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A Photograph Worth a Hundred Years

People are on the verge of extinction – a craftsman in Idaho who sharpens crosscut saws by hand for workers in federally protected lands where motorized saws are forbidden; an artisan in Michigan who fashions premium papermaking frames. Movie projectionists, blacksmiths, and radio repairmen – all of them decades deep in vanishing trades.

They are the casualties of modernization, and local artist Stephen Takacs wants to capture them with a camera the size of a Land Rover.

“I’ll be honest, it’s not the easiest way to make an image,” Takacs said of his hulking camera. “But it’s not about doing it the easy way. You know, just like the people that I hope to meet and photograph, they’re not doing it the easy way, and there’s something to that.”

The device was made in the style of the Brownie, the first popular camera for personal, widespread use, which was developed by Kodak in 1900. It’s the ancestor of every subsequent mainstream model – Polaroids, disposables, and iPhones – an appropriate choice to document trades lost to technological advancement.

The project’s inception came while Takacs was working on the Victrola Obscura (covered in (614)’s June 2013 issue), in which he took an old phonograph and morphed it into a camera obscura – a simple projection device and precursor to modern photography. He was inspired to design a larger version that would allow a person to walk inside the camera itself, creating an immersive installation. The oversized Brownie’s structure consists of aluminum poles and a marine vinyl covering, and it was funded by grants through Ingenuity Cleveland and the OSU Steam Factory.

The Brownie has been shown from Baltimore to Nebraska, including Westerville South High School. When patrons encounter the massive art object, they can step within the curtain into the camera’s internal darkroom, and when someone else walks in front of the device, motion sensors open the wooden shutter mechanism over the lens. A large, ethereal image of the view is projected inside onto a piece of sheer, translucent fabric that the camera operator can alter and refocus based on how she manipulates. The project allows participants to see firsthand the non-digital inner workings of a camera.

With a new project dubbed Brownie in Motion, Takacs wants to take the camera on the road to document the skills of the aforementioned antiquated tradespeople. The Brownie’s second life was spurred in part by another disappearance – the discontinuation of the direct-positive photo paper that Takacs uses. He allocated some of the grant money to create a modest stockpile, and he also has an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign online to buy more stores of the analog photo paper, as well as paying for other expenses he’ll incur on his travels. The Brownie now serves as a fully functional camera, and if he gets the necessary funding, Takacs will seek to create outsized portraits of those whose livelihoods exist on the precipice of progress.

“We’re sort of addicted to this instant gratification, and I think there’s something to be said about waiting and anticipation,” he said. “I think we’re losing a part of our history that is important.”

The artisans’ handmade skills may or may not survive the cannibalizing forces of time and technology, but Takacs will preserve them a while longer through his portraits, a century in the making.


For more information about Brownie in Motion, which extended its crowdfunding campaign until June 23, visit www.stakacs.com