Review by Wayne Swanson •
Once upon a time, itinerant photographers armed with crude homemade cameras worked the street corners and parks around the world, creating inexpensive memorabilia and first-time photographic experiences for the masses. Then came the rise of cheap personal cameras followed by the digital revolution, and these photographers largely disappeared. Now a counter-revolution of sorts is in progress as old-time ways, under the exalted new umbrella of “alternative processes,” have renewed cachet. A fresh generation of itinerant box camera photographers are reviving the tradition of creating one-of-a-kind images on the street.
The tool of their trade is the box camera, known in different parts of the world as the Afghan Box Camera, Street Box, Camera Minuteros, Lambe Lambe, Cuban Polaroid, Instant Box, Minuite Camera, Kamra-e-faoree, Ruh Khitch, Foto Agüita, and more. Whatever the name, what makes them unique is that they are self-contained low-tech camera and darkroom combinations inside one wooden box, usually homemade.
Austrian-born photographer, archivist, and publisher Lukas Birk first encountered the box camera in Afghanistan in 2006 when he was exploring tourism in conflict areas. That led to a book and website specifically about the Afghan Box Camera. His new book and associated website focus on the current generation of international box camera artists.
“Box Camera Photographers now, unlike in the early years, are novelty photographers,” Birk writes in the book’s introduction. “Their specialty is to give a sense of feeling produced by the touch of the human hand, a manual metamorphosis of time and place.” Box Camera Now showcases the work of 54 photographers from 21 countries practicing the trade around the world.
Like their predecessors, they work the street corners and parks with their funky wooden boxes. But their number includes more art photographers and more women, who were rarities in the olden days. One of them, French photographer Charlotte Guey, says in the book “I immediately liked the idea of doing a lot with very little. It’s going back to basics, reclaiming space, time, matter. We remove the superfluous and return to the essential. The Box Camera is simple and efficient; it causes surprise and creates magic.”
Indeed, the entire process is performance art. It starts with the wooden box, sometimes brightly painted and artfully decorated. Typically, there’s a lens of some sort on one end, a door on the other, and a sealed round hole on the side with a sleeve dangling from it. The photographers compose the shot and release the shutter or manually uncover and cover the lens. Then the magic begins. They put their hand inside the sleeve and reach inside the box to move the exposed photographic paper through trays of developer and fixer. Next they open the door and pull out the paper, which shows a negative image. They place the negative image in front of the lens and open the shutter again to create a positive image. Once it is developed using the same process, it is placed in a bucket to be rinsed, dried with a rag, and presented to the customer. The entire process takes about 10 minutes. The exact steps vary, as some photographers have streamlined the process by making contact prints or adding hot shoes for LED lights, digital light meters, and other modern innovations. Yet the end result is the same: a finished one-of-a-kind analog print.
The book presents a selection of works by the new box camera photographers, along with a brief biography and a portrait of each artist, taken with a box camera. The images they have created range from basic portraits to environmental portraits to landscapes. Some are sharp, some fuzzy. Some well-exposed, some not. But they all embrace the imperfections of their low-fi cameras, thanks to light leaks and the quirky development process. And they’re all precious in their own way. As Italian box camera artist Gianni De Gregoria notes in the book, “Every photo is different, special, and unrepeatable.”
The book also provides a history of box cameras and a description of how to build one. Even the book design plays into the theme. It features veneered wood covers and black pages, evoking the self-contained darkroom inside the box.
Like tintypes, pinhole photos, and the myriad of other resurgent alternative processes, the works in Box Camera Now show that the magic of analog imperfection is alive and well in the digital age.
Birk’s photobook House No. 6 was previously reviewed by PhotoBook Journal.
Box Camera Now, Lukas Birk
Editor: Lukas Birk, born in Bregenz, Austria; resides in France
Publisher: Fraglich Publishing, Bregenz, Austria; © 2020
Introduction: Lukas Birk
Wood cover book, perfect binding, four-color lithography, list of photographers and box camera reference sources, 338 pages, 7.5 x 5.5 in.
Photobook designer: Lukas Birk
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