Exploring Bandelier National Monument with Lomography's Experimental Tools: A Harvard Research Project by Gracie and Lei


In early June, two Harvard Graduate School of Design students, Gracie and Lei, embarked on a research adventure to the Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos, New Mexico. Stemming from an interdisciplinary background in geology, architecture, urban planning, design, and photography, the two students sought to explore the territories of the Ancestral Puebloans through the lens of these various interests and with a unique twist.

After realizing these sites have already been captured through conventional photography, Gracie and Lei wanted to see how their perspectives could be shifted and what new insights could be found through alternative types of photo documentation. So, we equipped them with the Sprocket Rocket and the Fisheye No.2 cameras and some LomoChrome films. Read our conversation below to follow along their project.

Photos by Gracie Meek and Jialei Tang

Hi Gracie and Lei, welcome to the Lomography Magazine! May you introduce yourselves to our readers?

Thank you Lomography, we’re so glad to be here!

Gracie: I’m Gracie Meek, a geology-architecture-photography enthusiast. I’m currently a landscape architecture student at Harvard Graduate School of Design and have an architecture background. As a daughter of two geologists, I’ve always been fascinated by how rock formations show a visual history of the earth. My work in design and photography seeks to bring these large-scale landscape narratives to the human scale.

Lei: Hi there, I’m Lei and I like rocks. I come from architecture and philosophy, and most recently completed my graduate studies in urban planning. As a child, I considered the world with often odd inquiry and enjoyed how design persistently encourages and challenges my perceptions. Pertaining to geology, it is compelling to me how time, weather, and culture are embedded into the micro and macro structures of rocks.

Please tell us about your research project you embarked on.

Our research project is a multi-modal survey of Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos, New Mexico. Bandelier National Monument preserves the homes and territory of the Ancestral Puebloans who inhabited the Frijoles Canyon between 1150 and 1600 AD. The site contains a unique assembly of Ancestral Puebloan homes and kivas carved into Bandelier’s porous volcanic tuff cliffs. These thousands of air pockets in the cliffside are called “cavates,” which Ancestral Puebloans further hollowed out as a framework for their dwellings. We sought to examine the rich interconnectedness of the Ancestral Puebloan architecture with its distinctive geologic context. Ultimately, the analysis of Bandelier helps us develop a design rationale for architecture that is tightly integrated with its environmental context.

We employed Lomography’s experimental cameras and films in conjunction with Leica Geosystems’ BLK360, a high-precision 3D laser scanner, to document the ruin system during our trip to the site in early June 2023. While the laser scanning equipment captured billions of precise three-dimensional data points, we also integrated Lomography’s more qualitative approach to breathe some spirit, atmosphere, and texture into the dataset.

Photos by Gracie Meek and Jialei Tang

What is your background in analogue photography?

Gracie: I was introduced to analogue photography when I stumbled upon a bin of old family members’ vintage cameras in the garage that my father collected. Ranging from a 1920s No.2A Brownie, a 1950s large-format 4x5 Graflex, and a 1980s Minolta X-370, this bin catapulted me into a new passion for unpredictable and nuanced photography. The early days of this new hobby were filled with tinkering on stuck shutters and cleaning gritty lenses. Later, questions like “will anything even appear?” and “can you even get analogue film developed these days?” surfaced as the cameras became operable. I still love to use my Grandfather’s elegant 1950s Leidolf Lordox 24x36 for casual street photography, and just brought it on the Bandelier research trip.

Lei: My experience with analogue photography stems from curiosity. Like Gracie, I started from old analogue cameras (mostly Kodaks and Fujifilms), in the family home that were objects of play to me as a child. The ease of capturing stills of everyday action was fascinating, yet easy at the click of a button. I was introduced to the darkroom during undergrad and my school was conveniently located 5 blocks from a Lomography store in West Village. However, it was the Bandelier National Monument project when experimentation began to take flight as I tested the different films and lenses.

What does experimental photography mean to you? And why did you decide to tie it in with the project?

“Experimental” embeds uncertainty and the unexpected into our design process in photography as well as architecture. Experimental photography pushes the author to give some creative autonomy to the camera and development process as more dependent variables come into play. This contrasts with the precision of new technology such as laser scanning, which helps us create exact dimensional models of the site. Bandelier has been surveyed through conventional photography and drawing in the past, but we wanted to apply new documentation methods in both the quantitative and qualitative aspects.

We hypothesized that experimental photography would provide another layer of visual interpretation that enhanced the novel documentation of our research methods. We found punctuating our rigorous and systematic laser scanning with the Lomography cameras’ playful atmosphere liberating. More critically, it inspired creative reading of the site that complements the detailed recording by Leica’s BLK360.

How did you enjoy shooting with the Sprocket Rocket and Fisheye No.2 cameras?

Both cameras have a speculative element to them. The Sprocket Rocket’s operative design urges the user to intimately interact with the camera, such as identifying the subtle alignment of the white dot when the next shot is ready. On the other hand, we had blind faith while using the Fisheye. Since it was our first time with the camera we didn’t know what to expect of the shot, and we didn’t know if we had wound enough film to reach the next exposure (resulting in some unanticipated double exposures!) Yet, this uncertainty captivated us - it allowed us to relish in our experimental curiosities, which required a degree of surrendering control.

Photos by Gracie Meek and Jialei Tang

You’ve also paired the cameras with several of our color-shifting films. Which combination of camera and film did you like the results of most?

We loved the Sprocket Rocket’s ability to capture the entire vista at multiple scales – from the vast, rugged terrain to the intricate details of the adobe structures. Its unique feature of exposing the sprocket holes resonated with the beam holes’ repetitive nature on the cliffside, which added a distinct charm to the photographs. We also found the camera’s wide-angle capabilities especially useful when we flipped the Sprocket Rocket vertically since the cavernous cliff extended hundreds of feet into the air.

Combined with the LomoChrome Purple Film, which imparted an ethereal quality to the images, the Sprocket Rocket produced dreamscapes. The purple hues added a touch of mystery and whimsy to the ancient ruins, casting them in an otherworldly light. This evoked nostalgia and wonder in an unlikely setting.

On the other hand, the LomoChrome Metropolis Film revealed a new dimension to the ruins. The absence of intense color emphasized the textures and patterns, accentuating the weathered stones and intricate carvings in the panoramic aspect. The Metropolis film and Sprocket Rocket pairing, specifically, gifted us some dramatic light leaks that added to the images’ charisma.

We decided to pair the Fisheye with Lomography’s Lady Grey film to focus on the accessible cavate’s (inhabitable, hand-carved caves) interior volumes. The stark contrast and rich tonal range of the black and white images imbued the scenes with timelessness and conveyed a deep appreciation for the sculptural forms of the site.

Photos by Gracie Meek and Jialei Tang

What did you find out there? Could you tell us about some interesting insights you’ve made in your research!

The Fisheye’s spherical view drew attention to Bandelier’s porous, sculptural geologic forms. This spatial exaggeration amplified how the dwellings are delineated by curves instead of the orthogonal structures we regularly find today. Through this, we discovered how the Ancestral Puebloans took advantage of their unique geologic context as the basis for the design of their residences. Investigating these ancient patterns of livelihood revealed the peoples’ intimate connection with the natural rock face. On the other hand, the Sprocket Rocket’s film not only captured the vastness of the landscape but also its holes coincided beautifully with the apertures of the caves. The cameras’ experimental qualities truly enabled us to experience the site in a different way.

Now that you’ve captured these awesome shots, what’s next in your project?

We hope to share our analogue photographs together with 3D-printed models, illustrations, and mixed-media works online and in exhibitions this fall at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and Cornell University. Through this, we aim to encourage analogue photography as a form of academic documentation in an era when the digital usually has the upper hand. Meanwhile, we are also working towards a publication that translates our work in a physical vessel that, like geology and analogue photography, gets more interesting in time.

Photos by Gracie Meek and Jialei Tang

Anything else you’d like to share?

We’d like to thank all the people that have helped throughout our research trip – from the fellow Park Rangers at Bandelier for their warmth, knowledge, and accommodation of our requests to photograph, laser scan, and ask questions, to the Bandelier visitors for their patience, encouragement, and engaging conversations as we met along the trails. We are also indebted to our friends Joseph Kennedy Jr. and Sonny Meng Qi Xu who joined our adventure and supported us with driving skills, muscle, humor, and so much more. We are filled with gratitude for Harvard University Graduate School of Design’s Penny White Project Fund and Cornell University’s Robert James Eidlitz Fellowship; thank you for believing in us and providing funding, resources, and opportunities that made this project possible. And, of course, a huge thank you to the Lomography team for your generosity and trust in providing us with the experimental cameras and films. “Don’t think, just shoot!”

Thank you Gracie and Lei for sharing a wonderful project with us. To view more of their work, visit their Instagram pages @gracie_meek and @strctre.

written by kaylalew on 2023-07-26 #gear #places #35mm #fisheye #art-school #sprocket-rocket #lomochrome-purple #lomochrome-turquoise

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One Comment

  1. snapcookie52
    snapcookie52 ·

    Intriguing project. Beautiful images. I have been a regular visitor to Los Alamos and surrounding area for decades. Bandolier is magical. I have used my Lomo Fisheye (purchased years ago in Albuquerque) there with my 2 favorite films: Potsdam and Berlin. Thanks for posting this. Inspiring.

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