Hamburger Eyes Provides An Epicenter of Photography

Hamburger Eyes founder Ray Potes sits in the Photo Epicenter.

Hamburger Eyes founder Ray Potes sits in the Photo Epicenter.

By ARMAND EMAMDJOMEH

You’ll find it tucked away just off 24th Street – behind the McDonald’s, past the noon drunks. Midway down the mural and urine-coated alley there is a red door with the Number 26. Ring the doorbell and someone pops out of a window above, long hair and black-framed glasses, and drops a set of keys down.

Enter the Hamburger Eyes Photo Epicenter—a place with a Speakeasy feel. If shooting film isn’t illegal as alcohol once was, it’s increasingly rare with everyone from the Academy of Art in San Francisco to Kodak pulling back on shooting, processing and producing film. Hamburger Eyes, however, encourages film photography’s preservation in a three-times-a-year journal.

“There’s really nothing like it in San Francisco,” said Courtney Fink, executive director of Southern Exposure, an arts nonprofit also based in the Mission. “They’re very humble about what they’re trying to do.”

Indeed, it’s not easy to get the two founders talking about their project. What started as a zine printed during idle hours at a San Diego Kinko’s, Hamburger Eyes is now a 100-page photography journal published three times a year, plus the Photo Epicenter, an art gallery and darkroom space on Lilac St. near the 24th and Mission Street BART station. The publication seeks to preserve the form, function and essence of documentary photography, and has just published a book under the title Hamburger Eyes.

You get the feel of two guys who just really enjoy what they’re doing. It’s not work, it’s nothing special. It’s photography as a lifestyle.

The first question many have is how they came up with the name. (read on after the jump)

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“We leave it open to interpretation…it sounds better than Aperture,” founder Ray Potes, 33, jokes, referring to the fine arts publication. He sits in the gallery with his long time friend and co-founder, Stephan Simikich, dressed in white paint-stained coveralls from his family-owned painting business.

The current exhibit is called “One Thousand and Twenty-Six Eyes,” a photography collaboration with Philadelphia-based Space 1026. A large sculpture dominates the center of the room, while the walls are filled with photography and mixed media of various sizes.

The countless rolls of film, the hours spent in a darkroom – it’s an art that’s increasingly rare.  The Academy of Art in San Francisco has shut down its color darkroom, and the Art Institute has closed both its color and black and white facilities.

There are also national and international impacts, as the demand for film, paper and processing chemicals plummet. Eastman Kodak has ceased production of many of its photo film ranges, especially in professional films, cutting more than 30,000 jobs in the past four years. The once-ubiquitous Kodachrome is only available in one 35mm format. Polaroid has completely ceased production of its iconic instant film and has closed factories in the United States, Mexico and the Netherlands.

While he doesn’t think film will ever disappear completely, Potes does worry about whether images will survive to be seen by future generations.

“How people are archiving their digital photos scares me,” Potes says, referring to the common practice of storing images on hard drives, which crash after a few years, or media that can soon become obsolete (remember ZIP drives?).

“With a negative, you can scratch it but you still have something useable. Once a digital photo is deleted, it’s gone.”

Though they recently received an Alternative Exposure grant from Southern Exposure, a reduced demand for film darkrooms in an age of digital photography makes it difficult to pay for production of the magazine and workspace.

The grant, Simikich says, “basically covered our bills from the months before…we do bake sales, garage sales, just to try and get by.”

“We could put out an issue every week if we had the funding,” he adds.

There is certainly no lack of photographers willing to be published, as Simikich says he receives about five CD portfolios every two days and countless email submissions. About 90 percent of the photographs come from various film formats, while there are a handful of digital images.

The costs of an issue run anywhere from $5,000 – $10,000, and printing prices have been steadily increasing over the past few years.

Subtitled “The Continuing Story of Life on Earth,” the publication’s gritty, urban black and white photographs mix the American documentary of Robert Frank with the freak show imagery of Diane Arbus. The magazine has a reputation for publishing photos that are too edgy, unpolished, or graphic to run elsewhere.

Hamburger Eyes founder Ray Potes sits in the Photo Epicenter.

Hamburger Eyes founder Ray Potes sits in the Photo Epicenter.

“We’re huge fans,” Potes, who received his first camera at age 11 and started printing black and white film in high school, says of the two classic photographers. He also mentions the documentary photography of National Geographic and Life Magazine as major influences on the publication.

One image, by Mission photographer Ted Pushinsky, shows a hijab-covered woman begging on the street while a crowd of mostly white, presumably tourists pass by, oblivious, some eating large slices of pizza. Another, by Mark Cross, depicts a poodle with a Tina Turner-style hairdo.

The images run the size of the page. The artist’s last name or initials rest in the bottom corner of each photo. There are no captions.

“A lot of times the captions and the words ruin it,” Potes says. Instead, he would rather people focus on the images.

“I think they’re very edgy…they’re really raw in their compositions, truly documentary,” says Mimi Chakarova, a professor of photojournalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

“There are very few magazines still doing this,” she adds.

Despite the deluge of submitted images, Potes, who handles the layouts of the publication, takes a simple approach to publication.

“I start with the cover, and end with the back cover,” filling the pages in order. He looks at how far the magazine has come, reflecting on some of the earlier issues.

“My mom has some photos in there.”

While the Hamburger Eyes journal has been doing well, they have had trouble filling their darkroom space, which they rent starting at $11 an hour. Discount rates are available for weekly or monthly packages.

“It’s a cool variation from young kids to older guys printing for the MOMA archives,” Simikich says, of the people who use the darkrooms.

While many photographers prefer the finer quality and the immersive process of film, the speed, convenience and affordability of digital makes it a necessity. As more photographers shoot digitally, the demand for film and processing continues to decrease, forcing darkrooms to shut down all over the country.

“It’s pretty sad what’s happening to film,” Potes says during a cigarette break in the alley.

Chakarova agrees.

“For me nothing replaces the darkroom…it’s quiet time with you, the image and the purpose of the image.

“It changes the speed at which you see the world.”

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