Sabina Suru is one of the founders of Allkimik Photographic Association, an NGO based in Romania that focuses on analogue, alternative and experimental photography projects. We find out a lot about both Sabina Suru and Allkimik projects in the answers.
Tell us a little about yourself
Sabina Suru: I’m an artist from Romania. I guess I always wanted to be just that (an artist, that is), without thinking there were so many ramifications to this field. As a child, I would draw and think that that would become a painting and that it was art. And that is all. Simple.
It all changed when someone handed me an old Fed camera and simply asked me to hold it for a couple of minutes. I spent a long time staring at that camera which was already far older than myself at the time. My friend kept asking me if I could return the camera to him, but I barely heard him and kept staring at it in a daze. I guess that is how love at first sight works: immediate, irrational and inexplicable.
From there on, my path was clear, although I didn’t study photography. When applying to University, the University of Arts in Bucharest had a few prerequisites that I didn’t agree with; for example, they required each student to have a digital camera of their own, which made sense for others, but not for me. A friend said, “go for painting; you can do pretty much anything and just say it’s mixed media”. I agreed and I still think it was the best choice.
Photography-wise, this also meant I had to improvise a lab and go through trial and error by myself. It wasn’t as hard as it might sound. It was great, actually. It allowed me to be unstructured and chaotic in my lab approach. So, instead of learning formal rules and wanting to break them, I went haywire and experimented with everything I could think, read or hear about. This, in a way, still influences my practice now—I see photography as a tool, an element in a bigger scheme, instead of a well-bordered field I would need to identify with. All this also worked because the world of analogue and alternative photography practitioners seems to function in the absence of angry possession or ambition. Everyone seems to want to share their findings so that others can build on them and new possibilities opened, based on this collective sharing of efforts. Romania was (and is) no exception to this, especially in the early 2000s, when few still practised photography in a darkroom. I still make my prints on an enlarger that I received from a retired physician; he had received it lovingly from his wife, in their youth, and wanted to give it away to someone who would use it with care and joy, just as he had.
Which photographic process are you interested in?
Sabina Suru: My artistic practice, not just my work with photography, leans towards something of an art & science / installation-based approach. As such, I find and experiment with photographic techniques based on two paths: the history of photography, with its convoluted connection to science, technology and culture, and “objectification” (how 2d media can find its way into objects, installations or immersive, interactive, or even participatory environments). Like probably everyone else, I started with expired film and paper (many of those were still available in the early 2000s for very little money). Then, I went on to try my hand with anthotypes, cyanotypes and the like. Over the last 5 years, though, I (somewhat accidentally) started digging deeper into the history of photography. As I was reading about heliography and Hill’s experiments with colour photography, I learned about Lippmann’s research and experiments with optical interference as a base for colour photographic recordings. I was also fascinated by early animation and optical objects used in theatre, like Pepper’s Ghost or other optical contraptions like the catoptric cistula or the praxinoscope. All this wandering around the history of optics, photography and old technologies brought me on a straight and inevitable path to holography, both silver-based and what I’m guessing would be the equivalent of alternative holography, with emulsions based on potassium or ammonium dichromate.
About 3 years ago, I rolled up my sleeves, rearranged my lab and improvised an optic table. I started experimenting with this hallucinating sub-field of both early photography and physics. I’m currently experimenting with coating my own holographic glass plates with potassium dichromate emulsion. I figured it shouldn’t be too different from coating my cyanotype glass plates, but uh, was I in for a surprise!
You are starting a festival in October in Romania next year. How did this idea come about?
Sabina Suru: The analogue and alternative photography communities everywhere are developing and growing more every day and that is a great thing. At the same time, I’m active as somewhat of a multimedia artist. The two, in my opinion, work together, but while I believe that I find myself (still) quite often engaged in discussions that begin with “cyanotype, that’s nice. But that is craftsmanship, not art” and this annoys me beyond words. This kind of segregation based on how one goes through their work processes is simply something I structurally don’t understand. In the end, art is conditioned more by intent than technique. Since modernism, borders between art “species” have been blurring more and more with every passing decade, so why are we still separating things, instead of developing them and working together, no matter what motivations we have for the time we spend in the darkroom?
Now, while I have been more submerged in the art community rather than that of Avantgarde Antiquarians, a few years back, I was lucky to meet a few of the people active in the Bucharest photo community, two of them in particularly – Stefan Dinu and Alex Spineanu. They were, at the time (2014, I think), developing an amazing place they called Fotohub, part of a small entrepreneurial initiative called Allkimik, with a focus on analogue and alternative photography (especially wet plate collodion, their soft spot). I guess it took very little time for me to become something of a lingering passionate pet around the place. I made coffees and the boys would allow me in their darkroom to play around. Shortly after that, they organized an exhibition series they called Argentik. It was a democratic system where everyone was allowed to bring a print and simply add it to the exhibition. So many people came and the general atmosphere was akin to that of a festival, more than an improvised crowd-sourced exhibition. After the pandemic and so much online—the latter I actually don’t see as a bad thing, but quite the contrary—we decided it was high time we started gathering in greater numbers again, give Argentik a remodelling and see what happens.
Who is involved in organizing the festival?
Sabina Suru: While I was the cute-pet-assistant for quite some time in the lovely Allkimik darkrooms (we changed nests a couple of times), Stefan and Alex have caringly helped me grow throughout the years. As such, last year we decided to properly gang up and take Allkimik to the next level: it became the Allkimik Photographic Association, an NGO focused on working up an infrastructure for all the ambiguous corners of photography, art and collaborative practices. The organizational core of the festival is the three of us, with a web of satellite people that have, in fact, been around for a long time—people working in cultural management, graphics or curation, and a handful of people of various backgrounds active in both their professions and photography.
We would like to have a main theme each year, so the curator of the festival will change as well. This year we have by our side Horatiu Lipot, a Romanian curator and photographer, as well as a handful of Romanian cultural institutions and galleries around the city. The theme of the festival orbits around the concept of Togetherness.
What is the interest in alternative photographic processes in Romania?
Sabina Suru: The photographic community here has been growing by the day. I remember when I first moved to Bucharest (around 2007), when I had colour films, I would take them to a lab downtown and the guy there would just invite me to go out, have a coffee and come back in half an hour to pick up my film. I went there last week to leave a couple of rolls and behind them, where an empty box used to sit, two big shelves held about 40 boxes overflowing with developed film rolls. He asked me to come back to pick up my rolls in 3-4 weeks. If that isn’t encouraging, I don’t know what is!
On the alternative side, it’s fair to say it’s been developing slower than the analogue one, but nevertheless developing. We have new small initiatives, like Ambrotipescu or Iso400, as well as artists and various other practitioners who are either trying to make it on their own or visiting us at the hub, sending messages to ask for advice or simply coming over for a workshop. When one tries to have a look at alternative photography in Romania, it doesn’t feel like much, but staying at the lab, requests for information or co-labs pour in almost every day. Perhaps, with public events and the festival, we’ll have a better chance of seeing them in action! Technique-wise, I think cyanotype and wet plate collodion are the most loved paths. I, for myself, dream of trying some more gum bichromate printing and mordançage.
Can you give us an example of a project you’re involved in that supports this emergent interest?
Sabina Suru: Although Allkimik (in the initial duo-version) has been around for some time, we only became an NGO a little over a year ago and, around the same time, the studio changed its home to a new place. These two things put together gave us the opportunity to support and develop our community and feature new collaborations with other fields and practitioners. Collaborating more with other artists, we realized there are a few glitches in the system, especially when organizing open calls, selections, exhibitions and promoting what we (all) do on social media. No matter how you go about it, someone is left out and, most of the time, this has little to do with the quality of their work. Frequently, it’s just a contextual thing. So we decided to tackle these twoshortcomins: selection (thus the judgment of another’s work) and the imbalanced time we spend on social media promoting our work as artists. This is how Share, Tag or Dye came to be. We opened a free, transparent, selection-less, open call. Anyone, no matter if they are photographers or practitioners of other fields, was eligible to contribute to the final installation, with a link from one post on their social media accounts.
We gathered 208 contributions, from all over the world: we were hoping to make it to at least 150, but hey! surprise! The initial plan was to integrate them into an anthotype-based installation (the irony, right?), but the weather wasn’t as friendly as we had hoped. So we decided to make an anthotype workshop instead (since the first World Anthotype Day was just around the corner) and rely on ol’ cyanotype and cellulosic silk for the installation. We are still in touch with the people that attended the workshop; they are still testing exposures, and emulsions, so I guess it takes very little to spark interest in such beautiful techniques. Returning to the installation, the exhibition will open very soon (September 3rd) and will finish on exactly September 24th, on World Cyanotype Day (we must celebrate that one, too, right?).