Photographs with sprocket holes exposed are practically a dime a dozen these days but, of course, this wasn't the case more than 50 years ago. However, former freelance photographer Michael Ciavolino was already able to create one of the earliest examples of this technique back in the early '60s in his groundbreaking photograph called "Boat Ride, Rye Beach." Find out the fascinating story behind this photo, as well as how and why he did it in this exclusive Lomography feature!
In 35mm photography, sprocket holes are those that run along the top and bottom of the film and are what you hook onto the camera’s winder to help you transition from one frame to the other. Strictly speaking, then, the holes are there more for function than aesthetics, and so do not appear on photos except by accident. However, there are analogue photographers who actually prefer this kind of look so they’ve come up with in-camera hacks, at home developing and printing techniques, and even specialized cameras (such as Lomography’s own Sprocket Rocket and Spinner 360).
Now, Michael Ciavolino’s “Boat Ride, Rye Beach” may not look like much at first, but this is actually one of the early examples of sprocket hole photography. In an interview with Lomography, Michael recalled that he had taken this in 1962 during a political campaign assignment covering Dwight Eisenhower’s campaign for presidency. “Every summer, the farmers of Hunterdon County ([in] New Jersey, USA) did this. And that year, the picnic was [held] on the Hudson riverboat. Those children in the sprocket hole photo were at the picnic on the boat with us,” he said.
Asked how and why he chose to print the photo this way, he provided us with the following illustration:
Michael processed and printed the photo himself in his darkroom located at the basement of his home in Flemington, New Jersey. While he didn’t specify the 35mm camera he had used, he offered that it was a new type back then that his teacher Sid Grossman had encouraged him and his fellow students to use.
“Boat Ride, Rye Beach” was Michael’s only sprocket photo, one of the early examples of photographs that were printed in such way. Renowned photographer Walter Chandoha had personally recognized him as “the pioneer and father of the sprocket hole movement,” yet Michael himself had downplayed this claim, saying, “Thank you Walter, but I cannot claim to be the first one to do that, as it’s possible and maybe probable that others have done it. If so, I did not know of it. So, maybe there are a few of us ‘pioneers’.”
“Boat Ride, Rye Beach” has been in the Museum of Modern Art’s (MOMA) Permanent Collection since 1965, and was first showcased in 1978 at the major photography exhibit organized by then MOMA Director of the Department of Photography John Szarkowski, “Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960.”
Michael’s work was exhibited along those by other photographers such as Diane Arbus, Robert Rauschenberg, Jerry Uelsmann, Elliott Erwitt, and Garry Winogrand. In the years that followed, “Boat Ride, Rye Beach” was also put up on view in various museums across the USA and Europe. Michael recalls receiving “very positive response” from anyone who had seen his photo.
Born in the 1920s in Brooklyn, New York, Michael began dabbling in photography after receiving a Rolleiflex as a wedding gift in 1953. By the following year, he started studying under the tutelage of Sid Grossman in Manhattan, New York. He remembered how his teacher was an early user of 35mm cameras and encouraged his students to do the same.
As a freelance photographer, Michael’s work included industrial, political, and wedding photography, to name some. It was in 1970 when Michael stopped his career in photography to concentrate on teaching full time. Aside from “Boat Ride, Rye Beach,” MOMA has also acquired two more of his photographs and can be found in its Study Collection. Nowadays, Michael said that he doesn’t practice photography anymore.
To cap off this feature, here’s a video of Michael Ciavolino himself telling the story behind “Boat Ride, Rye Beach”!
All information, and photos, and video in this article were provided to Lomography by Michael Ciavolino and his daughter Laura Hart, with permission from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (MOMA Appointment Calendar). At Michael and Laura’s request, please do not take out anything from this feature without permission.