There are plenty of equipments out there, that could be recycled. Artist Brana Vojnovic talks about his way of making photography: not “clicking” for “catching the moment”, but finding, mixing and matching old equipments in order to obtain the results he wants. A process of upcycling that is an art in itself, the passion of a photographer who sees himself as a painter preparing his own tools.
Hello Brana, thank you for sharing your time with us. Let’s start… Which role does photography play in your daily life?
Photography is the most natural way to express myself.
When and how did you first meet photography?
I was 16 when I have started for the first time to use photography in order to preserve the memory of art-works of my friends from the youth art group (sculptures, paintings). In my twenties, I have focused on photography as the main part of my interest in art and the major part of my work, so I have dedicated my time to photography and have abandoned sculpture.
How would you describe your current photographic activity?
I see three main threads in my work: research related to photography, constructing / upcycling cameras and practicing photography – shooting photos. The end result is always a photo, but it is a cumulative result of all three activities that happen in parallel.
I’d like we play a game together: I’ll show you some cameras, related to different photographic activities and ages, and would love to know what you think about any of them and the kind of practice they remind you about…
I think this is the ultimate balance between mechanics, optics, chemistry and the artist – photographer. It reminds me of Efke old brand sign, and it is a real pity that they have changed this sign.
2. The first Kodak Camera and its roll film (1888)
The first modern camera to take to the Moon. Very modern even today if you have a note with times for expositions , sunny, cloudy, partly cloudy… you can make excellent photos.
3. The Polaroid SX-70 (1972)
I remember using in 1978 – at the exhibition of young artists in the Gallery of the Museum of Modern art in Belgrade… but have to admit that I was never a big fan of polaroids and instant gratification
4. The Nikon D-7000, mid-range DSLR
Serious system – Nikon is the result of rich experience in producing photo-equipment including excellent optics. It is Madonna of cameras – top quality, but not my type of music…
5. The “Toy Camera” Holga 120S
I am too old to play with toys.
6. The iPhone with samples of the popular Hipstamatic App
Would love to have it and try out all the options – but eventually I would leave it on my shelf to “catch the dust”.
7. Your Homemade Scanner Camera 200 (full set here)
Photos made with this camera speak for themselves. Plus portable, light weight and cheap if you know how to make it
Let’s talk about the Scanner Camera! How did you get involved into that?
I have started working on scanner cameras three years ago. I have researched with CCD and CIS sensors. Since my early days as a young photographer, I had a strong preference for black and white photography.. Therefore I found CIS sensor more appropriate / tuned to my needs. CIS has significant advantages because of its size and it appeals to me more because it is black-white. My scanner cammera 200 is my second camera which was upcycled from Canon LIDE 200. Its format is 5×7 inch, it is portable, with a compact body and with 165 mm Tessar objective with built-in focus. When I first started constructing it, I was just curious about combining the old and the new photo techniques and equipment, without having to use the film to produce a photo.
Why do you find it interesting? How is it different from other technologies?
The whole process of photo-laboratory is not needed, there is no time-gap between shooting a photo and seeing the final result – the time needed to produce a photo equals the time of resolution. Another thing that I found interesting was the opportunity to make hundreds of tests without costs incurred. This is not possible when you use the film and the traditional process of making photos. All this gives you a lot of liberty in shooting various photos and experimenting with light and volume.
You also built the Episkopscan 8×10, that seems a Scanner Camera made using a projector body. Both scanner projects are conceived for making portraits/landscapes/still life pictures, why don’t you use them for obtaining the popular “scanning movement” effect?
Episcopscan 8×10 is the fourth scanner camera that I’ve produced. My idea was to improve the quality of scans – photos.
What I find exciting is that I have found a new use for the piece of equipment which is primarily intended to project the photos and documents on the screen/wall. I have taken out the lamp, electricity circle and used the body of the episcope and its optical mirror, which increased the quality of photos. Finally, I had to produce a fixed basis for the camera. The process of upcycling was quick and the end result was amazingly good.
When I’ve started working with scanner cameras, I have tried to use it for “scanning movement” effect, but this felt as not being in control of the process. Sometimes the effects can be spectacular, but for me it is important to have more control over the end result and the quality. I am not interested in “bombastic effects”. Therefore still life fotography is much closer to what I find interesting and worth experimenting with. Working in my studio and focusing on still life type of photos enabled me to experiment with photography that have resulted with a sort of calm, more painting-like effect.
I also use Canon Lide 200 and Canon Lide 700 F. CIS sensors have significant dynamic scope. The down-side is that the step is visible (when augmenting), but there are softwares that can be used to remove the unwanted effect. I use Vuescan professional software.
Your experiments are also focused on trichromy processes. Scanner Cameras capture RGB channels separately, so they can be used for non-traditional three colour process, even though maintaining colours is difficult. Have you chosen to build them for this reason?
As already mentioned, my preference is to work on black and white photography. Through this process I found a way to experiment with various RGB filters and in combination with ND filters. It is exactly the difficulty related to maintaining colours what I found so appealing in the process, combined with the painting-like effect and the opportunity to experiment endlessly.
You made many trichromies with a b/w Scanner Camera. How do you convert them to colours? How does your process work? Do you also shoot colour images directly with Scanner Cameras?
Every scanner camera that I have adapted has CIS sensor. I use Vuescan professional software for shooting photos. In order to convert the photos to colour it is necessary to make three photos using different RGB filters (red, green, blue colour filters). The whole process takes approximately 15 minutes in resolution of 600 DPI (5 minutes for each colour). All three photos / layers have to be merged in photoshop in order to obtain a colour photo – the precision is important in order to obtain a good quality. It is important to mention that I do not use photoshop filters to change the final photo, I use photoshop only to merge three photos / layers obtained with RGB filters. Important to note is that each file is 120MB.
Your conversion of the Janpol enlarging lens for obtaining three colour pictures is impressive and smart! Why did you choose the trichromy field to work in?
I have chosen the Janpol enlarging lens because it has inside the carriers of filters which are well designed. I have taken out these filters and replaced them with RGB filters. The reason for that adaptation is that having the filter exactly in the middle of the lens gives the best quality of reproduction.
I have added one focusing ring which resulted with Leica format thrichromy lens – as far as I know such a small compact lens which can be used with Leica format is the first of a kind.
Above: Janpol enlarging lense converted for trichromy process. “It seems that Trichrome is best when the filters are in the middle, between two groups of glasses. I used PZO enlarging lens for controlled filtration. It is of course important to change the existing filters and use the adequate ones. This is a very sensitive procedure, as the filter holder is very small – 12mm. I have decided to use Hama filters Blau 4, M DO.60, Yellow Y3. I have carefully cut the filters, and placed them in a small frame mounts, after which I have put all parts of the lens together again. Needless to mention that I had to fit the whole lens to a thin Olympus helicoid. After this procedure, I’ve opened a bottle of Baileys and poured myself a glass, C h e e r s !”
When, and why, did you begin building and modifying cameras?
Interesting question – thinking back, the first camera which I have built was a bellow camera, back in 1979. It was 8×10 but I did not have an adequate objective and cassette to make it work properly. So this one was not functional but deserves to be mentioned. My friends and I used this camera as an object for making photos, rather than for shooting photos.
I have returned to building and modifying cameras after a couple of decades. In the meantime, I have used all top-quality cameras, Hasselblad, Leica etc, enjoying to use top quality equipment as many photographers do.
Four years ago I have focused again on building cameras. There are two main reasons for that: I had a very concrete ideas what kind of photo equipment I would need to achieve the effects I wanted – but it was not possible to buy such equipment on the market.
At the same time, I have noticed that there were many old cameras and / or lenses that were disfunctional available at the market. They were available in abundance and for a low price – and I had skills to repair them and make them work again.
I feel that photography is very similar to painting – at least this is my way of making photos. It is like the painter has to prepare its canvas and make scketches before starting to paint. I feel that the right approach to making photos is to do a lot of preparatory work in order to get the good quality photo. Besides, I find a lot of excitement in finding the old cameras and lenses and adapting them in order to obtain the results that I want.
There is a lot of liberty in deciding which kind of technique I want to use (scan, wet-plate, film). It is important to find the best lense to fit the purpose and to adapt it to fit to the body of the camera I have chosen to work with. Mixing and matching cameras and lenses is an art in itself. Preparing the filters (or sometimes even producing the filters) for a photo is also important part of the process. Besides experimenting, the part of the process that I enjoy the most is a very detailed preparation that reminds me of painting rather than “clicking” to produce a photo – like many of us do when using digital cameras. It is about meticulous preparation and creating a photo rather than “cathching the moment”.
Is the ability of homemaking, modifying, and converting equipments important for a photographer?
Of course, I hope that my work demonstrates it. Modifying the equipment for me is part of the process of making photos. It is almost addictive – once you start doing it, there are endless combinations….sometimes I dismantle the modified camera in order to mix and match the parts for further modifications.
If so, how do you explain the fact that photographers usually don’t do that? Are technologies too complex? Is there an interest in not letting the photographers do it themselves?
I believe that many photographers find difficult to create DIY cameras – in order to build DIY photo equipment a combination of knowledge and skills is needed, which one does not obtain at school.
Nowadays, all cameras are constructed in a way that makes photographers think less about the process of making a good photo. The emphasis is put on finding the “objects” and catching them through the “eye of the camera”. Plus, with digital photography and photoshop, the process is focused on changing, improving and creating “modified and perfectioned objects” through photoshop, rather than using the classical photo equipment to get to the best end result – a high quality photo.
I know “techno-photographers” who spend their time polishing their expensive cameras and lenses until this equipment gets obsolete and disfunctional. Once upon a time it was the usual practice to repair the camera, but today there are always new models to buy and the old cameras get sold on a flea market or even thrown away. Well, I can only say “thank you guys” as there are so many good used cameras and lenses for me to play with.
Is it just a matter of creativity, or could DIY practice give more meaning to photography than buying mainstream cameras? What are the main differences between using industrial and homemade cameras?
Industrial cameras can be perfect, however I think that they are often limited by very powerful software. May sound strange, but I see it as a limitation as with today’s high performance digital cameras all photos are of excellent quality. So how to say who is a good photographer when all photos are perfect? Every person who has enough money to buy high performance digital camera can be a good photographer. There is no challenge involved – money can make you a good photographer. With DIY cameras challenges are multiple – and there is no guarantee about the end result. There is more fun in the process, more knowledge is needed and lots of patience. For me this is the essence of the photography making – sometimes you make a great photo, and sometimes a really bad one. Money cannot buy you a good photo in DIY world – you can be super-rich, but it does not help if you to make a perfect photo with DIY camera, you need knowledge, skills… and passion.
Did anything change after the digital revolution? Do you find there’s anything better or worse today?
Digital revolution “democratised” photography. It is fantastic that almost every person (male, female, child, adult) today has a camera (or a mobile phone for that matter). Such a massive use of photography should bring about the new quality in photography if we believe that quantity brings about quality. Digital photography has so many important aspects to it, and so many new purposes (in social media, medicine, in space research etc.).
It is difficult to assess whether it is better or worse today – innovation is always good in my opinion. Still it seems to me right now that the main profit is with the industry while the art photography has not gained that much from digital revolution. Actually, it seems to me that many people today go back to the analogue photography to grasp the artistic aspects or photography again. Even photographers who use digital cameras “keep their balance” through using Holgas, Zenits or Kievs from time to time.
Before using a camera, you only need to read its manual. After that, if you want, you can just point and shoot, even with a professional DSLR. To succeed in building your own cameras you need more complex knowledge instead. In your opinion, which competencies are needed? Optics? Phisics? Programmnig? What else?
Manuals are so lengthy and complex that it is difficult to use them, but at least there is all information in one place. When building your own camera, a lot of research is needed in advance. Internet search helps, but you need to know what are you looking for. Multiple competencies are needed – basic knowledge of optics, phisics, working with wood, plastic, rubber and metal, mechanics, understanding of how various materials work (e.g. what kind of glue, or veneer to use etc.). In addition to competencies, you need to have adventurous spirit and lots of curiosity and patience. And courage is needed sometimes – when you try to fix or adapt an expensive lense, there is always a risk to damage it irreversibly.
How have you got such skills and competencies?
In my teenage years I was an apprentice in the artistic workshop. I have practiced sculpture for six years – which means that I had to learn a lot about sculpture plastic and model making. I also had a hobby – making models of planes, and this helped me to learn about wood carving, putting together models of planes etc.
My father taught me about many processes in cosmetics that have turned out to be very useful for my current work – mixing colours, various chemical processes such as mixing developer for black and white photos. Some of this knowledge I find very applicable in various alternative processes – collodium photography for example.
Brana in his country house (photo by Vesna Vojnovic)
How did you organized your laboratory?
My laboratory is divided in three parts. Part of work that is related to cutting, painting, veneering etc. is in my workshop.
The second part is fine mechanics – this is the part of work which I do in my flat (most of it in my living room ). I keep all key parts in my flat – lenses, cameras etc as I spend most of my free time working on new projects.
The third part is our country house – where I shoot most of my photos and try out my newly produced upcycled cameras.
Many people build cameras from scratch, using paper, cardboard, or just an empty film canister. Why did you choice to upcycling old equipments?
I like repairing things in general. When it comes to cameras and lenses, there are so many valuable pieces of equipment that are thrown away and I find enormous pleasure in making them functional again. But repairing is not enough, upcycling gives an extra edge, as it actually allows you to mix and match the parts to get the new design, the improved quality and often the whole new purpose for the old photo equipment or electronic equipment.
Do you pay more attention to satisfaction and well designing, or to upcycling possibilities?
I think that both are very important and I pay equal attention to both. Design is key, especially the part of design that is related to proper functioning. Upcycling possibilities have two-fold aspect for me: I find extremely rewarding to be able to preserve and give a new life and meaning to parts of fine equipment (every piece of old photo equipment represents a work of art, so recycling is not an option as this would actually mean to destroy precious pieces of equipment).
There are plenty of equipments out there, that could be recycled. Is recycling part of your homemaking process? I’d like to know if you consider it a useful resource for finding what you need, or a conscious and important activity itself…
I would not say that recycling is a part of my homemaking process. My understanding is that recycling would involve damaging (pressing, grinding) of equipment in order to use materials to produce new stuff. This is why I opt for upcycling – using the pieces of equipment and reworking them or fixing them and then mixing and matching the parts to find an optimal combination for a new piece of photo equipment. Upcycling is for me important as it preserves what I think needs to be preserved. Furthermore, it gives new life to used things and this new utility / purpose keeps these things in use, which is very important from the environmental perspective as well. But for me the ultimate satisfaction is focused on preserving beautiful and precious pieces of human craft-work.
My photos often contain also old things that are not in use any more.
We talked about your Scanner Cameras and experiments with trichromy processes. You also upcycled and built cameras for special purposes, like panoramic photography. Where do you find inspiration for your projects?
Every camera is different. For example I have constructed the camera for panoramic photography to capture wide perspective and shoot photos of old towns. I made this specific camera for my trip to Lisboa, but the idea actually came about when I was in the island of Cres. Originally I wanted to build a camera that would enable me to capture beautiful narrow streets of the old town and houses made of stone (so I used the panoramic camera vertically).
Do you have a preferred project?
My preferred project is always the one I am curretnly working at.
What are you currently working on? Is there anything new you’d like to show to our readers?
I am currently testing my new multi-purpose camera 8×10. This is an attempt to combine in one piece of equipment scanner camera, film camera and wet-plate camera. Backs are exchangable, which makes this camera convertible – or multi-purpose.
It has alluminum, light-weight construction with artificial leather bellow. My intention was to build a camera that could enable me to experiment with all three media using one piece of equipment. It is very robust and works well outdoors as well as for studio shootings.
What do you think about using online resources for sharing knowledge and projects? Could Internet help photographers who want getting involved in the art of homemaking cameras?
As already said, the Internet can be very helpful. Online resources are enormous, therefore it is important to know what one is looking for. So yes, very useful, and can help getting involved in DIY cameras, especially when combined with on-line advice, short films on You-tube etc. It is possible to find information on how to produce bellows, lenses and much more. I have used the Internet a lot when I’ve started building my first cameras.
How could you describe the feedback and reaction of public to your DIY projects?
Feedback is largely positive. There are two types of feedback – for some, the most interesting stuff is related to building cameras as such and they are mostly interested in technical details. The others are interested in cameras, but also comment on the quality of photos obtained – so their interest is both techincal and artistic / aesthetic. The best tuned DIY camera is still not enough to make an excellent photo. Therefore it is great to get feedback on the photos as well.
A reason for keeping on following your work in the future…
After four years I am only at the beginning of my research work, there are so many innovative things to do. Plus I believe in the idea of upcycling and I think that promoting it through my work is small, but important contribution to much larger idea of sustainable living. Finally, and most importantly, I am a photographer for many years. So no reason to stop doing what I love the most.
- We thank Vesna for her help
- Images © All rights reserved to Brana Vojnovic