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Catching Light :: Making Cameras with Artist Jo Babcock

“You’ve made a mistake. I don’t want to be an artist. I want to be a photographer!”

Without Lenses editor, Erin Malone, recently spent time chatting with artist and photographer Joseph Babcock. Jo was a speaker at the recent f295 Symposium held in Pittsburgh, and has been quite open in sharing thoughts about his work, his influences and ideas about what makes him tick as a creator of amazing cameras and their corresponding images.

Erin Malone: What artists inspire you?

Jo Babcock: William Henry Fox Talbot, Hippolyte Bayard, Robert Heineken, Bea Nettles, Todd Walker, Henry Holmes Smith, Naomi Savage, Robert Rauschenberg, Betty Hahn, Pirkle Jones, Linda Conner, Henry Wessel, David Ireland, Gordon Matta-Clark, Ed Ruscha, Susan Sontag, and Fran Lebovitz.

How did your interest in photography begin?

When I was five or seven years old, I had a little toy called “Flickas”. It came with little, 3″x5″ negatives of “Felix The Cat”, a small 3″x5″ pack of studio proof (printing out paper) and a shallow, rectangular box to hold the negatives in contact with the print out paper. I’d go into the garage (subdued light), load the print frame with a negative contacted against the paper and then walk out into the bright sunlight to make the exposure. I was always fascinated when I brought the contraption back inside, opened up the frame and saw the magical, positive image of Felix and characters. The prints faded with time and ambient light exposure, but I loved the transformation and color change (from light blue to purple).

Joseph BabcockI came from a working class family in St Louis. We had NO exposure to cameras, photography or art. At age 17, a buddy and I traveled to a hippie rock festival in Louisiana (The Festival of Life). This was right after Woodstock. At the festival, I kept seeing this young, professional photographer running around with three, 35mm cameras slung over his shoulders and around his neck. He was always chasing a shot, sometimes riding a mini bike to cover ground and it looked like fun. I had brought the family’s Kodak along and shot one roll of film. Later, back in St Louis, my junior year [of high school], I enrolled in a high school Photography Class (because my buddy was in the class). I took right to it and a month or so later we were processing b/w film, color slides and printing the teachers b/w prints for money. By senior year, I was taking on small jobs outside the class, photographing college plays and small weddings for cash.

By the time I enrolled in college I thought I had my vocation all picked out. I wanted to be a professional photographer and filled that in on my Community College forms. To my surprise, when they sent me my class schedule later that summer, they had placed me in the Art Department. I called them right up and said, “You’ve made a mistake. I don’t want to be an artist. I want to be a photographer!”

I was flabbergasted, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I had to take Drawing I & II (which I had never done. Worked my tail off to get a C), Figure Drawing (which I had never done, was horrible at and got berated and ridiculed in front of the class by a sadistic teacher while he praised the “good” students with natural talent), Art History (taught by a fiesty, inspirational female painter. I worked hard and got an A+ in her class), Design and Photography (both were taught by Hans Levi, a UC Berkeley graduate and classmate of Richard Misrach, who inspired me to check out the SF Art Institute since I wanted to move to CA). Hans continued to teach Photo & Design in the St Louis Community College system and retired a couple of years ago. In 2006 after my book got published, I reconnected with Hans. He was proud to see where I’ve ended up; “pretty cool”.

What prompted you to start building your own cameras and then experimenting with all the different containers you have used?

I started at the San Francisco Art Institute, in the fall of 1973 and majored in Photography. In California, the buzz word seemed to be “experimentation”. Ellen Brooks was teaching a class called, Bent Silver. She was a UCLA graduate and had studied with Robert Heineken. In her class, we learned how to make enlarged negatives, Cyanotype prints, Van Dyke Brown prints and magazine transfer rubbings. I hooked up with a hippie friend and before long we were reading photo process books, buying raw chemicals, mixing up strange solutions all night long, sizing & coating watercolor paper and teaching ourselves how to make three-color Gum Bichromate prints and pinhole cameras. We experimented with 40″ mural prints developed on the floor with sponges soaked in Dektol, cutting up prints, sewing & piecing them back together into irregular forms and crazy/metallic toning combinations. We were sort of the early 70′s version of the Starn Twins (without the money, backing or notoriety).

VW Van CameraMy buddy had a “ratty” VW van and we got this bright idea to turn his van into a pinhole camera and use color print paper. Using black polyethylene, we blocked out the windows, side doors area to hold the pinhole aperture and built a double, light baffle into the back hatch so we could set the camera up, pin the light sensitive paper to the far wall and then crawl out through the back while the paper exposed. Our aperture was too small and the exposures usually took four hours but we did get a couple of color, negative prints to work. He sold the van a couple of months later but this was always a project I wanted build again.

In 1975, I went to UCLA for a short time and studied with Robert Heineken, Bea Nettles, Henry Holmes Smith, Todd Walker and William Larson. I kept experimenting with different photographic materials and processes.

When I moved back to San Francisco I started making more pinhole cameras during my senior year and graduated with a BFA Degree in 1976. Rolling Stone magazine needed someone in the darkroom and I got the job through the manager at SFAI’s photo lab. I was a hard worker, a good b/w printer and knew how to print color. I worked for them a short while printing Annie Leibovitz‘s b/w’s for reproduction and 16×20 Cibachromes for the cover mock-ups. Rolling Stone’s operations eventually moved to NY, so the job was temporary.

I went back to SFAI in 1977 for Graduate School; ironically I got accepted with a body of downtown street shots. When I started experimenting with pinhole cameras and aparatus they gave me an Incomplete grade. I bit my tongue, satisfied their requirements and after graduating in 1979 with my MFA, I started back to my pinhole camera making and experimentation.

By the early 80′s, San Francisco was a real “hot bed” for Performance, Installation and Conceptual Art. During this time I started using found objects and suitcases as cameras. The Samsonite was perfect because it had a positive/negative shape around the opening edges and sealed up well with a little bit of black photo tape. In 1986, I got a bright idea and with a buddy, I organized and produced a huge, multi-site show called, The HOTEL PROJECT. About sixty artists participated at an old hotel in West Oakland—most artists had their own ho
tel room to do whatever they wanted to do as long as it was returned to original condition—and at the end of the year, it got written up in The Oakland Tribune as one of the most exciting art events in the Bay Area for that year. I knew David Ireland from the job site and art shows. I persuaded him to do a room installation at the Hotel Project. I also got Tony Labat to participate, Lynn Hershman to sign on and several other folks with a little bit of notoriety.

Suitcase camerasIt was during that time that I started using suitcases to photograph hotels. I was photographing and documenting a lot of hotels with my 35mm camera as we searched for a place to house our wild idea. We kept getting turned down, but I kept shooting, and accumulating photos and we kept doing shows and using the imagery at the satellite locations. I was working as an electrician to pay the bills and in 1986, I interned with David Ireland at the Headlands Center for the Arts. I was the electrician on the crew and we converted the old barracks building into an artspace.

I believe it was a combination of working with all these conceptual artists, performance artists, video artists, installation people, and helping run a few art spaces (A.R.E.- Artists Revolution in the Eighties), hanging out at SF underground spots in the Mission & Tenderloin, working as a laborer in the building trades, being a politico and ultimately being sick of consumer culture that drove me to start thinking of the camera photographing objects in a symbiotic manner.

What was your most complex camera?

Aesthetically, I usually work in a low tech fashion, but to answer your question, probably the VW Van Camera and later, the Airstream RV Cam.

What was the most fun to build?

I guess the second VW Van Camera. This was done with a collaborative grant with Lightwork Community Darkrooms in upstate New York. I had lived in the Lower East Side in New York City and then moved upstate near Syracuse. We applied to the New York State Council for the Arts proposing to turn a van into a camera on wheels and in 1989, we received the Governor’s Award from Mario Cuomo. After getting the check (Ca-ching!), I moved back down to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, lived at a friends freezing 10,000 sq. ft. warehouse space (affectionately nicknamed The Boar’s Nest), pulled the VW inside and converted the van into a camera in this garage/workshop area. We had a lot of fun there. Lots of parties, booze, etc, with the subway station to Manhattan and big city action only a mile and a half walk away.

Which camera was the worst from a photography standpoint?

It’s a black, plastic Top Hat with a lens on the front. It’s not in the book but it’s always been a frustrating camera to get results. The damn thing always leaks light no matter how many times I try to seal it up and try again.

What was the most difficult camera / image pair to come up with and make (as seen in your book)?

The photograph of Monument Valley Tribal Park. The Airstream RV was hard enough to make, but the first time I took it to Monument Valley I didn’t process any tests inside the van. I thought I had worked all that out ahead of time. Later when I developed the paper negatives EVERYTHING was dark, dark, overexposed and very orange red. I wasted a lot of time, effort and money on that first expedition.

How often do you build cameras and then shoot with them? What’s your process for taking on a new project in this vein?

Assorted camerasSince publishing my book, The INVENTED CAMERA, I am more selective about building cameras these days. I have one in particular that I want to build called “The Babcock” out of an ice cream container that my partner, Kitty, brought me from Babcock Hall at the Univ of Wisconsin.

We build pinhole cameras on the first day of the Alt-Process class I teach at the Academy of Art University. Right now, I am working on some Cyanotype images and unconventional Palladium prints. I am also working on an installation for a solo show planned for Sept-Oct at Butte College in Chico, CA. The show will feature photo sculpture. I like to work conceptually with the space or at least let it influence the specific work. I’ve seen line drawings of the gallery, but when I see the physical gallery space in person and how people relate to it physically, my plans may change. I hope to show a similar installation in San Francisco soon.

When are you most happy?

When my body and mind are healthy.

Riding my bicycle 150 miles from Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Marin County to Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastary in Ukiah, CA with the rest of the Dharma Wheels group. The monks are so inspiring and they treat us to harmonic chants and songs at the end of our pilgrimage.

The comaradarie and experience of growing alongside my Alternative Process students as they learn, develop and mature.

When I am respected by the photographic/Art community.

Experiencing the natural world with my partner, Kitty.

What’s your next project?

A collaborative, interactive photo/camera/installation with my friend and associate, Alyson Belcher. She’s a pinhole photographer as well and a faculty member at Academy of Art University. Her work is beautiful, she has high energy, a great spirit, and is an expert Photo Historian. We are presently applying for funding.