By Diana Bloomfield
My very first photography class, back in 1981, was titled “Large-Format Photography,” offered at Bucks County Community College, in Newtown, Pennsylvania. At the time, I didn’t have a clue what “large-format” meant, but going on the bigger-is-better theory, I immediately registered for it. Knowing as little as I did actually turned out to be a good thing. I wasn’t yet wedded to any one type of camera, nor was I restricted in my views of how I “should” be photographing. And, fortunately, no one had ever said to me, “You can’t work with a large format camera until you master the 35mm, followed by the medium format, followed by years of darkroom work,” comments I’ve since heard over the years, from both fellow photographers and instructors. In fact, I knew so little about photography, that composing an image upside down on the ground glass seemed like the most natural exercise in the world.
Working with a large-format camera taught me all I needed to know about light, exposure, and composition. Since I also wasn’t that accustomed to the relative ease and spontaneity that is inherent with a 35mm camera, I never felt I was giving up anything with large-format, which definitely taught me to wait, to be selective, and to take my time before clicking that shutter.
Many years after that first class, I began to create images using lensless cameras and printing in “alternative” processes. These images seemed to stem more from my mind’s eye, rather than from any literal perspective. Around that same time, I had also begun teaching photography workshops myself. Long before the proliferation of digital, students would come into class with very expensive and complex cameras — all-automatic 35mm cameras — that completely overwhelmed them. They would talk about how the camera wouldn’t “allow” them to do something as simple as change aperture or shutter speed, and were totally dependent on the camera’s controls and programs. The very idea of photographing in “manual mode” threw them completely off-kilter. So I initially began to make pinhole cameras, simply to illustrate just how basic a camera really is, and that compelling images can be made with a $5 camera made out of foam core and totally lacking in programs, controls, or even a lens. I was finally able to convince them that they were in control of their cameras, not the other way around. I also showed a wide range of amazing work, made by various pinhole photographers, and, somewhere along the way, I became intrigued myself.
I love that the pinhole camera, with its long exposures and unique perspectives, plays with time and space in unusual ways, and offers a certain kind of fluidity not often found in still photography. And while these dreamy pinhole images might seem far removed from the early documentary work of my past, I still see similarities. For me, the attraction of photography is this idea that we can stop time and preserve it forever. Yet when I actually look at my own photographs, it’s my own memory of that time that’s been preserved, however skewed, inaccurate, and selective it is — not necessarily the actual, literal moment in time. Pinhole images, especially, seem to somehow capture our memories, transporting us to another place and time, or to a barely remembered past. They can whisk us into a future found only in the mind’s eye, and arrest the world in a timeless kind of dream. This is what I find most compelling and magical about photography — regardless of what label they’re given (documentary or otherwise). I have photographed with large-format pinhole cameras, most often home-made, including a 20x24 and a 7x17, using film of the same size. I also use an 8x10 and various 4x5 cameras. I then print in platinum/palladium, or in the dual process of cyanotype over platinum/palladium (re-registering the negative with the second process), and, more recently, gum over platinum/palladium. Since these are contact printing processes, the image is only as big as the negative; consequently, I like to start out with a reasonably large original negative, or make larger negatives digitally.
So, here, in this 21st century world of digital technology, where the creation of illusion is as close as the touch of a keyboard, and where images can be infinitely reproduced with repeatable precision and accuracy, some of us are still working with relatively antiquated methods of the past, either in our choice of camera, in our printing methods, or in both. And, yet, many of us willingly turn to computer technology — in my case, as a way to create larger negatives suitable for contact printing.
For me, making digital negatives has been nothing short of a dream. If needed (often the case with original pinhole negatives), I can change or correct the density of my negatives to suit a particular alternative process or to control my exposures in printing; I can easily and seamlessly erase unavoidable scratches and dust marks; I have also recently made CMYK separation digital negatives for use in tri-color gum printing (something I have yet to master, but the capability of doing so is right there at my fingertips). Another non-trivial positive is that my original negatives can be preserved, without suffering the degradation of constant use in alternative printing. While digital transparencies are not inexpensive, knowing that I can make another if one is damaged is certainly liberating. Obviously, the possibilities with digital are limitless.
While borrowing from the past, in both choice of camera and printing methods, affords limitless learning, discovery, and creative opportunities, meshing those antiquated techniques with the seemingly futuristic and ever-changing world that is digital, makes this an exciting time to be a photographer. As an old friend of mine once remarked, “19th Century craft immersed in a decidedly digital future — what a perfect art this is.”
Reprinted from MAGNAchrom Magazine, Vol 1, Issue 6. www.magnachrom.com
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