Thomas Ochs on the initiation of annual scholarships

Interview between Océane Gonnet — art educator and founder of Art in the Museum and Thomas Ochs — owner of Schwarzweiß Fotolabor, about the initiation of the annual scholarship for analog photography in cooperation with NAILS projectroom.

OG: I’d like to start with your personal professional background. You are a film scholar and museologist by education. What were your first encounters with analog photography and how did you then get to discover laboratory work?

TO: As a little boy, I had various analog cameras and did a lot of photography with a pocket camera, mainly in color. I made albums of the results and showed them around as well. Later I had a panorama camera with which I experimented a lot. Unfortunately, it broke eventually and then my interest diminished a little. With my studies of theater, film and media sciences in Vienna and my passion for film archives, the interest for analog photography returned. Then I only strolled around with analog cameras. Ultimately, developing films seemed to suggest itself. Initially, we had been speculating with a colleague from the Film Archive Austria about setting up a small darkroom in the depot rooms in Laxenburg. At that time, he was already photographing slide film on medium format. Somehow however, it didn’t happen. This way I had my first points of contact with laboratory work with Erika, who gave me the opportunity to do an internship after my studies in 2012. I was able to try out and experiment a lot. That was wonderful.

OG: Ever since you took over the black and white photography lab from Erika Vogel, the work in the lab is no longer limited to developing and enlarging black and white films, right? The scope of possibilities for working in the lab and the range of services have expanded enormously. Could you say something about the general concept of the lab? How has it evolved in your perception?

TO: Erika had to move out of her old lab space in 2013 when she was already of a pensionable age. The lab was no longer particularly profitable. Analog photography, even more so analog black and white photography, was hardly demanded at all at the time. Only a few regular customers remained loyal to her. Back then, I had encouraged her to risk the move and offered to help her with the relocation. That is how we got to Erkrather Straße 292 and the definite goal was to take over the photo lab after a few years. At the time I already had the idea to expand the program, especially to consider the facilities to be open to everyone and to exhibit artistic photography in some context. With the scholarship and the ‘Schaufenster’ exhibitions, this has become very well established now. We rent out the rooms and have a small laboratory community. Of course, we also digitalize analog material now. We are open for experiments, new ways of thinking and a lively exchange. From my point of view, that resonates very well with different people.

OG: How did the idea of a scholarship come about?

TO: From the beginning the scholarship was a present idea. It is supposed to offer, especially to young creatives, the possibility to work in a professional laboratory environment away from the university and to deal with materiality. Of course, doing analog photography involves costs. With the scholarship we want to make a contribution. Ideally, there is a good cooperation in the background to set up something like this. The fact that after the time working in the lab, an exhibition would take place was absolutely essential. In that regard, Maren Knapp from the NAILS projectroom helped us a lot thanks to her willingness to cooperate.

OG: In 2020, the scholarship was first announced. What did you learn from the first experiences or in other words, what has resulted from them for 2021?

TO: The first call for proposals was connected to many uncertainties.  For a long time, we did not know where to exhibit. We needed a framework for the application process. After all, we didn’t know how our offer would be received. However, we got numerous applications in the first year already. We were able to fund the large-format photographs of Cosmo Großbach, an excellent project. Naturally, and this is our aim, there is always room for improvement, expansion and development. In 2021, transparency and the implementation of a jury panel were the main focuses. Moreover, we want to offer the scholarship on a more international basis. The number of applications this year has nearly doubled compared to last year.

OG: In other words, the lab is not only a place where photos are developed and enlarged, but much more a space for creative processes?

TO: It is my ambition to create possibilities to discover analog processes, expand them and think them completely new. Creativity is encouraged in the lab. At the same time, Erika’s aspiration to achieve high-quality developments and enlargements in close relationship with the customers is paramount.

The interview took place in April 2021 in Düsseldorf.