Cleveland Print Room founder Shari Wilkins has a fixed focus on both growing Northeast Ohio’s photography community and widening the educational and creative opportunities available to it

Story by Jonah L. Rosenblum
Photography by Michael C. Butz

Why photography? And more specifically, why film photography?

Why spend hours in a darkroom when pressing a button on a smartphone is so easy and viewing photos on screen so convenient?

Sure, there is something alluring and sensual about the smell of the darkroom – something deeply meaningful about a peace and quietude that seldom exist anymore.

But it’s about more than romanticism for Shari Wilkins when it comes to the Cleveland Print Room.

It’s about existence. A picture of a foot, an X-ray and a neighborhood shot, to some extent, prove humanity.

“For me, it’s the whole issue of existence,” Wilkins says. “Photography can prove that we exist.”

Photography also speaks to her very core. Raised in Lakewood by a father who “always had a camera around his neck,” Wilkins has always been into photography. (She notes that her father had his first show at the Cleveland Print Room last fall.)

So, in 2005, when Wilkins noticed a “troubling trend” of art centers, high schools and universities shutting down their darkroom facilities, she started buying up the photography equipment and darkroom supplies they were selling off. She wasn’t sure why. Perhaps they just didn’t seem fit for a trashcan.

By 2011, Wilkins had started her own business as a dealer in vernacular photography (“found photos”). Then, in 2012, she spoke with Liz Maugans, one of the founders of Cleveland’s Zygote Press, and learned that Zygote Press was looking for someone in Cleveland to take over its darkroom.

“After researching the gap in services and the need in the Northeast Ohio area, along with recognizing the resurgence in 20th-century emulsion-based photography, it was an easy decision,” the Cleveland Print Room website explains.

And so the Cleveland Print Room was born.

Mounting images

Vernacular photography (popularly referred to as “found photos”) is one of Shari Wilkins’ specialties, and her collection is frequently enjoyed by those who stop by Cleveland Print Room.

Vernacular photography (popularly referred to as “found photos”) is one of Shari Wilkins’ specialties, and her collection is frequently enjoyed by those who stop by Cleveland Print Room.

Wilkins, a resident of Cleveland’s Superior Arts District, has created a haven for photographers at Cleveland Print Room.

What originally began as a cooperative has changed a bit over time, yet still has 430 members, who for a fee are able to use the studio to work on various projects. An advisory board of 10 to 12 photographers provides additional guidance and wisdom.

Photography seeps out of every corner of the print room’s space, which is at ground level of the ArtCraft Building on Superior Avenue near East 25th Street on the outskirts of downtown Cleveland.

A classic photo booth – a ’90s model with refurbished mid-century guts – greets visitors near the entrance with strands of self-portraits cascading down its side. A wide variety of vintage cameras lines the walls’ high ledges. A creaky red revolving door leads to the darkroom.

Perhaps most notably, exhibitions showcasing the true art of photography often adorn Cleveland Print Room’s walls.

International artists, from Chile and Taiwan, have enjoyed temporary stays at the Cleveland Print Room. And the Cleveland Print Room has hosted a number of fascinating exhibitions – exhibitions that challenge classical notions of what photography is and what photography can be.

Take “Destruction of Form,” a collaborative effort between Wilkins and American Emotionalist artist John W. Carlson. Earlier this summer, the exhibit featured a series of Carlson paintings and Wilkins photos based on found photos, some discovered by Carlson, others by Wilkins.

To see a Carlson painting side-by-side with the original found photo is a treat. There is “accuracy” to it, or “faithfulness” in the portrayal. Indeed, the man in the painting still carries the same expression. He is posed the same way. Yet, something has changed. Perhaps the background is a little more fluid. It’s a little brighter. It’s a little darker. Subject and background interact in an entirely new way – and suddenly a new piece of artwork is born. By deconstructing one piece of art, another is created.

The Cleveland Print Room’s latest exhibition, “Surroundings,” which is on view through Oct. 24, also toys with the art of photography.

Take Deborah Pinter’s 34-plus photos of the Alcazar Hotel in Cleveland Heights. The photos contain the same subject matter. It’s the same vantage point, the same view of the Alcazar. Except the color of the sky changes, shadows roll in and out, snow stumbles into the picture before the sun returns to light another picture or two.

In 2013, there was “Homegrown,” linking local food sources with local photographers. The work of 20-plus local photographers shared the stage with goodies from fire food & drink, Flying Fig, Fresh Fork Market, Momocho, Rising Star Coffee Roasters, Spice Kitchen + Bar, The Root Café and Lucky Penny Farm Creamery.

The intersection of art and dining offered a quintessential Cleveland experience.

Developing interest

Shari Wilkins, right, shares photographs with a group of visitors from the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion artist residency program.

Shari Wilkins, right, shares photographs with a group of visitors from the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion artist residency program.

Cleveland Print Room isn’t only about observing, though. It’s also about experience and education.

Wilkins has both in spades. She’s a Thoreau Scholar with bachelor’s degrees from Kent State University (radio and television) and Cleveland State University (social work), and she has a master’s degree in liberal studies from Ursuline College. And before photography was her professional focus, she spent time in New York and San Francisco working for Celluloid Record and Rough Trade Records, respectively.

At Cleveland Print Room, Wilkins offers workshops on photographic arts and access to a darkroom with eight individual workstations. The latter also features separate areas for black-and-white film processing and print viewing including a light table, dry mount press and print dryer. It’s a space where aspiring artists can hone their skills and perfect their craft.

“My focus is on keeping accessibility to film processing,” Wilkins says.

When a group of visitors from The Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion artist residency program – which partners international artists with local arts organizations with a goal of maximizing the cultural exchange between the artists and community – recently walked in to see the space, they not only enjoyed learning about what Wilkins does there but became enamored with a set of her found photos.

Wilkins, you see, doesn’t just run a Cleveland darkroom and photography studio. She’s equal parts artist, gallery owner and art collector.

This particular set of found photos, culled from garage sales and every other conceivable source, shows people jumping into a body of water, a woman in a hospital bed, someone resting on a living room couch – people who are strangers but familiar.

And there is a series of cat photos, replete with loving captions from the owner.

“Some of them are pretty weird,” Wilkins admits.

Her visitors love them.

They leaf through this random assortment of photos with zeal. The photographs offer glimpses into another time in ways social media hashtags can’t. These photos can be held, they can be smelled, and those who do are invited to imagine what those who took the photos or the families that held and shared decades earlier might’ve been like – all of which is symbolic of the type of experience Wilkins strives to cultivate.

“If you’re into found photos, definitely stop by,” Wilkins tells the group as it files out of the Cleveland Print Room. A couple of the young artists tell her they’ll see her soon.

That exchange captured part of what makes Cleveland Print Room special.

Smartphones may offer a look at the world we wouldn’t otherwise see, but Wilkins’ open-door policy offers something – like the photographs she works with – more tangible: a sense of community, and an opportunity to get involved.

“The photography community in Cleveland is really amazingly alive,” Wilkins says. CV