Canal Street in lower Manhattan is the main thoroughfare connecting New Jersey to Brooklyn, and is a central feature of the vibrant Chinatown scene bisecting the SoHo and TriBeCa neighborhoods. The area has been historically synonymous with hawkers selling counterfeit luxury goods to hordes of tourists, but an ambitious project seeks to build – at least temporarily – an energetic arts scene.
“ON CANAL: A District for New Ideas,” a project by experiential creative studio Wallplay and Vibes Studios, is converting twenty vacant retail storefronts into a series of popups featuring artists and different start-ups at a time when retail vacancies are near historic highs despite a booming economy.
Artist Neil Hamamoto‘s relationship with Sonny Gindi of Vibes Studios led him to conceive of a crowdsourced community film project that was judged by a professional jury. Hamamoto handed out free rolls of Tri-X, and then developed and printed the images on location using Ilford Multigrade FB classic with matte finish. The effort culminated in an exhibit that runs through November 4, 2018 at 318 Canal St. In the spirit of projects like Photoville, “free film” and ON CANAL seek to provide accessible art to the pedestrians of New York.
I spoke to Neil (disclosure: Neil and I are friends) about his project and how the future of film lies, in part, with millennials embracing an analog future.
What was the impetus for the idea?
NH: Honestly the main impetus was an outstanding offer on a prime piece of commercial real estate. With the burden of rent alleviated from planning I was able to expand my budget and actually consider bringing some of my more conceptual ideas to reality.
You built a darkroom behind the storefront to develop and print the entries. What were some of the challenges?
NH: Making sure there were no light leaks! The walls of the space had horizontal grooves that the last tenant used to hang clothing racks from. Those needed to be filled and blacked out individually. Also temperature regulation was tough in our space as we didn’t have any heat and New York is starting to get cold! You’d be surprised at how different your chemicals work at different temperatures. Cold chemicals means long waiting times!
How many photographers participated in the project? Were you surprised by the reaction?
NH: We distributed 100 free rolls so 100 people were involved to start. Unfortunately we only received 82 rolls back. Of those 82, 45 photographers had photos selected by our jury for printing. I was most surprised by the overwhelmingly positive and grateful attitude most people showed to me. I had to have faith that this group of complete strangers would return these rolls and that other people believed in the idea and believed in me to make it happen.
You built out a pretty nifty space. Can you talk about the design?
NH: I work primarily as a sculptor and I’d always had this idea of designing a space with soft edges. I wanted to stray from the white walls and hard corners of a more typical gallery. This seemed like the right time to give it a run and I think it worked out nicely. I’ve had multiple people ask if it was my intention to make the space feel like the inside of a roll of film. That was not my intention but hearing that made me smile.
You’re a Stanford educated, multimedia artist who has worked extensively with wood. What attracted you to photography?
NH: All work and no play makes Neil a dull artist. I think it’s important to explore and try more than one medium. Photography has been a medium I’ve loved my whole life and a big factor in giving me confidence to quit my job (Hamamoto previously worked at a tech start-up) and begin creating sculpture full time. Although this project has taken a lot of work it has actually felt like a nice vacation from my normal sculpture practice. A vacation for me to come back from with fresh ideas and new energy to put back into my sculpture practice.
The pundits say that millennials are bringing back film photography. As a “digital native,” what drives your interest in film?
NH: I’m obsessed with what most millennials would call “analog technology.” I think we’ve moved way too quickly into the digital age and that we didn’t get to iterate and explore and tweak our analog devices enough before we dismissed them and moved on completely. That concept kept my relationship with film photography strong. I’m happy to hear it’s coming back but also a bit scared. Millennials are also the reason film almost died in the first place. I’m not sure what I will do with myself if I start seeing people taking selfies on film cameras.
Can you share and describe a couple of your favorite images?
NH: Attached are some of my favorites. I personally scanned every roll that was returned to us and compiled a preselect folder of about 500 images to send to some our more time constrained jurors. That means I got to drive some themes that developed across multiple rolls. My favorites are photos that I think connect the themes.
The framing on this shot is just awesome. Also this umbrella became one of the mega stars of the exhibition. Three different photographers shot it from three different angles at three separate times and all three photos were selected for the show.
New York has its own language. This photo just made me smile on so many levels. An amazing submission for this project which developed an extremely strong New York street photography narrative. The best part is that my best friend of 20 years took it. We grew up in New York City together saying this all the time. No collusion here tough. Juror Adrienne Raquel selected it and I’ll remind you that judging was anonymous.
Visually I love the textures in this photo. The juxtaposition and simultaneous similarities between the rug and the street is profound.
This interview was lightly edited.
Update: We previously referred to Wallplay as a “creative agency.” They refer to themselves as a “creative studio.”