How did you become a film photographer?
I was born in the film photography era; my father had a Contax II camera that he bought in the mid 1950’s. He basically used the camera as a recollection of family matters and, probably, to keep track of the evolution of his eight children. We lived in a small town and at that time it was not easy to have a darkroom at home but, nevertheless, he used to develop his b&w films in the bathroom at night. When I was a teenager, he tought me the basics of photography with that camera (which I still keep). I learned about focal length, the diaphragm, f/number, depth of field, etc. Later on, when I started my college studies, he gave me as a present a Canon AE-1 camera and he prompted me and some of my brothers to learn the basics of darkroom printing and, eventually, he gave us a 35 mm film enlarger together with the basic equipment for developing and printing b&w copies. I never took a photography course and all that I know was from reading and talking with other amateurs like myself.
It's not much of a surprise to realize how many film photographers got the bug from their parents, but, looking at your photographs, it's evident that the camera is not only a memory recollection device for you. When and why did you start looking for different subjects?
My photographic activity had several ups and downs. I started imitating my father and my beginnings were not very artsy or creative. I used the camera more as a way to keep record of my weekend mountain excursions, trips and family. I didn’t pay too much attention to the artistic point of view of my photographs. Besides, at that time economy played a very important role in my photographic possibilities. I had to save as much film as possible and use the camera very carefully. I remember buying my first wide angle lens as a “self-gift” in Germany during a trip with my classmates after finishing our undergrad studies at the university. During the following years I had periods of time with very low or none photographic activity and, when I had, it always was with the same purpose.
With the arrival of digital cameras, the situation changed a bit. Although some time and several “low level” digital cameras went by before I decided to buy a Leica V-Lux 1 camera. With the “unlimited” possibilities of digital photography I also started to play around with other subjects like architecture or abstract photography. At the same time I discovered Flickr and joined in, started to interact with other “fellow photographers” and that moved me into another dimension. But that lasted only for a while because I realized that I was clicking the shutter without sense and I started to think in a different approach. I discovered by chance pinhole photography, about which I had no idea. I decided to give it a try by making my own pinhole cameras, but my efforts were ineffective due to my lack of knowledge on adequate pinhole making. So, I ended up buying a multi format 8banners pinhole camera. I started to make photographs with it, and the “latent virus” woke up again! Then I attended a workshop on solargraphy and from there on things have changed in the way I look at photography in general.
What changed in that workshop? How do you get to use what you learned in there when you’re not doing solargraphy?
The workshop consisted of two parts: the first one about the basic principles of pinhole photography and the second one about solargraphy in particular. In the first one the main differences between pinhole and lens photography were clearly explained. This was a major discovery for me. The concepts of framing, composition, exposure time, depth of field, etc. expanded their limits and made me understand the meaning of all of them, as to allow you to play with all together in perfect synchronization. It might seem ridiculous but something similar happened to me when, as a college student, I suddenly discovered the abstractions hidden in the mathematics theorems and their meaning. You may compare it with a spotlight, in the precise moment that it focuses on the artist of a show, or the magnificent explosion of fireworks. In summary, it changed my way of looking and thinking photography.
Talking about solargraphy, the main thing I learnt was the fact that the photosensitive black & white paper exposed for a very long time using a pinhole camera (as it is used for recording solargraphs) was able to produce a color image without the need of the developing process. That means that the silver halides present in the gelatin emulsion of the paper react with the light photons yielding some silver complex salts of different tonalities that can be seen under dim light conditions and scanned to a digital file and post processed with the adequate software.
This was something difficult to rationalize for a chemist like myself. It was only after I had read some old photographic texts when I realized that silver halides coated on paper under different conditions showed a characteristic behavior under diverse light sources. [See, for example: J. M. Eder The Chemical Effect of the Spectrum. Scovill, New York, 1884.
This “blow up,” together with the contact through the internet and social media with other photographers, made me develop my knowledge and skills and enjoy photography as an active amateur.
WOW! You definitely leave no room for a reasonable doubt when you talk about math and chemistry: you're indeed a science man. There's an intrinsic curiosity and discipline to your job. Would you say this reflects on your work as a photographer?
Well, I am scientist and that means a “predisposition” for experimenting. I like trying different things and guessing what the results of that particular “experiment” could be. I have to admit that most of the times I am the first surprised. What I like most is trying different pinhole cameras or some not so common films. For example, I wanted to try IR film (both b&w and color) with pinhole cameras and that was a challenge because I had to use filters. The only way I found to fix them to the cameras without interfering with the shutter was placing them inside the cameras. For doing it I took an old filter, removed the glass, and grinded the ring on one side to glue it inside the camera (leaving the thread on the other side to fix the IR filter to it). This way I placed a Hoya IR72 filter that eliminates almost all visible light (it only lets to pass some red and infrared) and tested the film Efke IR820 with a pinhole camera. Of course the exposure times were way longer than usual as the filter has a factor of 6x, but the outcome was really nice. I also did the same with another camera which I tested with Kodak Aerochrome IR color slides, and worked wonderful too.
Another aspect of “experimenting” is the capacity of mixing my own chemicals. At certain point I was interested in testing different stain developers and, after running a search in the literature, I ended up mixing three or four of them to, eventually, come to one of the best Pyro developers that I know, namely 510-Pyro, formulated by Jay DePher [see his article in the digitaltruth website or his 510-Pyro blog].
Other than that, I assume that I have evolved a personal way of making photographs that has something to do with the way I work in terms of a trial and error approach.
Does this trial and error approach apply only to the developing part or also to the creative process in terms of subject, composition and general vision? Do you know beforehand what is it that you’re looking for or do you just know when you find it?
No, no! The developing part is very closely related to my own work and I am used to that way of working. When I mentioned the trial and error approach I was thinking in the creative process in general terms. Usually what you know of a given pinhole camera are its characteristic data like the f/value and the format of the light sensitive material being either paper or film. Pinhole cameras don’t have a built-in lightmeter to automatically measure the lighting conditions or a viewfinder to help you frame your photographs. This means that you need to make some calculations about the exposure time and carefully point your camera so you frame what you try to get in your photograph. Also the “shutter” is a bit different from those usual in lens cameras. Thus, with a pinhole camera, you need to get used to it, learn about its specific features like geometry, angle of vision, distortion (if any), etc., and the framing has a lot of chances for not behaving as you want. Once you “know” your camera you can guess beforehand your photograph, and even then, sometimes you get a good surprise observing what the outcome was. This is what I call an unwanted and unexpected wonderful error!