You may never have heard of Sid Kaplan, but his hand and eye are behind many of the greatest photographs that have been on view in museums and galleries since the 1960s. A master printer, he has done darkroom work for Robert Frank, Weegee, Cornell, Capa and many others.
Kaplan is also a fine photographer in his own right. He has been taking photos since he was a child in the Bronx in the late 1940s. His streetscapes show New York City in unwatched moments, like a 1957 scene of two couples on the Staten Island Ferry, looking out at the river in the early morning light, after their senior prom. One girl’s full skirt swirls in the sea breeze.
Some “snaps,” as he calls them, were taken from neighborhood rooftops as he’d climb and lean out to get the best views.
From the Williamsburg Bridge, he took an exquisite photo of the Twin Towers in 1985, and framed it so that the roof of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol on Norfolk Street is visible, its Star of David between the Towers. He shot many photos of the Towers, varying the time of day and available light, as though he knew then the necessity of recording what would soon be no more.
Many of his photos try to capture what was vanishing, like the Third Avenue El.
Another photo of the facades of Lower East Side tenements is an intricate and beautiful pattern of fire escapes and shadows.
Every one of his photos tells a story. Kaplan’s love of the city and its vibrancy is evident.
About 60 of his black-and-white photographs, taken from the 1950s to the present, are on view in “The Last of a Vanishing Breed: Master Printer & Photographer” at 25CPW Gallery in Manhattan, through May 12.
“He’s a painter with light,” photographer Joan Roth says. Co-curator of the show and Kaplan’s agent, Roth got to know Kaplan while working for him in his darkroom. Now, she has him print her work.
“It’s really magical to be in darkroom with him,” she says. “He really knows your work deeper than you do.”
He still does darkroom work in his East Village studio even as his profession is growing obsolete, with more people using digital cameras. Kaplan, 74, says that if he were to spend the rest of his days printing only his own photos from old negatives he hasn’t yet printed, he would not get through all of them. But he finds it irresistible to keep shooting, so he adds to the pile.
25CPW is open daily, noon to 6 p.m. Sid Kaplan will speak on May 11 at 3 p.m., 25 Central Park West (at 62nd Street)