On a Photographer

Pictures still amaze me. I’m talking about the process of using actual film, of running the exposed negatives through chemicals, and transferring that reverse image onto photographic paper. In my head, that whole undertaking is far more magical, much more mysterious, than electronic images taken by digital cameras for mobile phones.

There is actually somewhat of a backlash against the concept of instant digital photographs by a small group of professionals and hobbyists today. These are folks who pursue the original methods of preparing glass frames with chemicals and using large-format, vintage cameras to re-create the way pictures used to be created.

Let me introduce to you a man named Joe. Joe grew up in France and learned about these old, practically original methods of making pictures. And he pretty much taught himself how to do all of it, which is difficult to pursue to say the least. Trial and error became Joe’s photography school. Joe was forced to use what he had on hand or what he could afford to create his images. He even used some unorthodox methods that aren’t used by most of these hobbyists today. For example, because he had access to them, Joe used metal (pewter) plates instead of glass to have the light allowed in his large-format camera to etch the image. He was forced to use a type of asphalt to prepare these metal plates to capture the light on them.

The images Joe eventually produced have an antique tint to them because his methods were so primitive. He had to keep his lens open for several hours to allow enough brightness into his home-made camera box so that an image could be produced. That also meant that he had to photograph subjects that were almost completely still, images such as cityscapes and buildings, things that didn’t move too much.

Joe realized that what he was creating with his crude equipment wouldn’t be clear images. Yet, he pursued the hobby because he was excited to see what the simple process of light being allowed to refract into a prepared metal plate would produce. He wasn’t trying for “high art” or creativity from a compositional perspective. And Joe didn’t concern himself with focal planes and lenses, f-stops and filters. All he wanted to do was, in his words, paint images with light–“light writing,” Joe called it.

Well, the result of Joe’s work was unveiled in 1952. One of his light prints, the pewter plate with a faint, unfocused image on it, was found in a storage box. Today, you can see it in the University of Texas at Austin in one of that institution’s museums. What made Joe’s picture so interesting?

Well, Joseph Niepce took the image of some rooftops outside his window in a village in France.

What makes it interesting is that it was the first photograph–ever–and it captured that French light way back in 1827.


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