The smell of Turkish coffee, black and white visuals on the wall and all sorts of chemicals, lights, washes and apparatus – if I were interested in developing my photography skills, I could think of worse places to go to.

Zvezdan Reljic has long been associated with photography in Malta, but he has recently taken his love for photography and printing to further heights.

His Workshop f/1.4 series of photography classes has led to the establishment of the Open Dark Room Project, the aforementioned abode in Sliema, where one can partake in myriad forms of professional photo printing under the watchful eyes of Zvezdan himself.

Featuring the biggest dark room in Malta, there is an open invitation for photographers to pass by and see what happens. “We’ve had about three or four people coming every day so far, for films and portraits – and the coffee, of course,” says Zvezdan.

Indeed, a photographer, Madeline, is in the studio working on some black and white prints as we speak. It’s good to see the facilities put to use, giving photographers an easy, insightful and beautiful way of rendering their art, just down the road from The Point. The workshops were a call for photographers to explore the photography world and, now, The Open Dark Room Project is an extension of that.

And, some of the photographers are taking advantage early. “We have had 15-year-olds in the workshop and we had an 11-year-old come in with his mom. Some kids come in with their iPads and they get so impressed when they see us developing prints with our hands, seeing that they can actually build something tangible.”

The equipment at the studio, while awesome, is not exactly the key, though. “People get so confused with the digital camera, they think it’s only for professionals,” says Zvezdan. “Some people come in not knowing how to shoot and these are the people who end up giving you the best shots. I mean, a camera is just a box with a hole in it, after all,” he ends bluntly.

His advice and guidance led to many a proposition from the photographers he worked with. “People were coming to me with an idea, asking to collaborate on a book together and eventually I decided to check out the market. No one is printing architecture photography, art photography, even poetry books, that much.”

Some people come in not knowing how to shoot and these are the people who end up giving you the best shots

Soon after, Zvezdan, along with David Pisani under the Ede Books name, started publishing the Ede Photo Book series with Series 3 just recently being launched.

Five individual, black-bound books, each focused on a single photographer and a theme, ranging from intimate shots of local live gigs to light distortion, the Series 3 launch also sees the start of a sister series, the Ede Art Books – three white-bound books exploring an artist’s works.

“With the Photo Book Series the idea is to show contemporary photography, to show something unique. We want to record something, the feeling of it. I wanted to show the photographer’s style. Sometimes you see a photographer’s published work and then you see the same photographer in another publication and immediately you’ll recognise it. Each artist is compiled in one book, and each book represents their style and being.”

Zvezdan’s high quality paper (“extra-print”, Zvezdan tells me) and printing techniques, combined with his DIY ethic, end in interesting results. His search for the personal in photography art is giving Maltese and foreign photographers the opportunity to have their work rendered in high quality, as it well should be.

“I want the series to explore a range of topics – that’s the point, I want a series on everything, on Instagram, food, travel, anything. Some people have great images on Instagram, but a major problem was a lack of hi-resolution shots with some photographers. So they’d send me 40 or 50 shots and we’d go through them together. When we go through the planning of the book I may flip some pages or the order. A book needs to grab you, it needs to flow and show you something,” says Zvezdan.

“This work is a proper collaboration. I don’t make any money from this... the photographers sell their books at the events themselves. We print 50, 60 books and we forge ahead,” says Zvezdan. “We learn on the way, we get cheap books and everyone is happy.” The modest print runs give the artists the chance to really showcase themselves, something Zvezdan is keen on.

“People like your work because they see you and your personality in it. So, often, a photographer or artist will some photos or some art and then they’ll see their own work, and it’s so easy for them to think they’re crap, because they are trying to achieve something that is not them. Honestly, don’t be afraid to look stupid, like a fool, if that’s really you – screw it.”

Zvezdan is called away to survey Madeline’s film. They are preparing some black and white film, washing it, I learn, with a dash of baby shampoo to combat the emulsion. He goes through the washes in military form. He has probably seen many washes. Then, we head into the dark room for the final stage. Zvezdan closed the blinds and doors, sealing us in darkness and turns on the red light.

People like your work because they see you and your personality in it

Before us are a range of washes, tongs, lenses and timers. He goes over the routine with Madeline with ease and, together, they make the first print successfully. Within minutes Zvezdan and Madeline had turned some film to a well-rendered B&W print, ready to be admired somewhere.

The lengthiest part of the process are the washes, where the print must be washed in several separate liquids for specific times. As Zvezdan begins the fifth wash, with the prints drying nearby, he turns to us with a smile.

“Hey, you know that meme, the one that goes ‘What I do, what my friends think I do, what my parents think I do’... yeah?” he says, as I nod my head and conjure that meme format, imagining him publishing books, printing liths and taking great photos.

“Well, what I’m really doing all day, in all honesty,” he says with a bigger smile, wearing gloves, B&W images and baby shampoo nearby, the soft sound of water sloshing in the trays, “is washing.”


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