A man who truly “lived the dream” in the 1980s New York downtown art scene, and an ardent lover of the Diana’s quirks, photographer Mark Sink treasures its simple controls, toy-like feel, and lo-fi results. He used his darling Diana to capture celebrities like Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Grace Jones, as well as landscapes, nudes, and a ton of other breathtaking subjects. In the esteemed community of unbelievable Diana artists, he’s right up there in the front.
Hello Mark! When did you first encounter the Diana, and what were your initial impressions of it?
My very first encounter was in the 1960s when my parents got me one. I don’t remember using it. It was 20 years later when I found the Diana and its unfinished roll of film inside. I processed my first shots while taking an Art Photography course with Ruth Thorne Thompson. They were images of my mother from knee-height. They blew my mind. That was the start of my reverse technology career. The effect was something that I had never seen. I thought that I was the only one using it for serious art. I later found out that I was far from alone. Books and catalogs had published dozens of Diana users before me. So, I was the second wave. Holga and Lomo are the third.
You used your Diana extensively to document the 1980s New York City art scene. Are there any Diana shots you took that have a particularly crazy story to them?
Sneaking into [American abstract artist] Cy Tyombly’s private opening at the Museum of Modern Art; you just show the guard at the door your plastic wine cup and they let you right in [laughs]. I shot Cy and Steve Martin, Francesco Clemente… lots of big stars that night. They loved the Diana, and you can see it in the eyes of the subjects. Plus, it gets you close to stars because they see that you are not a journalist with a big-gun camera. Instead, they ask, “What’s that thing?”.
I have a lot of stories. One of my favorites is a big job that I got with The New Yorker. It was for a special corporate report illustrating stories of the famous authors they first published before their books came out. People like J.D. Salinger (Catcher in the Rye), Rachel Carson (Silent Spring), Jacobo Timerman (Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number). It was a big deal, 5-grand-a-day shoot. I showed up at the studio with my Diana around my neck and a hand-held flash. Nothing else! The clients and account executives and creative people waiting for me in the studio were not happy. They could not believe I didn’t have any equipment with me, so everyone went home leaving me with just the model. I took some images, developed them and brought them over to the agency. Meanwhile, they were busy rummaging through photographer portfolios, looking for my replacement. They all looked over their shoulders in horror at the sight of me coming back. I showed them my contact sheets. With great surprise, they loved them, and [they] all clapped and cheered. And they gave me the rest of the project.
In your opinion, is photography more about the photographer, or more about the camera?
Oh, it’s all about the camera [laughs]. I would have never said that before. Or it’s both. Of course concept and craft and personal vision are paramount, and with all that the camera (theoretically speaking) doesn’t really matter. Nowadays, any of the big, big-time museums and private collections are all collecting large format 8x10” camera work. My Polaroids from the 1980s are vintage and very valuable now. Even more so as there is no longer any Polaroid SX-70 film.
We have to ask: What did Andy Warhol think of your Diana?
He hated it. He was all about the new and sharp. He didn’t like the old romantic feel. “It’s so old-fashioned,” he would say. He hated soft images. Now, if I showed him romantic hot boys rather than naked girls, then he would have liked it more, I think. He always asked, “Why don’t you shoot boys?” He did keep my self-portrait nudes [laughs]! He kept a Diana camera of mine that I gave to him to take pictures with. Later on, after his death, the Warhol foundation called me for my release and permission and asked if I knew what was on the Diana film. I gave Andy the Diana to take some images, and I planned to develop them for him. He never used it, and just placed it in a time capsule around 1983.
New York City has changed enormously in the past years. What are a few things that you really miss?
Well, I don’t go back every other month like I used to. Oh gosh… I miss the 80s. I watched the East Village art scene come and go. Times Square and 42nd Street are all cleaned up no, it’s very Vegas-like. Soho lofts used to be cheap. I had a rent-controlled room for 20 years in Chelsea on 21st street and 7th Avenue. $150 a month. It was the bomb! It sat over a quiet backyard garden with nothing but birds singing and leaves rustling. I miss that room. A zillion stories from that place we called the “Room.” James Iha of the Smashing Pumpkins loved that room. I just miss being young in NYC, hungry and horny. Most of all, I miss that blind ambition and “I can do anything” feeling. It is probably the same rush for a 20-year old arriving now.
The storefronts change. The social cliques change. Editors change. But it’s still the same in many ways to the young new generations… now the old, beat-up hippie 80s survivors like me will say, “Gosh, they just don’t have clubs like CBGB’s anymore, or Area, or the Mudd Club.” Bohemia seems to have all moved across the river a decade or more ago. We, who were hot and wild in the 1980s, are all grumpy old men now. But it’s fun to be a living relic from that period [laughs]. People want to interview you!
Is the Diana more “I’m So Free” or “Walk on the Wild Side?”
“I am so freeeeee,” of course. She is light and fun. People smile when you point her at them. Easy to take anywhere. The plastic sound of the winder is the best.
What’s your worst Diana horror story?
Speaking of the funny noisy winder, I was in a high-level press circle once, shooting the Pope’s visit to Denver for the New York Times. He was approaching us, and I started winding the Diana camera. Everyone around me stopped and turned around to look at me, and then at my security ID tags — and then at my camera.
And once, on another high-profile shoot, I was in front of the president of a giant bank. I showed the Diana to him, giggling while I told him that “This is just a toy camera.” Again, that was a big mistake. The client did not get the joke. So now, I always set up the Hasselblad and studio strobes, even if I am using the Diana!
Ya, the lens tends to fall out sometimes. The little tabs break. It’s happened in front of all sorts of celebs. It gets a big laugh. It even happened in front of the Pope once!
What do you think are the truly unique characteristics that set the Diana apart?
It does everything cameras are not “supposed” to do. Vignettes and edge blur. [It has] unreliable shutter speeds. It’s fragile. It melts in the sun. It’s a reverse. It has a voice of its own. Nancy Burson traded me a print of hers for the Arrow (a Diana clone) because she liked its qualities. The Arrow is really poorly made, but the blurring at the edges is more intense.
Any words of advice for future Diana shooters?
Concept first! Diana likes low light better than harsh bright days. Diana is a great travel camera and a great wedding camera. It romanticizes the event or touristic wonder of the world. Don’t do photojournalism. I'm not a fan of anything that has lots of busy blah blah in the pictures. Diana does so well with simple graphic shapes and rhythm. How about the idea of the space between the objects in itself being the subject of an image? Let yourself fail. Diana works because Diana lets you have happy accidents. Accidents are the key to success. One has to learn to let go and fail. We live too much in a failsafe world.
Lastly, could you please craft your own Diana haiku for us?
flight with light plastic
my love huntress Diana
lightbox of my soul