drkrm was founded by John Matkowsky who has a twenty-five year reputation as a fine art black and white printer in Los Angeles. The drkrm gallery specializes in documentary and photo-journalistic work, cutting edge and alternative photographic processes and the display and survey of popular cultural images both current or historic.
For the past 6 years drkrm has presented a superb and continuous array of exceptional exhibits, specializing in more under-the-radar, counterculture presentations. drkrm.
I caught up with John to talk to him about the galleries new exhibit and new location in China Town.
1) Tell us about drkrm’s new Art Shay Retrospective and why this is an important exhibit for the gallery.
Art Shay is 90. His photography career spans nearly seven decades. He has published over 30,000 photographs in his life, which include the likes of kings, queens, presidents, athletes and celebrities as well as the common man. He became a full-time photojournalist in the early fifties shooting regularly for Time, Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and the New York Times Magazine, among others. Many of his images are in the National Portrait Gallery. What makes this exhibition important for drkrm is that this is the first time any of these images will be exhibited in Los Angeles, marking Art Shay’s West Coast debut.
2) Explain drkrm’s mission statement and your background in photography.
What started out as a fine art black & white photography lab has evolved into a exhibition space dedicated to the display and survey of popular cultural images (current or historic), fine art photography, documentary and photo journalism, and cutting edge and alternative photographic processes. I feel I specialize in under-the-radar, counterculture presentations. My 25-year background as a Master Printer started with mentor Tom Consilvio, who taught me the finesse of the fine artistic print. Through the years I have worked on the images of Gary Winogrand, William Claxton, Phil Stern and many other renowned artists such as Horace Bristol, Jo Ann Callis, Catherine Opie, Edward S. Curtis and, most recently, Ansel Adams. drkrm’s black & white lab is still dedicated to the highest quality of hand processing and fine printing, specializing in traditional, silver-gelatin printing and film processing nearly lost in today’s digital age.
3) drkrm has moved premises a few times in recent years; has each move been for political, artistic or financial reasons or all three?
We are starting out in our third space in eight years. Each past location has had advantages and disadvantages: artistic, financial and political. Our new location on Chung King Road in LA’s historic Chinatown puts us in the middle of a thriving art scene and combines the best of all the other locations under one roof. We are surrounded by major, important galleries such as theCharlie James Gallery, Matt Gleason’s Coagula Curatorial, and Jancar Gallery. In addition, the space we are now occupying was once China Arts Objects Gallery, the first gallery in Chinatown.
4) How do you like your new location in China Town?
We are new here and everyone is friendly and supportive. I think we will be here for awhile.
5) drkrm is one of the very few west coast photography galleries which showcases black and white, as well as underground and alternative lifestyles work, which I feel puts it up there with galleries in New York, London, Paris, Berlin and Prague, etc. Money and audience obviously an issue and LA is certainly more preoccupied with Hollywood show business but is that the only reason why there are so few art and photojournalism photography galleries in Los Angeles?
Traditionally, you can’t make money showing photojournalistic work. Many people don’t want the aggressive, raw, b&w in your face realism that some of the pictures express. However, I do have a number of collectors who do, so we manage to make sales. I think this type of gallery and work would do much better in Europe or even in New York. At least critically. Trying to balance commerce with art is always tough. But I show what I think needs/warrants/begs to be shown. Because that’s what drkrm is all about. Also, because a lot of the work I like is from the 1970’s and 80’s and tends to be shot on TRI-X.
6) I see that drkrm is receiving more international press in the last year, why do you think this is?
drkrm has been exhibiting some pretty fantastic stuff. People are taking notice, especially in Europe.
7) What do you look for in a photographers’ work to exhibit at drkrm?
The most important thing in an artist’s work is how it affects me. Does it make me feel… something. Basically I show what I like. However, in the back of my mind I think, can I sell this? Again, art is subjective and I suppose I have some lofty idea that I know what great art is, but, somehow, it has to feel important to me. I have curated pictures of transvestite whores on the night-time streets of Mexico City to the surprisingly nostalgic street photography of Ansel Adams.
8) How has drkrm evolved in the last few years and what new things can we expect at the new location in 2013?
For the last 8 years, drkrm has stayed true to its program, curating photo-journalistic exhibitions. We are now offering workshops in Historic photographic processes such as Wet plate Collodion,cyanotypes and Platinum as well as photography and lighting workshops featuring some major artists in photography today. We are trying to keep the dream of film alive.
9) Which photographers and galleries inspire you?
I am inspired by the work of Diane Arbus, Joel Peter Witkin, Larry Clark and Ralph Eugene Meatyard.
Peter Fetterman and David Fahey are two gallerists I greatly respect and admire.
10) Until very recently there seemed to be an annual news report proclaiming the death of photography. Recent digital has really changed things around and photography is as big now as it has ever been and the divide between professional and amateur is very blurred. Is it increasingly difficult to exhibit work produced from a pre-digital age and to convey the difficulties of that process to a contemporary crowd?
Yes, it is difficult. Though occasional aficionados of the process still seek out the old, classic ways of film, unfortunately, almost everyone now thinks what is on the wall is digital. They are not used to seeing silver gelatin prints, which have a have a well known and regarded archival history. In my experience, if a collector has a choice between a digital print or a Silver print of the same image, they usually opt for the Silver print. Even some museums are showing digital prints of classic photography as opposed to vintage prints. I recently saw some photographic images from Thomas Eakins at a local museum that were digital copies.
11) Let’s bring it back round to your new exhibit on March 2nd and Art Shay. Which image in this retrospective really speaks volumes, not only of Shay’s work but photography and the exhibit at drkrm?
There are far too many images in the Art Shay Retrospective to have one shot speak the loudest, but one of my favorites is this somewhat famous shot from the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago where police violently confronted demonstrators. It is of the marque of the Hilton Hotel that proclaims “Welcome Democrats.” Arrayed under the sign is a sidewalk corps of a dozen bayonet-lofting Guardsmen. Powerful stuff.
Art Shay has seen it all.
Interview by Ginger Liu
Art Shay – a retrospective runs from March 2 – April 6.
The opening reception is on March 2, 7-10pm.