Photographer Julia Dean: Finding The Lost Angels

Digital Photo Pro: When you had this revelation, how did you put it into action?

Dean: That decision was in November 2010, and I haven’t been without a camera over my shoulder since. In 2011, I moved downtown with my partner, Jay Adler, so that I could be close to my project. We live on the corner of Broadway and 7th Street, right next to the famous Clifton’s Cafeteria. I am inspired at this location, despite some surrounding urban problems. Every time I walk out the door, life’s moments unfold in front of me. I have never been so visually stimulated in all of my life. My mentor, Berenice Abbott, told me that you must always have a personal project. I do, and it’s for life—the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

Julia Dean
A newly married couple sits at Traxx bar in Union Station and watches a football game in 2013.

Digital Photo Pro: What was your experience like with Ms. Abbott?

Dean: What I learned while with her in the late 1970s for a year is immeasurable. She was 80 at the time, and I was 23 and had only lived in Broken Bow and Lincoln, Nebraska, and Rochester, New York. I had everything to learn. Berenice had an extensive library, which I dove into.

I heard firsthand stories of what it was like to assist Man Ray and to live in Paris in the 1920s. I heard stories about Peggy Guggenheim, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and so many other expats of the time. I learned discipline and how to put in full days in my own home, without having to “go” to work. That was new to me. I had never known anyone who had worked at home. The usual routine at Berenice’s was to go upstairs and work with her in the darkroom, printing from 8×10 black-and-white negatives of New York City in the 1930s on her 8×10 enlarger. I became a true apprentice to a master printer. The rest of the day I would wash, dry, flatten and spot the prints. She was a master printer. From her I learned to make a beautiful print.

Digital Photo Pro: What did you learn from Berenice in terms of making a beautiful print?

Dean: I didn’t realize how little I knew upon my arrival for my apprenticeship, despite having just completed the photo program at the Rochester Institute of Technology. My year with her in Blanchard, Maine, a town of about 50 people, brought my entire education together.

When I was at school, we used RC paper so that wash and dry time was quick. With Berenice, we not only used graded fiber-base paper, but we also mixed gold tone with nuggets of gold weighed on a scale. In the beginning of my yearlong stay,
Berenice would work in the darkroom with me all morning. As I became a better printer, I would set up the darkroom and make the first print for her to inspect. Then she would finesse it, and together we would then make the final prints. More often than not, we were both dodging and burning simultaneously with all hands.

She used Agfa Brovira and taught me the importance of how the developer affects contrast and why you should vary your development times. She taught me what under-fixing and over-fixing will do. She taught me the importance of how to make a print archival, though the methods back then were different than today. For instance, she used two fixing baths. I learned how to care for the print from beginning until it was ready to be shipped off to the Museum of the City of New York. The way we treated prints felt like the reverence paid to religion.

Leave a Reply