Joseph Deuel, A Labor of Love

An Introduction by Mary Kathryn Jablonski

We’ve seen the meditative processes of Nina Shengold, who walks the world in awe and shares what she sees in life’s lyric moments and naturalist/paddler Jacqueline Donnelly who blogs about the wonders of species she discovers in woods and waterways. These women largely use the convenience of their cell phones for up-close images and quick captures in the wild.

In a world of cell phones why would a photographer at times choose antiquated analog devices, film and darkrooms over cell phone photography? Why spend time hand-focusing older cameras and developing film? Remember film? Are there images that can only be obtained using these processes? Oh, yes; some artists argue yes. And the artistic journey itself may be of great value to both the artist and the viewer. Here we meet Joseph Deuel and explore other meditative means of photography. As poet William Spencer is quoted in the Italian Gardens of Saratoga Springs shown: “Noiseless falls the foot of time that only treads on flowers.”


MKJ- Joseph, you’ve taken so many thousands of photographs, but I’ve chosen this group because they are obviously quite different from mainstream cell phone point & shoot images. Even those here that at first might seem “spontaneous” in composition have the deliberateness of an Artist’s Eye and something noticeably original in the process going on. Can you give us a few notes about the equipment and techniques you’re using to make these images?

JD- Some of these images are from the pre-digital world. My Nikon F2 was the thing I lugged everywhere. A few are digital photos that just look better in black and white. I feel like if you shoot in color, color needs to be an integral part of the image. Lately, I’ve been shooting with a couple of Zero Image pinhole cameras, one 4×5 and one for 120 film. I also use a Speed Graphic 4×5 camera I bought while I was still in junior high school. It turned out to be the same camera my father owned and sold in the ‘50s! I also use a Rolleiflex and several old roll film cameras: a few Nikon SLRs, a Kodak Retina IIIc; an Agfa Isolette, a Voightlander Bessa, and I have a 90-year-old Vest Pocket Kodak I’m going to try out. Yes, one can still purchase 127 film if you don’t mind that it’s $25 per roll! For most things I’m using my Nikon D850.

MKJ- In a digital world, why would an artist choose analog methods from the past?

JD- I’m amazed I love it so much. Digital is easier, and I do not miss those days when I had to stay up all night making a hundred little prints for a publication. With digital it’s so easy to blast away, and I shoot many more photos than I ever did with black and white film. The small fact that every shot in film is fairly expensive makes me get into a different frame of mind. Even though it’s possible and relatively easy to torture a digital photo to emulate an analog photo, there’s still the element of the unique personality that every camera lens has that is not possible to duplicate, not yet, anyway. I think above all, I love the process. I love mixing chemicals and experimenting with different developers. Currently, I’m only developing the negatives and using my Nikon to digitize the photos. I’m hoping to get my enlarger out of storage soon to make some traditional prints. Unfortunately, I don’t have space for a real darkroom. I unpack everything when I develop, then pack it away when I’m done. It’s a labor of love.

MKJ- Hmmm. When you say you’re “developing the negatives and using my Nikon to digitize the photos,” I’m not quite sure what you mean there. Don’t most folks use a scanner for their negatives if they are not going to go ahead with an enlarger in a darkroom? Can you elaborate a bit on what you do?

JD- I got tired of having my heart broken by film scanners. Really good ones aren’t produced anymore except the expensive ones that photo labs use. I’ve spent a lot of money on used ones that just die after a while. My Nikon has higher resolution than my old scanners. I set it up in a copy stand and take a picture of the negative in a special holder over a special light source. A scanner could take 45 min. to make a scan, but the camera does it in a fraction of a second. There’s a little more fussing around with it, but the end result is as good. I bought a computer plug-in that will invert the negative to positive and correct the color for color shots.

MKJ- Is it a challenge to acquire the materials needed to work this way? And is the time required, from shooting to processing, an advantage or a hindrance to the work – or at different times, a little of each?

JD- Materials are readily available. Since they’re not the status quo, they’re expensive. I’ve been experimenting with some lesser-known brands of film that I never used before. It’s possible to get a deal. I recently bought a 100-sheet box of Ilford 4×5” film. It was over $200! That will last a long time, though. The time spent processing just feels like part of the experience. I feel closer to the photos. It’s fun, I really enjoy doing that kind of work.

MKJ- Tell us what inspires you as an artist about travel.

JD- Travel’s the best! If I had the means I would be traveling a lot. Every place I visit is a new world. It’s always stimulating. Unfortunately, when I do concise, short trips I don’t always get as much alone time with my cameras. It’s a tradeoff.

MKJ- We’d love to know more about your work at Caffè Lena, known as the country’s oldest continuously operational folk music coffeehouse. What do you do there and how did you come into this work?

JD- I’ve been doing the live front-of-house sound on and off for a long time. I started in 1987 or 1988. Since 2000, I’ve been the main person doing that. It turned into a paying job along the way. Now I live off it. Before 2009 it was a volunteer gig. I have to laugh, it’s not something I ever aspired to do. I was volunteering in the kitchen for Lena and one night she asked me to help a performer set up the sound. It was a very primitive system back then. I had to learn a lot over the years. The transition to digital was brutal for me. You should never run a sound board that’s smarter than you! I never meant to do that kind of work, but I’ve been doing it there over 35 years!

MKJ- You’ve contributed many of your photographs to the recent historical book about Lena’s, “Caffe Lena: Inside America’s Legendary Folk Music Coffeehouse,” isn’t that right?

JD- I think I have about 70 photos in that. The choice for my photos was mostly based on the need to have a photo to illustrate the interviews. I have a lot of photos that I wish could’ve been in there.

MKJ- Ah, we can see more of your photos on the Joseph Deuel website and learn more about Lena’s and your experience there in this great recent article from Nippertown online magazine. Thanks Joseph!