Exactly one month ago, we featured a fascinating project called "Brownie in Motion" by Columbus, Ohio-based photographer Stephen Takacs. We've recently had an interview with the man himself, in which he discusses in great detail not only his "dream project" but also his other works in various photographic processes including the ambrotype, tintype, and platinum palladium! Read our exclusive chat and take a look at his awesome work after the jump!
Hello, Stephen! Kindly introduce yourself first to the members of the Lomography community.
Hi everyone! My name is Stephen Takacs. I’m a teacher and freelance photographer from Columbus, Ohio. I’ve been photographing for over 10 years now and work a lot with modified cameras and 19th century techniques. Much of my personal work deals in some way with history and portraiture.
We first learned about you and your work through Brownie in Motion, which we’ve featured here on the magazine last month. Please tell us more about it. How did you come up with the idea? How does the camera work (i.e., take pictures)?
Over years, I’ve worked on a number of projects that deal with camera making or modifying. It’s been a natural, albeit somewhat unusual progression. I started by making a pinhole camera backpack out of wood. This led me to modifying Holgas, first by adding extra apertures, later by adding a component for shocking either the photographer or sitter when the shutter button is pressed. When I was in school, I made a camera obscura for drawing portraits out of an old Victrola cabinet that I found in a trash pile. I even have a 16×20 studio camera for shooting ambrotypes that I cobbled together out of a broken stat camera, a doctors exam table, some wood, and an old bed frame. Brownie in Motion is the latest step in this ongoing exploration.
Brownie In Motion is a 17x’s enlargement of an old Kodak Brownie that is a portable art installation, darkroom, and ultra large format camera (obscura). I’m currently using it to create a series of images that focuses on artisans and craftspeople. In particular, I’m interested in spending time with and photographing people whose rare skills are at the risk of disappearing because of technological changes.
Although the camera obscura looks like a solid structure, it’s actually designed more like a tent. I wanted to make it as lightweight and portable as possible, despite the large dimensions (5’x7.5’x8.5’). The frame of the camera is made of aluminum pipe and the skin that makes up the walls is made up of one large (and HEAVY) piece of sewn marine grade vinyl fabric (like the material that boat seats are made out of). The skin Velcros to the frame. When Brownie In Motion is broken down, it can fit into a Kia Sportage.
Shooting images with this camera is a very physically demanding process and typically requires some help. I’m used to working alone for most of my projects but the camera obscura has, by necessity, forced me out of my comfort zone. It has required me to reach out for help at every step of the way, from constructing and moving the camera, to funding the project, and to actually making photographs.
Brownie In Motion requires me to be physically inside of the camera when making photographs; I’m both the shutter and the “film advance.” (Those terms are probably misleading because the method of taking photos with this camera is, in some ways, even more rudimentary than it is with a real Brownie!)
The process of making images with this camera is as follows:
1.) Frame a shot by moving a piece of foam core attached to a light stand back and forth inside the camera until the desired composition and focus is achieved.
2.) Cap the lens and attach lights-sensitive paper or film to the foam core using pins or tape under the dim illumination of a red safe light.
3.) Pray that your subject doesn’t move and that the light doesn’t change!
4.) Remove the lens cap for the duration of the exposure (and possibly fire strobes).
5.) Replace lens cap and remove paper.
6.) Develop the image inside of the camera obscura or store the paper in a black bag for later development.
We understand that you are currently seeking funding for this project because the photo paper that you have been using for your camera obscura has already been discontinued. In line with this, you also intend to create a series of portraits of “artisans whose highly-specialized skills are in the verge of extinction.” Among all the subjects that you can have for portraiture, why choose them specifically? Can you tell us more about this project?
Yes, I’m seeking funding to buy up any remaining paper stock that I can find, as well as purchase some used lighting gear. Between the super slow sensitivity of the paper and a bellows extension factor that is almost unheard of, shooting direction positive paper requires A TON of light! I’ve been rating the paper at an ISO of about ISO 1.5, which should give you a sense of the challenges of working with this camera!
My friend and I intend to camp out or couch surf most of the time while on the trip but other supplies like food, fuel, and ortho film can really add up over a several month time span. So, I’m really hoping that people will come forward and make this project possible!
As the world has become increasingly digitized, we are losing a connection to the physical world. This project seeks to resist that trend. I want to document, preserve and, perhaps, garner interest in this crafts before they disappear.
Now, let’s talk about your work as a photographer in general. We understand that you shoot both in analogue and digital formats, and even make ambrotype and platinum palladium prints! When do you shoot in film, and when in digital? What are the cameras and/or equipment that you usually use?
Sometimes the softness of a Holga seems more appropriate than the crisp pixelation of a DSLR. Much of the time, the format I use depends on the feeling I’d hope to evoke about a subject or the concept behind a body of work. I’m also really interested in process and personally love geeking out and being forced to problem solve, tinker, and get my hands involved in a technique. As I said earlier, there is something about making images by hand that has always enticed me.
But if I’m doing freelance work for someone, the clients’ desires, budget, and how quickly they need images also affects my choice of format. I’d love to have people hire me shot editorial work in tintype or with Brownie in Motion but that work tend to be harder to come by!
I shoot with a Nikon D800 (which is an amazing camera) for most of my freelance work. My first camera was a Nikon FG20 film camera that I love and still use periodically for personal projects. When I shoot tintypes, I use a lovely old Crown Graphic that I picked up on eBay several years ago. I just used it this past weekend to shoot some dry plate tintypes at a wedding.
What inspires you? Who are the photographers and/or artists that you look up to?
Richard Avedon’s work and his ability to connect with his subjects and express so much with so little has always had a big impact on me. Tehching Hsieh ’s durational work is amazing as well. I’ve always admired his conviction and belief in his artistic process. I appreciate artists who go out on a limb to create something that goes against the grain.
I’m continually impressed by Elizabeth Roberts ’s work, which engages personal narrative, the cinematic history, and immersive experience. She is also from Columbus, Ohio and is making some really interesting things happen!
Do you have a favorite project or photograph among those that you’ve done so far? Any interesting and memorable story behind it? Please tell us about it!
Recently photographing a blacksmith friend’s prized 100-year-old wrench with Brownie In Motion presented some fun challenges. I really wanted to highlight the texture and age of the wrench by floating it on a black background. What we ended up doing (since we couldn’t just put the camera on a tripod and tilt down towards onto a tabletop) was hang the heavy 20+ inch-long wrench from the ceiling with lots and lots of fishing line. Besides worrying that the historically significant tool might somehow come crashing to the ground, we had to tiptoe the whole time so that our movements wouldn’t cause the hammer to start vibrating and ruin the shot! Ultimately, the image came out great but it was definitely a toughie!
Several years ago, I did a series of portraits called Sing the Body Electric that explores how a person’s body or facial expression reacts to electrical stimulation. Basically, my friends and I used an electrical therapeutic device to trigger involuntary muscle contractions in our faces. After applying electrodes and turning up the TENS, half of the face would contort while the other half would not. It was a rather amazing exploration of the malleability of the human body. I shot that project with an 8×10 camera in an effort to capture as much detail as possible, so that one could get lost looking at the final prints.
What is your dream project?
I have to say, I’m kind of in the middle of a dream project right now! Brownie In Motion had existed only as an idea for years and I feel so grateful to have been able to actually build and work with this camera! I’m really excited to continue sharing and shooting with it in the coming years! I’ve always been interested in stories and learning about other people’s passions, so this is a dream come true.
Are there other hobbies or interests that you have aside from photography?
Personally, I’ve always had a passion for music. Although photography has taken over as my main creative pursuit, I still find music as one of the most viscerally engaging arts there is. I play the ukelele, and in the coming year, I hope to make more time for collaborative music making with my friends
Are there any ongoing/upcoming projects that you’d like to share with us aside from Brownie in Motion? Exhibitions you’d like to promote?
Designing a room sized camera obscura has opened up some unexpected creative avenues! In addition to the artisan portraits, I’ve been working on body of work that I call the Convergence. This series uses the lens of the camera obscura to project the image of one person onto the body of the other without the use of Photoshop. I hope to illustrate the voluntary merging of two individuals into one. The photographs are rather surreal and I find them to have an uncomfortable, but somewhat seductive beauty.
While traveling around this summer, I plan to continue shooting images for my series of landscapes, titled Intersections, which explores interaction between build and natural landscapes. Besides being a beautiful process, printing this series in platinum/palladium allows me to use images taken with variety of camera formats and integrate them into a single body of work
What tips or advice can you give aspiring photographers?
Be curious! Shoot a lot! Look at what you shoot! Respond! (repeat!)
Any last words?
Please donate to the Brownie In Motion project at Indiegogo today and help me share and preserve the important stories of endangered arts before they disappear (Editor’s note: The deadline for this has recently been extended until June 23!). Even if you cannot donate at this time, simply sharing the campaign with your friends is a huge help! To see more of my work, please check out stakacs.com and follow my Facebook page. Thanks for reading!
All photos in this article were provided to Lomography by Stephen Takacs.
Related article: Stephen Takacs’ ‘Brownie in Motion’