The Best Framers in the World

by Philip Greenspun

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I was schmoozing with Gil Ghitelman over the oak counter of his camera shop when the cardboard tube I'd been carrying clunked to the floor.

"What's that?" Gil asked.

"A couple photos I want to have framed. Know a good shop?"

"Let's see them. I know you can talk the talk, but let's see if you can walk the walk." Gil prides himself on not selling cameras to riffraff. You can't even find his 3rd floor shop if you don't know.

I spread the owl and the Moeraki boulders out on the counter.

"Pretty nice," Gil and his assistant Les whistled. "If you don't mind spending a lot, take them over to Goldfeder-something on 20th and 6th."

Spending money on framing is the best kind of self-indulgence for a photographer, so I figured I was worth it. After all, I'd had these pieces framed in Boston for about $130 each by one of the best shops in town (Stanhope) so I figured it couldn't cost that much more. (I probably should have reflected that a man who sells $8000 Linhofs regularly is someone to be taken seriously when he says something is pricey.)

I walked the long avenue block, past Duggal's seven stories of 24-hour/day photolab, past Baboo's 24-hour/day competition, and found Goldfeder/Kahan at 37 W. 20th.

I walked into a quiet carpeted room lined with unusual and expensive looking frames. I spread the owl out on a table. Elizabeth Goldfeder greeted me from behind a pair of eyeglasses the choosing of which obviously required more taste and effort than I'd spent choosing my entire wardrobe.

As soon as she found out that I was a nerd, she said "you have to meet my husband, Eric."

Eric, a photographer and computer programmer, gleefully took me downstairs to show me the robotic mat cutter he'd built. It was a huge x-y arm mechanism over some precision aluminum, all controlled by a PC-clone.

"Most of the automatic mat cutters are designed for cheap paperboard mats that go into ready-made frames. There are a lot of quirks to cutting rag mats that only we've figured out."

Eric walked me over to a stack of mounted and matted lithographs. They were all sealed in Mylar. This is the kind of moisture barrier I'd read about in books on museum conservation but had never seen anyone use. The idea is to not to build a 100% moisture-tight seal but slow the change in humidity seen by the artwork. (It works especially well for work displayed in bathrooms where the humidity is temporarily very high after a shower.)

"We humidity control the whole work area to 40-60% relative humidity. We know that most of our customers will display the work here in Manhattan where the humidity goes from 10% in winter to nearly 100% in summer and we don't keep work for very long, but we feel that we have an obligation to treat others' work better than they would treat it themselves."

Eric could tell that my attention was being distracted by a person in a bunny suit in a white room behind some glass doors.

"Oh, that's the clean room we bought surplus from National Semiconductor," Eric explained. "They shut down one of their fabs in Connecticut so we brought it down here."

Now I understand why I can never get that last speck of dust or hair out of the pictures I frame at home.

Back upstairs in the showroom, Elizabeth and her willowly assistant Kimberly had selected a few frames from hidden drawers. I knew exactly how I'd had these done in Boston but the supremacy of their taste was obvious and I didn't want to prejudice their aesthetic thinking.

"We like 8-ply mats because it really sets off the work off better," Elizabeth began. "Let's work on the owl first. I think you're going to want a tiger-stripe maple with a light blue stain. It is a traditional image so you don't want a profile that is too non-traditional. I don't think you want the Very White, which is a little too cool. Let's pick up the slight pink cast of the owl with Bright White. We don't dry mount to Fome-Core. I know they say it is acid-free but that's just the paper. The foam behind it crumbles and we get a smoother finish by dry mounting to mat board. Of course, you'll want Denglas."

All I knew about Denglas was that it was anti-glare and that I couldn't afford it. Nobody had ever been able to explain to me how it worked. Until Elizabeth.

"It has the same anti-reflective coating on it that you get on eyeglasses."

Aha! Which is the same stuff they put on camera lens elements. A coating one-quarter wavelength thick so that a second reflection destructively interferes with the first reflection and paradoxically results in more transmission of light.

We moved on to the Moeraki Boulders, which have always looked a little to me like dinosaur eggs. One of the hidden drawers had contained a frame covered with the same embossed reticulations.

"An artist makes these for us," Elizabeth explained. "I'll have her make samples in slightly darker shades and make sure it is exactly right for the rocks. Of course, we don't want to match the shade exactly."

"Of course," I mumbled, thinking that the bill would be staggering.

While Kimberly wrote up work orders for the pieces, I asked Elizabeth what had possessed her to go into such a competitive business.

"I got out of school with a communications degree thinking I was going to be on television, but I quickly realized that I wasn't going to get the kind of job I wanted anytime soon. I had a job with a market research firm for a few years just to see if I could stand it."

"New York has a lot of those jobs," I noted.

"My father had always wanted to open a frame shop so I began to spend evenings at a friend's frame shop learning every aspect of the business. It was good training to be a workaholic. I always knew that I wanted to work for myself and now it is great. We have a lot of steady customers, museums, galleries, wholesale business."

Kimberly emerged with the bill. Elizabeth glanced over at my shorts and T-shirt and decided that I wasn't ready for it. She took it back into the office and sliced off a hefty discount.

I looked at the original prices as I walked out; $903 for the boulders, $615 for the owl. I thought of the clean room.

Only in New York.

Goldfeder/Kahan Framing Group, Ltd. is at 169 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10013, (212) 431-0633, They can pack and ship framed artwork anywhere in the world.