Man on a mission… to save (film) photography
“Oh no, not the bungalow with the scary-looking dogs,” I thought to myself. Before Gadd arrived, I was looking for the house and three huge dogs -- a Doberman, German Shepherd and a Golden Retriever -- were barking at me from that house. I’m not usually afraid of dogs but these looked intimidating.
A tall man with salt-and-pepper coloured hair came out of the car. He introduced himself.
“You are not afraid of dogs, are you?” Gadd asked.
“Not really, but your dogs look scary,” I replied warily as Gadd opened the gate and his dogs started jumping up and down excitedly. I swear they were about my height when they were on their hind legs.
I gingerly stepped into the compound of the house and the Doberman jumped up and lifted her front paws towards me.
“Don’t worry about Poppy. She’s a baby. She’s only one year old,” Gadd said as he grabbed the collars of his dogs to prevent them from jumping on me.
Gadd mentioned on the phone earlier that the place was a mess but The Print Room KL looked fine. It was an abandoned bungalow turned studio, exhibition hall, darkroom, photography learning place and Gadd’s residence when he is not in Seoul (where he resides partially).
Spacious and arty-looking, when you enter, there is an area where you can find framed photographs of his students. As you walk in, you will see large colourful portraits of Malaysians photographed by Gadd in the main hall. Some camera equipment, working table, a ladder and a vacuum cleaner are found in the main hall. Maybe this was the mess he was talking about.
“Come, let me show you something interesting,” said Gadd as he brought me to the dark room. It is the only air-conditioned room in the building and it really looks amazing with chemicals and trays, prints hanging on a line. Next to that is a room filled with enlargers and it looked like a science lab. His dogs followed us around, roaming freely inside the house.
I remembered a wooden table with stools near the entrance so I went to sit on one of the stools while the dogs came and lay on the marble floor. Gadd sat opposite me, with a row of books on a bookshelf behind him. I asked him what The Print Room was about.
“The Print Room is a place where we hope to get analogue photographers back on their feet and basically this place is also to help a lot of the young kids who are interested in film photography. There are a lot of kids who actually buy second-hand cameras especially lomography, but they don’t know what to do with it.
“They continue to buy camera after camera but what can they do? So, I opened this place hoping we can get these young kids to come and learn the whole process of photography before it actually... dies,” Gadd explained.
He reached behind to grab a book from the bookshelf entitled “Five Minutes” and showed it to me. This is a collection of Malaysian faces he photographed using film photography.
The Print Room KL was opened mid last year with a photography exhibition as well as the launch of “Five Minutes.” The story of how the Print Room KL came about is quite interesting.
“My business partner is quite famous in Malaysia, she’s not a celebrity but we were talking. I photographed her a few years ago when I met her for a magazine shoot and I took my medium format camera which uses a plate panel and she was impressed.
“She suddenly realised that I couldn’t be making much money from the shoot. Most editorial shoots I have done, I don’t make any money. It costs me money because I choose film but this is my choice. I can make money on commercials so I do commercials because that is what I do, it pays for my art,” said Gadd.
“The exhibition, ‘Five Minutes’, my book, everything was all paid by me so that’s why I came up with an idea to do the Print Room. We were talking and we realised that KL needs something like this. Art galleries are just so expensive and analogue photography is dying especially in South-East Asia so we came up with this idea. This house was abandoned for years and it was my partner’s sister’s house so we thought, why don’t we use this place? So that’s the idea of how it came about, to save photography basically,” he explained.
Film photography is an expensive art, with most of the photo studios in KL charging top dollar for film. It is hard to get cheap film and even more difficult to find places to develop film. Whenever Gadd goes to Seoul, he will ask his students if they want to get cameras or films and he would buy on their behalf. The Print Room KL provides black and white film development and you can rent the dark room for a few hours or the whole day.
It’s not too hard to get started on film photography.
“What I’ll say to people who want to do film photography whether as a hobby or vocation, really they should come and meet the students. Speak to the people and it gives them an idea. This place is open to anyone who is interested in analogue photography,” said Gadd.
So what do his students go through in his photography course?
“What we teach here is history, we teach them how to make a pinhole camera. So we get the guys to make theirs and then they go out to shoot just to get used to the cameras and they process the film. And then they go out again. I get people to shoot people because personally I’m a portrait photographer so I always get them to face people.
“Shooting people on the streets is very hard because some of them will tell you to piss off. There is a lot of walking involved and after that we process again. They print on fibre paper and not on the crappy artsy paper.
“And then they have a crit, a crit with the photographers and all the photographers come in and help spot in. And then we have an exhibition, they get involved in whatever exhibition that is going on.”
The Print Room charges RM1,200 for a total of eight classes and it includes chemicals and the film. If the student does not have a camera, the Print Room provides cameras to use on loan.
Gadd shoots in film and digitally but he prefers film photography. For him, digital photography is a means to an end. I asked him why he doesn’t like digital photography.
“The quality is not as good although people say it is. It is just too clean for me. This image on a digital photograph is too flat, there is no depth of field. It has no life and it cannot be reproduced in life like a real photograph,” he said showing me a digital photograph that did seem to lack the “life” of film photography.
I was curious to know why film photography is so appealing, since digital photography now also comes in the form of smartphones and such.
“It is the whole process of taking a shot, sit in with the subjects rather than photographing from afar and once you have done that it is going into the process with the chemicals and the smell. When you photograph something from pressing the shutter until going into the darkroom and actually coming out with print it is much more rewarding than sitting in front of the computer screen for eight to 10 hours trying to correct everything you screwed up in the first place.
“With film as well, you tend to be more careful about how you shoot. You think about exposure, you think about composition because film is not cheap. And this is the good thing about film. It makes you think. Because with digital you don’t need to think, you just shoot a thousand frames and you can delete and choose one. So with digital there is no thinking about it.”
So what’s next for The Print Room?
“Bankruptcy,” Gadd quips. “Hopefully just get more people. We just want more students. I’m not interested too much about the exhibition, that’s just to showcase the work. The exhibition actually costs us a lot of money because we don’t get these big name photographers for our exhibitions. We actually get unknown photographers, we get some known photographers, some unknown. We basically give everyone a chance.”
Gadd even takes his students to Pudu Market at four in the morning to take portraits of the people. He hopes that eventually the shots of these walkabouts will be featured in the next exhibition.
The Print Room KL is located at 49, Lorong 16/9E Petaling Jaya and the opening hours are Fridays: 5PM-9PM, Saturdays and Sundays: 2PM-6PM and Mondays to Thursdays: By appointment. You can visit the website at www.theprintroomkl.com to check out upcoming events or classes or contact Paul at 012-3372903