms there are no objects of inspiration, no hanging art, nothing except equipment and facilities. However in the rest of the house there’s a lot of art hanging, very little of it my own work. We know a lot of talented artists and love to surround ourselves with their work.
Besides the work of other fine photographers I also find music inspirational so there’s a piano and an audio system not far from the darkroom.
Do you have any favorite tools in your work space?
As I came from a commercial studio background I am extremely well equipped when it comes to cameras, lenses and other tools. When I started shooting landscape I had to add camera gear more appropriate for that genre. Given the sheer quantity and diversity of my tools I can’t say I have much in the way of favorites. However I value my IQSmart3 scanner probably above all as it is almost irreplaceable today. When I moved from NY to Portland there were certain items that were not entrusted to the movers and which I decided to take transcontinental myself. For the 5 day drive I rented a trailer in which I loaded my negatives, prints, film and photo paper, cameras and lenses. However in the back of my Jeep, a somewhat softer ride than the trailer, was my stereo turntable and my IQSmart 3. You can see what I considered of highest value.
Does your work space influence your work ?
Yes, without question. My work environment has always been critical to me. When I was shooting ads I’d always clean and organize my work areas before an important shoot. It would be similar to a surgery where all the surgeon’s instruments were neatly arranged on the tray for effortless use. That hasn’t changed. I still like a work environment that is almost surgical. It’s a combination of efficiency and minimalism that allows me a high level of concentration and little distraction. This is challenging with all the stuff I have accumulated over the years, and as much storage space as I have there’s not enough. The current bane of my existence is packing and shipping materials. These items I am required to have but they take up a huge amount of space and in themselves add nothing to the creation of photographs. There is no joy in packing materials.
If there is one thing you could change what would it be?
I’d still like 12 foot ceilings!! I’d also like an elevator as my studio requires going down quite a few stairs. I’d like to get a second 44” printer, as I always want a back up, but the thought of getting it down to the studio is a deterrent. But if there’s one thing I would love to have is more storage space, especially for the shipping materials.
How do you keep track of your ideas?
I don’t really. I don’t keep a journal, it’s all in my head. When I get an idea worth pursuing I try to jump on it right away lest I forget about it. Sometimes I’ll work on an image, but feel it’s not there and then put it aside. Sometimes I come back a year later and can make it work then. I’ll sort through old contact prints and see if there’s something I missed. Something made me photograph that scene so maybe with time I can come to terms with what I saw there but couldn’t quite bring to life. Sometimes I am rewarded for that effort.
Any advice for someone thinking about adding a darkroom?
That all depends on what you consider “adding” a darkroom. My first darkroom was when I was a teenager. I set up a table and small enlarger in my bedroom and was able to cover my windows to make it light tight. It didn’t have running water so I had to carry beakers of water in from the bathroom and wash my prints in a print washer in the tub. Things have changed for me since then.
If you’re talking about building a darkroom there’s a lot that can be done to make printing more efficient and more enjoyable. The first thing you need to do is think about how you like to work. If you’re right handed you might prefer to work with the developer tray on the far left and then work by pulling prints to your right. If you’re left handed working the opposite direction might be easier for you. It’s always easier to work with your strong hand although if you make large prints that require both hands to remove from developer direction doesn’t matter. But the direction you like to work will affect the location of water supplies and electrical outlets.
You’ll need to visualize the darkroom in action. This will tell you where to put outlets for timers, for safelights. Where the water supply needs to be for filling trays, for the print washer and for the hose to wash down the sink. Where will the water filters go? In my current darkroom I have a filter that filters the water before it goes into the hot water heater because special filters are required to filter heated water and those can sometimes be inconvenient to find. I then have a cold water filter in the darkroom and another filter after my temperature regulator, that last filter is a very fine filtering one. Avoid charcoal filters as they can sometimes leak small bits of charcoal which can stain a print. If you are using an electronic water temperature regulator like the kind made by Hass you only want filtered water going into it. If you plan on getting a jobo film processor someday you’ll need to be able to supply it with cold only water which is required by it for tempering. If you are planning to use a vertical archival print washer you’ll want to get a water flow meter, which is a simpler device than it sounds. With the meter you can set the water flow rate so that you are meeting the required water flow without wasting water.
Make sure you consider proper drainage for the sink. Drains run on gravity and the drain pipe needs to have a certain downward pitch otherwise it won’t drain. The drain pipe can limit where your sink will end up so you might want to talk to a plumber if the drain is not already conveniently located.
You’re going to need more electrical supply than you think. You want a fairly dedicated circuit for the enlarger, you don’t want someone running the washing machine to make the light source in your enlarger inconsistent and causing you to have continually changing exposures.
You’ll benefit from having more electrical outlets and in more convenient locations than you might think. Do you plan to use only one timer? I use three, one for developer, one for fixer and toners and one for the print washer. The outlets are located right where the timers are.
In my darkroom I built a long shelf which has three functions, the exhaust vents are in the underside drawing out fumes right off the trays, the water supply is closer to me which helps because my sinks are deep front to back, and it acts as a shelf for timers, chemicals and tools. I suggest adding an outlet on the ceiling where you think you might someday hang a safe light, controlled by a wall switch. And for the white light in the room a broad soft light that can be dimmed will help with the eye fatigue created by constantly going from dark to light and back again. I chose broad, dimmable LED lights.
Proper ventilation is important for your health and safety. Install an exhaust fan, hopefully one that has speed control, and can exhaust the chemical fumes outside. But be aware that an exhaust fan only works if you also have a supply of fresh air. The fresh air supply and the exhaust vents should be away from each other, ideally across the room from each other. They make light tight darkroom vents that can install in walls or doors. If you don’t have a fresh air supply not only won’t the fumes get drawn out but you might not be able to easily open the darkroom door due to the change in pressure between the darkroom and the rest of the house!
Speaking of darkroom doors the issue is always light sealing them. They do make some kits to seal doors, some are good, some not so, but you can also look into commercial fire rated doors. These doors come with seals to prevent smoke from entering, but they are also quite light tight. If you’re building a community darkroom, like in a school, and many people will be using the darkroom and constantly going in an out you might benefit by making a light trap corridor. That is a long, painted black hallway with two turns in it, but I have to warn you to do it right requires a lot of space.
Enlargers are sensitive to vibration you don’t want something like your shifting body weight while dodging/burning or walking around the darkroom to cause the enlarger to shake during an exposure causing a loss of sharpness in the print. If you’re building a darkroom from scratch then make sure the floor under the enlarger or enlarger table is solid and does not flex or bounce. Doubling up the joists and having them cross braced should give you a solid base. And make sure the table or counter itself is robust and possibly attach it to the wall as well.
If you plan on bolting your enlarger to the wall before you hang the drywall you can put what’s known as “blocking” between the studs in the location where you plan to mount the enlarger to the wall. “Blocking” is usually a 2×6 or 2×8” that’s been cut to fit between the studs, screwed or nailed in place and lining up with the front of the stud edge. This means that when it comes time to secure the enlarger to the wall you don’t have to search for the stud to screw into you now have a large and very solid area to mount to.
If your drywall is already up and the studs aren’t located where you want to attach the enlarger you can run a board on the face of the drywall spanning where two studs are, secure the board to those studs and now what you have is blocking on the outside of the wall ready to secure the enlarger to.
For drying prints I use nylon screens, the prints sit on them and air dry. But first they have been squeegeed on a thick piece of Plexiglas that I stand up in the sink. Air drying prints means they can curl but it also means there’s less chance of over drying them and causing the emulsion to be brittle. If you have a high volume darkroom, like in a school, there are drum dryers available that will speed the process.
For archival storage of prints it’s best if they are not stored in the darkroom as chemistry fumes can be absorbed by the prints. Same goes for hanging framed prints in the darkroom.
What I have described here is a highly designed darkroom, but a person can have a very comfortable, efficient and quality oriented darkroom without going to the level I have illustrated. I did just fine making prints in my bedroom when I was a teen. But whatever you build, enjoy!
To learn more about the work of Brian Kosoff please visit his page by clicking on his name.