In his 35-year career as a master black-and-white printer, Chuck Kelton has held some of the most important negatives in history: from Ansel Adams’s “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” to Alfred Eisenstaedt’s “V-J Day in Times Square.” So it makes sense that when he is in his darkroom with his chemicals and classical music, nobody can – or should – disturb him.
“Interpreting someone’s image into gelatin silver prints is about listening and interpreting through the use of materials to the finished print,” Mr. Kelton said. “Not only am I hearing what people are saying, I’m feeling what people are saying.”
He knows that anyone can learn photochemistry, but to evoke emotion in a print was a different skill, and one that he has relied on to print for Mary Ellen Mark, Danny Lyon and Builder Levy, among others.
Mr. Kelton began photographing when he was 14, often watching wire service photographers taking pictures at the Bronx skating rink his family owned. One day, an Associated Press photographer invited him to go down to the darkroom and help out on Saturdays. Soon his father built him his own darkroom.
After attending Kansas City Art Institute, where he “got indoctrinated into art more than photography,” and graduate school at Ohio University, where he taught classes in black-and-white and color printing, Mr. Kelton returned to New York in the late 1970s and took over a tennis program at a private school in Riverdale.
One of his students was the Japanese photographer Ishimuro, who, upon learning that Mr. Kelton was a photographer, asked him to be his assistant. Mr. Kelton went on the road with Ishimuro for over two years and ended up doing all of his processing and printing. Soon, he was recommended to two other photographers, and by 1983 he was printing Larry Clark’s portfolio.
He started Kelton Labs in the mid-1980s, attracting big-name clients who, by word of mouth alone, transformed his lab into a 25-person operation that was operating seven days a week, 20 hours a day. In his heyday, no request was considered too demanding: After Steven Meisel photographed Madonna in Florida, he flew 40 rolls of film to the lab for processing, then shipped back contact sheets so he and the singer could review them the next morning over coffee.
When several of Mr. Kelton’s clients went digital about 15 years ago, he was fine with that. In 2010 he moved his darkroom from Union Square to Mana Fine Arts in Jersey City and downsized. He now works only in black-and-white and has a staff of just two. He keeps the Union Square office for occasional meetings and has a client base of about 10.
Mary Ellen Mark has been working with Mr. Kelton for about 20 years and values his consistency and knowledge of her work. She is now collaborating with him on her forthcoming book about Tiny, the teenage prostitute from “Streetwise,” her 1983 project about the lives of street children in Seattle.
Still, he loses 10 percent of his business to digital each year. While he has been impressed with digital color photography, at best digital black-and-white looks “passable” to him. The issue of materials, specifically paper, is tricky. He said that while there were once some 300 types of photographic silver paper, there are now fewer than 10.