At the corner of Mission Street and Geneva Avenue, directly above a cheap household goods store across the street from Bank of America, a few photographers and filmmakers snap and edit away above the busy street from their second floor studios.
Anyone who travels down Geneva Avenue through the heavily trafficked intersection would instantly recognize the building. It’s the one with the long bank of exposed, windowless exterior next to the bus stop on Geneva Avenue that is forever being vandalized by graffiti artists.
Most people likely assume there are residences on that second floor, but instead, it is one of the last affordable places for artists in the rapidly gentrifying city.
Kari Orvik is one such artist, and her medium is perhaps even more unexpected than the existence of the studios themselves. Orvik shoots portraits with a large format camera, not the single lens reflex type chosen by most professionals.
Orvik also produces images not of the digital or even film variety, rather a rare form called known as tintype photography. People’s pictures are processed by hand in Orvik’s studio, a process somewhat similar to film processing, and the images are displayed on small metal plates rather than paper.
“I love tintype because it helps slow down the interaction with people,” Orvik said. “I feel like the neighborhood is changing and want to document how it is now, so I’ve been shooting local businesses and people.
Orvik’s main business is shooting portraits, and images of some of her subjects hang on the sparsely decorated walls of her studio and tidy office. Tintype photography is an old form of photography, mostly used in the late 1800’s, and has been brought back in this century by photographers like Michael Shindler, Orvik’s mentor and former owner of a San Francisco studio called Photobooth.
Orvik worked with Shindler at Photobooth before opening her own studio in the Marin headlands, and her current studio in the Excelsior opened in April 2014.
“Kari’s so good with people,” Shindler said. “Portraits are personal, and even more than lighting, what is most important is how you interact with them.”
Orvik’s own photographic style developed during the dot com boom when she worked on affordable housing with the Mission Housing Development Corporation.
“I learned photography on film, and shooting the residents of the building I worked at felt like the right thing to do,” Orvik said. “I just found the tintype method to be the most hands on.”
Much like the processing of film, the tintype process involves a dark room, and the chemicals needed to develop the somewhat ghostly looking black and white images.
Before taking someone’s picture with her Sinar 4×5 large format camera, a photographic plate must be prepared in the dark room. Orvik readies an aluminum plate, the kind used in trophy engraving, by pouring nitrocellulose onto its surface. The thick, yellowish liquid coats the plate so the image has something to adhere to.
Once it dries, the plate goes into the camera where it takes the place of film or a light sensitive chip.
Once the plate is exposed to light through the camera lens, it is moved to the darkroom for developing. It’s dipped into a developer liquid, and the image begins to appear almost right away. From there, the plate is rinsed with water and then dipped in fixer solution.
After washing and drying, the plate is complete, and a unique, hand made piece of art is ready for gift giving or for marking special events like anniversaries, for example. Some of Orvik’s work has been displayed around the corner at the Dark Horse Inn, and her studio is open by appointments only. Sessions start at $140.
As San Francisco continues to bleed artists and families, perhaps more of them will find refuge along Mission Street near Geneva Avenue. So long as they offer something as unique as Orvik’s tintype plates, they will do well.