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Spreading the Pinhole Love :: Behind the Scenes with Tom Persinger of f295

“Photography to me is about trying to reveal something about the world. It’s the method that works for me to try and dig down to really cut through everything extra—to try and see and reveal the fundamental essence of our world.”

In the middle of planning and coordinating the f295 Lensless, Alternative and Adaptive Processes Symposium scheduled for April 26-29 2007, Tom Persinger took a bit of time out of his busy schedule to share insights and thoughts about his work. A busy guy, Tom is passionate about building a global community around this specialized aspect of photography while still finding time to keep a day job and raise a family.

Erin Malone: What artists inspire you?

Tom Persinger: My influences range widely and mostly consist of artists, musicians, writers, and thinkers who are not photographers—Basho, Baudrillard, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dogen, f64, Glacier National Park, Allen Ginsberg, Mark Rothko, Gary Snyder, Thoreau, and—of course—all of the members of f295. I admire the work of many photographers but I find that my work is influenced more by other artists. This list could go on for a long time…but if you were to force me to choose one influence, it would have to be nature and wilderness.

How did your interest in pinhole & lensless photography begin?

A few years ago I was doing quite a bit of woodworking and spotted an article in one of the magazines on how to build a large format pinhole camera that used modern film holders. I had seen single-shot paper negative type cameras before but they didn’t hold much appeal for me. I had been shooting in medium format for awhile and had been thinking about moving up to 4×5″ when i saw the article. It seemed like a fun project to marry the two interests. The first camera I built was made from poplar and was meant to be a prototype. If it worked and I liked the results, I had planned to build a working camera from oak or maple. Well, the ‘prototype’ became my main camera for quite a while and I never rebuilt it, though I have built other cameras. That first camera had an fstop of f295.

What type of camera do you use?
Constructed or bought?

I’ve never bought a lensless camera. To me, part of the process of making these images, is being involved in as much of the process as practical. And with lensless photography, that can include making or adapting the camera. For a long time I used that first camera, the poplar prototype, exclusively. Later, Daryl Duckworth gifted me a wonderful little (fairly) wide angle medium format camera made from the shell of an old AGFA folder that has had the bellows removed. It’s a wonderful camera that makes remarkable images. Recently I’ve been using a Crown Graphic Press Camera with a pinhole in place of a lens. For this I carry multiple apertures to accomodate various focal lengths which allows me to have a wide angle, normal, or telephoto camera all in one package. I probably have 10 or 20 other cameras, but i stick with those three for 95% of my work.

What is your favorite camera that you wouldn’t leave home without?

I suppose if I had to limit myself to one camera it would be the wide angle medium format I received from Daryl. I seldom enlarge images more than 8×10″ and rarely crop, and this camera’s negatives render beautifully at 8×8″. I almost always get images I really like from it. Compositionally, I have a great feel for the angle of view and what the camera is seeing. A lot of people talk about chance and luck and the unknown in lensless photography, but I don’t see it that way. Not with this camera. I almost always know exactly what I’ll get when making an image. I also usually carry the Crown Graphic out in the field, but I never leave home without the medium format.

When are you most happy?

This is an interesting question. It reminds me of those bumperstickers: “I’d rather be (fill in name of favorite activity here)” which, I think is ultimately a rather sad statement. I always feel badly that the person (with the bumpersticker) isn’t golfing or hang-gliding or sailing, but is driving—I enjoy driving, driving to and from places – those transitions – can be extremely interesting moments. But in the end this moment, right here, right now is all we have—THIS IS IT! To have a happiest state, to wish you were doing something else— this is not to say that I don’t enjoy certain things more than others—but to make a declaration of one happiest state seems really rather depressing…

When did you start f295?

f295 was started in June of 2004. I began the forum for several reasons. When I began my lensless work, the forums at pinhole.com were a great source of information and inspiration, but around the end of 2003 – early 2004 they took their forums offline. I had found them enormously helpful and since I had the technical skills, I decided to fill the void they left and started f295. I find it enormously satisifying to provide the site for a global community that is focused on a common interest of lensless and alternative photography. It transcends all of the usual barriers that separate us—space, time, language, politics—and unites people from around the world around a common interest.

The participation seems to have grown exponentially. How have the features and your involvement grown? Has the growth been planned or has it been fluid/organic?

Yes, membership and participation have both grown at a rather rapid rate—especially considering the niche subject matter. We now have over 1,100 members, from every continent (except Antarctica!). We had over 300,000 clicks last month and moved over 8GB of content. I’ve done very little long term planning per se with the f295 site. I try and keep it nimble and try, as much as possible, to respond to the needs that I see arising in the community.

For example, we started off with just a few categories, but soon it expanded to provide separate sections for zoneplate, pinhole, color, black and white, polaroid, alternative process and others. That was when I began using the term ‘lensless’ to describe the content. It seemed overly general to call it a pinhole forum—and I think probably somewhat annoying to those who use zoneplate, sieve, etc. As membership grows so does my involvement, which is taking more and more time.

Are you seeing a lot of crossover between the lensless and the alternative processes practitioners?

In the f295 forums there is some crossover, but not as much as I had originally envisioned when I set up the alt side but I think over time that will change. Lensless, in my opinion, is an alternative process in it’s own right—a very specific one but not dissimilar. The site separates lensless and alternative processes for ease of categorization and also to help structure our content. What I see beginning to happen—still in its infancy—in photography at large, is not so much a crossover between lensless and alternative, but a general division that is more about manufactured and DIY. There’s such an explosion and interest going on in building, adapting and modifying equipment—it’s quite exciting.

How much time do you dedicate a week?

It varies. In the past few weeks I’ve been working upwards of 40 hours a week just on f295 but most of that has been Symposium planning. The great thing about f295—the website—is that we have such a great community of members that we very rarely have any of the issues that plague other online communities. There are seldom rants or arguments and when they do arise, I try to extinguish them as quickly as possible. It’s nice to have such a great group of members whom you can rely on to keep an eye on things.

When do you photograph?

Lately, I’m embarrassed to say, not much at all! But, generally, I almost always have a camera with me, if not in my bag, then in the trunk of my car. I try and squeeze it in whenever I can. I often photograph during my lunch hour at work and a couple of my current favorite images were made during those shoots. I really enjoy the fact that when people see these images, they say, ‘That was taken there?’ ‘Really?’ It’s very pleasing to be able to show people another side of an area that they thought they knew as only a sort of post-industrial, decaying, small town, outside of Pittsburgh.

With the Symposium planning, the forum, photographing and a day job, do your kids ever see you? When do you sleep?

Hmmm, I sleep increasingly little. It’s just after 1am and I am only starting to think about sleep, but I have more work to do… so, to be brief, I spend as much time with my wife and kids as I can. I don’t cut back on my time with them too much for f295 and my personal photography work. My kids are young—ages 3 and 6 months—and those years are precious. I don’t want to miss a second of these young minds developing, and the wonder they see in the world—it’s inspirational—their presence, their way of being here right now, it’s amazing…so, I cut back on what I can and sleep less.

I notice you also teach workshops – how often do you do these?

Workshops are a lot of fun. The direct hands on involvement with the students is wonderful! It’s great to see the wonder and enthusiasm they have when they see that a box made from cardboard can really be a camera. Even though they’ve seen my cameras, I dont think it really sinks in until they actually do it themselves. I’m teaching several worskhops this year—at The Mattress Factory, Photographers Formulary and Peters Valley Craft Center. They’re all different and will all be very enjoyable. And for those experienced photographers who come, I think they just might pick up some fresh ideas to reinvigorate their work. Lots of people have said that pinhole photography has made photography ‘fun’ again and it’s great to be able to put some fun into peoples lives, dont you think?

What inspired you to organize the Symposium?

While the f295.org forum is great, it’s not great for personal contact. The internet is perfect for the forum—a way to connect geographically dispersed individuals with niche interests—but it just isn’t the same as sitting down with someone for a cup of coffee and talking and handling images. About a year and a half ago, I surveyed the f295 community to see if there would be interest in such an event. There was a lot of response and enthusiasm for the idea—so, in keeping with my MO of responding to the community’s wishes, I began organizing. Then when I started meeting with Pittsburgh arts organizations, they had such enthusiasm for the event it just kept getting bigger and bigger.

I should probably ask you this after it’s all over, but, will you do another Symposium?

Yes, ask me when this one is over. A few weeks ago, I thought I’d never even consider it, but thankfully those thoughts are behind me now, and even though this one hasn’t started yet, there are already discussions about possibly doing one on the West Coast. But let’s not get too carried away—ask me again in a week.

Editor’s Note: The Symposium took place for April 26-29, 2007.