Through a Lens, Darkly, Part II

A conversation with San Pedro photographer Ray Carofano
by Bondo Wyszpolski

In Carofano’s personal statement, he has this to say about his darkroom work: “All of my prints are silver gelatin. I hand-manipulate them in selective areas during the exposure of the photographic paper. I then split-tone the prints, using sepia and selenium, furthering the transformation of my work. Much of my personal expression goes into the printing stage. I, therefore, regard the work in the darkroom as more creative than technical.”
In your case, I say, the creative process is two-fold – intuitively discovering the composition you want and also what you do with it in the darkroom.
Carofano acknowledges this. “The technique that I do in the darkroom is something that I found by just experimentation. It all came about [when] I wanted to soften an image. It was actually a portrait of a middle-aged woman and I wanted to make it softer because it was under a harsh light.” He goes on to explain how he achieves those bleeding blacks (a signature trait, actually) and that kind of foggy look. “When I applied it to some of the landscape work I did,” he says of the process, “it heightened the mysteriousness of the image, which I had originally felt anyway.”
It also captured that sense of solitude and fright that Carofano had felt in the woods many years before.
Some of the prints, with their sweeping soft browns, are reminiscent of the Pictorialists, popular a century ago (William E. Dassonville, Karl Struss, for example), but also of the earliest photographic plates by the likes of Gustave Le Gray and, before him, the daguerreotypes of Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey. In so much of Carofano’s work there is a disquieting sense of being at the edge of time rather than somewhere inside it, and a feeling that most of his subjects – trees, people, human constructions – are actively receding from us, actively deteriorating. Meanwhile, the images stop us in our tracks.
Photographer Gil Mares, who also lives in San Pedro and has been pointing his camera at ships in the harbor, tells me he has admired Carofano’s work for a long time: “Carofano can find the exceedingly ordinary around us and transmute it to the exceedingly extraordinary with his unique vision and mastery as a printer.”
“I can teach you how to print like I do,” Carofano says; “I’ve done it in workshops.” He then mentions Michael Cannon, whose photographs are on the walls surrounding us, the recipient of a one-man show in Carofano’s Gallery 478. “There’s similarities, obviously, if you look at his work and my work. Well, Michael is a student of mine. I showed him how to print this way and how to do the toning.
“But I can’t tell him how to see; he does his own seeing, he has his own vision. That’s what makes it different. People say to me, Aren’t you afraid? You teach all these people how to print. Don’t you think all their work will look like yours? Of course it won’t look like mine. I have a different mind, I have different vision. You can take five people and put them all in the same spot, and aim out at the same subject matter at the shoot, and everything will look different.
“We all interpret subject matter differently,” Carofano emphasizes. “All the incoming information, what we do with it, we all have different computers up here.” He laughs. “Different software.” Then he pauses, perhaps wondering if he should push this amusing analogy one final time: “No two people are running on the same program these days.”
One hand washes the other
There’s your commercial photography and then there’s the work you do for yourself, I say. They both involve strict attention to detail, but at some point there’s a bit of a difference; that is, in your own work you can proceed as you will.
“Absolutely,” Carofano replies. “You have to realize that when you’re working commercially you are photographing what someone else wants you to photograph. Of course you do pay attention to detail, to lighting and so forth, and you try to make this particular object you’re photographing as wonderful as you possibly can. On the other hand, the personal work is exactly what it is, it’s personal work; it comes from me. I get to pick and select the subject matter, which is close to me, which is part of me, which again goes back to my whole lifetime of experiences.
“It’s certainly different. The only real thing it has in common is that you’re using the same tools, in other words cameras… One basically takes care of finances, lets, say, and the other takes care of a much deeper meaning. It feeds my soul.
“When I talk to students – and that’s one of the things a lot of the colleges want me to talk about because they are teaching commercial work – I talk about how you can combine the two and how important it is for an artist, all artists for that matter, to find time for that. With a photographer it’s extremely important, otherwise if you’re just doing commercial work all the time you can dry up, you can be burned out. What keeps even the commercial end fresh is being able to do personal work.”
Sometimes you can learn something from the one that you can apply to the other.
“This is true.”
From there to here
Ray Carofano moved to California in 1967. He describes the circular route that he and his first wife followed, which led them down into Mexico, up through San Diego and into Santa Barbara (nice place, no work), and finally to Manhattan Beach where they found a place close to the water for about a hundred bucks a month. They also lived in Torrance and in Redondo Beach, just south of the pier. Carofano worked at Riviera Camera, and was featured in a two-man show (with painter Eric Vollrath) at the Tanega/Maher Gallery on Avenida del Norte. Easy Reader even ran a short piece abut the show (unsigned, but I suspect Thomas Pynchon) in its March 11, 1976 edition.
How did you find this building and end up here?
“I’d known about [San Pedro] for a long time, but never really thought about moving there, and then Ron Pippen, who I had met at a gallery up in El Segundo, invited me down here. I started to realize that there really was an arts scene going on, and there were several good artists living here.”
Until then, Carofano had always maintained a home and a darkroom in two separate locations. However, he and his second wife, Arnee, whom he married in 1994, had been considering the idea of finding a loft that would double as both living space and studio. Carofano, particularly, relished the thought of having everything under one roof.
“Anyway, we started looking down here for a place to rent,” he says, and as it turned out the space they were going to lease ended up being the one they purchased in 1997. “It was an old Crocker Bank,” Carofano continues, “and we just kept pulling stuff out, demo-ing two ceilings, built this on, and here we are… It took about six months of work to be done on the building before we occupied it.” They secured an artist-in-residency permit and were off and running.
“Shortly after that, no more than about a year later, probably in ’98 or ’99, they started the First Thursday Art Walk here, and we decided we would become a part of it, maybe on a small level at that point. And it just grew. We started the gallery [Gallery 478], and as time went on we started putting up more shows.”