Anna's Adventures: The ancient art of the Selfie

Published in PRIMOLife Magazine June 2015

“How does it look?”

I fiddle around with the wheel a bit more. The image slides and warps, but never seems to come into focus. It’s hard to tell though, because to see it I have to crouch under a black cape and squish my face up to the glass plate which serves as a view finder. Plus, the image is upside down.

“Gah!” I say, frustrated “I can’t even tell anymore!”

Kit ducks his head under the black cape and takes my place behind the camera. Using a magnifying glass to help, he fiddles with the focus, moving the bellows of the ancient camera back and forth until he is satisfied.

Taking a picture with a persnickety 1950’s Linhof Technika camera is hard work, but when Kit, my friend and artist invited me to try out large format photography using a technique that is over one hundred years old, I couldn’t wait to get started.

Right at the beginning, I fumble around for the box of negatives inside a lined black bag, and load the fragile celluloid one negative at a time into the chassis without exposing it to any light. I feel a bit like a surgeon, working on a delicate patient with only my hands to guide me. Ironically, much of the process of taking a picture excludes the use of sight and relies instead on feel and instinct.

Once the camera is lined up and ready (remember all that fumbling with the focus?) Kit adjusts the shutter speed and aperture manually. I mount the chassis into the back and slide out the protective ‘dark slide’, so that when the shutter opens the negative will be exposed to light.

I’ve decided on a self-portrait for my first shot, including the camera and studio in the background, so I will be shooting towards a series of mirrors. Self-portraiture is as old as art itself, and as Kit points out, is still often how artists practice before they can afford models to pose for them, so it seems fitting for my first attempt.

Sitting cross legged on a stool wearing a fabulous mask that once graced the stage of the Paris Opera, which Kit has produced from some drawer or another, I’m ready. Looking towards the lens, I press my thumb down on the shutter release cable and, Click!  It’s done!

Well… actually we’ve barely just begun.

In the pitch black darkroom I extract the negative by feel and carefully slide it into a tray of Developer, then Stopper, then Fixer, three chemicals I’ll come to know very well. In the mysterious darkness, chemicals react, a bit of magic occurs and when the light flicks on, a crisp miniature portrait has appeared on the plastic square.

After a good rinse, I squeegee it off, and hang it up to dry. I add three more unique negatives to the drying line before we are ready for the next stage.  

Using a huge enlarger, we blow the images up to more than life size on meter wide paper, something large format photography lends itself to particularly well.

Working under eerie red light and feeling a bit like crime scene investigators, we slide the paper off its roll, measure it and cut it out, then pin it to the wall using magnets. Getting the focus right is not any easier than before, but finally we are ready.

With the enlarger warm and humming away, I remove the red filter from the front, and expose the paper to the light for 12 long minutes. Silently, invisibly, silver ions react with the light and electrons are redistributed all over the paper. The picture is in there, now we just have to get it out.

It’s too big to simply slide into a tray, so it is rolled and submerged in a series of huge plastic troughs filled with my favourite chemicals. Once soaked, the paper is thick and soft and lovely to handle, and I slowly flip and re-roll it over and over to make sure it is completely covered. Once the lights are on, we see the final product. I love it. It’s a bit darker than we anticipated, but we both like its moody atmosphere. I’m astonished by how much detail I can see in my hand, which is now larger than life sized.

After much rinsing and squeegeeing, we hang it up to dry and work on the next print, a double exposure, using two separate negatives on the same piece of paper. Combining Kit’s experience, my ideas and a heavy dose of ‘let’s see what happens’ we come up with a wacky print, in which a four-legged savage (me) attacks an ancient computer monitor on a rain-slicked cobblestone alleyway.

Once it’s washed and hung to dry, we stand back and look at the finish products: two very different prints.

I love how much character each one has, and in them I can see the influence of a thousand different factors: exposure, light, movement, filters, dust, chemicals and light leaking through the dark room. Each print is truly unique and we couldn’t make an exact replica if we tried. I’m immensely satisfied by the process and what we have made.

Wanting to preserve the moment, I pull out my digital camera and take a photo.

Hey, old habits are hard to break!

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Anna took photos with Kit Brown in his studio Lobo General in Paris. Kit isn’t on the internet (I’m not sure he knows what it is) so you’ll have to go to Paris to enjoy his art.

If that’s too far, and you want to try this out yourself, local photographer Alex Bond runs large format photography workshops around Perth. Check out www.alexbond.com.au for more information.

Read the whole magazine for free at Issuu.com.