Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A Handcrafted Revolution


There's a recent trend being noticed in the world of photography, brought to our attention no doubt by the pervasive presence of the internet discussion forum. And no, this trend has little to do with multi-megapixel cameras. In fact, if the computer were not the means of social interaction one could almost believe this was happening in the beginning of the last century, rather than the present.

The trend I am referring to is the phenomenon of the home-built camera.

Building one's own camera may, to some, seem as anachronistic as, say, fabricating a working clock from a pile of discarded lumber. It's certainly not as romantic as rebuilding an old Mustang or refinishing Aunt Mabel's sideboard table.

And then there's that inevitable question of 'why'. Why, indeed, when each year there are more cameras being manufactured of all types - film, digital, disposable, cell phone-embedded - than there are people to use them. Considering the sophisticated design and manufacturing science involved in the global trade in image-making equipment, there must be more going on here than merely fulfilling a desire to take pictures with a device crafted by hand.

Perhaps we should step back a moment and consider this phenomenon more carefully. Who are these people anyway, and what kind of cameras are they building? Well, I, for one, am an example of one of those camera builders, so I may have some opinion on the matter - albeit somewhat biased.

I did not awake one morning, suddenly bolt upright in bed and proclaim "Eureka! I'm going to build my very own camera today!" My story was rather an evolution, one that started in the mainstream of amateur photography, in the late 1970s. My visual sentiments gradually changed with time, as I went from shooting 35mm Kodachrome slides, to desiring a more hands-on involvement with the materials of the monochrome darkroom. Paralleling this change of focus was the sense that the 35mm frame was too diminutive in area within which to capture the essence of my vision.

So I found myself not only assembling the tools of the black & white darkroom, but my hands-on experience with the photographic craft directly led to the inspiration that would illuminate my path for years to come: the pinhole camera.

Although the smallest of film formats can, in theory, be applied to the pinhole technique, direct experience and the mathematics of pinhole optics both suggest that larger formats yield greater detail, more delicate and subtle tonal values and less artifacts of the medium.

Thus, borne by the necessity to put into practical use cameras of more extensive film sizes than the mainstream, I quickly came to the necessity of having to fashion by hand an object to serve as a functional pinhole camera. Thus began my camera-building adventure. To be sure, I started out like many others with the obligatory cardboard box, darkened with spray paint on the inside, and a scrap of aluminum drink can, pierced with a sewing needle, for a lens.

Not that any other type or configuration of pinhole camera is necessarily any better, or can produce better images. I must remember that I still use cameras of just that description, even now, so many years later.

What drove my desire to continue building other pinhole cameras was mainly about making them more functional, and also exploring various format sizes.

From a practical standpoint, a box camera is capable of taking but one picture, at which point in time it is found necessary to, somehow, reload the camera. Large format cameras for years have solved this problem with the development of the sheet film holder. I could either buy some, or make some. Instead, I chose to design a different type of camera, one that wouldn't require the additional burden and expense of toting around a stack of film holders along with a large box camera.

Thus was born (or rather, rediscovered) the falling plate camera design. I built a large wooden box, constructed around an inner space frame, that contained a mechanism permitting a stack of flat film boards to be stacked vertically in the back of the camera, whereby the front-most board, subsequent to exposure, would be permitted to fall, face-down, in the bottom of the camera, revealing the next film board ready for exposure. That, in a sentence, sums up notebooks full of sketches and diagrams, and countless hours of thinking and constructing and testing and rebuiding, in a cycle of continuous improvement.

Others have found inspiration in camera building by recreating the classic designs of the bellows-type large format view camera. Fashioning by hand a tapered, collapsable camera bellows is no small feat, especially considering that there are but a handful still manufacturing such instruments, and the subtlety of detail required has mostly died out with the passage of time.

Perhaps most amazing of all is that there appears to be, in this day and age, a real resurgence of interest in 19th century photographic processes and apparatus. This is no less amazing than the possibility that scores of people, independant of one another, suddenly were struck with the passion to craft fully functional Model T Ford replicas, from hand-hammered forged components, in their backyard blacksmith shops, and then proceed to drive their handmade cars to work each day.

For these people who are passionately pursuing handcrafted, large format photographic equipment and processes are also putting them to use every day in the exercise of their creative vision. In an age when image making has become de rigor to the culture at large, this can be seen as nothing short of a revolutionary reaction to what has been an unprecedented campaign of mass-manipulation, in the marketting of a plethora of image-making products that seem to be closer to the heart of the engineer than the heart of the artist.

For the path chosen by the artist is more akin to this: From the hand, through the eye, to the heart.~

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~Joe

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