Beyond the Visual is an interactive photo booth experience: a combination of visual arts piece, immersive theater, and educational program. We are transforming an intimate storefront theater space into a photo studio and darkroom where visitors will experience a guided exploration in the process of making 8”x10” large format images.

The three elements that I’m building this show around are process, connection, and physicality.

Running August 10th, 2019 between 4-9pm at Automata Theater, Los Angeles, small groups of visitors will be met at the door by their steward who will guide them through the process. After entering, visitors will have their image made in the studio area, and then will be guided into the darkroom where they will be able to watch their negative develop before their eyes, after which they will make a contact print of their negative and then develop that print so they have an image to take home that night. The final step in the experience is for visitors to step inside the camera obscura and trip the shutter for the next group coming through.

To be successful in the darkroom you need to have a process; regardless of your particular way of doing things operating in a systematic way provides a framework within which growth occurs. At its core, the image-making process is one of discovery through the synthesis of its raw elements: time, light, and space. These three things become intertwined into a wholly new form through the photographic process.

This project also emphasizes connection, because the connection with other people is part of what drives my image-making. When I work with models, actors, dancers or anyone having their portrait made I have to find a point of relationship with my subject. I want this project to give visitors an opportunity to connect with other humans in a physical setting by throwing them together into the process of image-making.

Which brings me to the final tenet of this project, to emphasize a physicality in the process. I want visitors to experience the creation of an image in a physical form, the actual changing of light into silver solids on a piece of paper that can be held in the hand. Through the process, visitors realize the completed transformation of intangible realities (light, space, and time) into a physical photographic object.

The photo gear that I’m using for this project is surprisingly simple and old fashioned. I think the newest piece of photo-specific equipment I am using is a pair of Balcar strobe packs from the late 1990’s.

The starting point for all of this is the paper, we are using a standard grade 3 paper from Freestyle Photographic Supplies here in Los Angeles. I’ve made test images on grade 3 and 4 paper stocks and I’m shocked at how much detail and tonal range you can get out of a piece of standard photo paper.

In essence, the camera itself is going to be a lens mounted into the wall of the darkroom, creating a camera obscura. The lens we are using is a Schneider 240mm f/5.6 large format lens that just covers an 8×10 image area, it will be reverse mounted in a Copal shutter that will be placed on the inside of the camera room. Our paper will be mounted to an upright that can be moved forward and back in order to pull focus, rather than moving the lens.

Those elements, the shutter, lens, and a big darkroom, are really the bulk of what makes up this as a camera. Since standard grade 3 paper has a nominal ISO of about 8, and since we are working in a studio, of sorts, we are adding in extra light in the form of two Balcar 2400 watt-second strobe packs and heads. These will be fired by Pocket Wizards from inside the camera obscura.

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The final pieces of equipment that we are using are mostly just your typical 8×10 darkroom trays, standard chemistry – in this case, I’m using the Freestyle Arista brand developer and rapid fixer.

The only other ‘special’ piece of equipment is a light-tight 8×10 contact printing box that I designed and then constructed out of ABS plastic. It allows us to place a wet paper negatives on top of a fresh piece of wet paper, squeegee out the water between the two, and then expose the positive inside a box that is light-tight. Since we are working in a large darkroom space I wanted to make sure we are avoiding as much stray light as possible, and having consistency with exposure of the positive is definitely something that can be tricky with this process.

I had been inspired by my visit to the camera obscura at the Griffith Observatory and was increasingly interested in making larger and larger negatives. In addition, I am deeply impressed and inspired by the work of UK artist Brendan Berry, who has been using paper negatives and room-sized cameras as a teaching tool for a number of years.

The final element of inspiration that pushed me into creating this project was my experience working with wet plate photography while living in Portland, Oregon. The ability to make a one of a kind image and show the whole process to a person having their photo taken was amazing. I wanted to be able to create a similar experience but on a larger scale here.

All in all this whole project has been an amazing dream come true. I am lucky enough to have some incredible artists helping me see this project come to light, they all approach it with a deep professionalism that I have the utmost respect for. If I had to identify roadblocks, I’d say the biggest hurdle that I’m running into is the budget to build out the space. Although it’s not extremely complicated, we are trying to have four or five small groups of visitors moving through the darkroom space at once. That means that we need to create a very large dark room space, which means quite a bit of assembly, construction, and lumber. Thankfully people are donating time, and I’m able to borrow some elements to help reduce costs.

The other two hurdles I’ve been working around are finding enough volunteers, and writing the script. The volunteer stewards I have lined up are incredible and the script element is something that I hadn’t anticipated. Still, in order for this project to be a full experience, I’m giving our stewards talking points to help illuminate elements of the process. It’s fun but sometimes feels like I’m re-writing the 1970’s Time-Life photography books.

There’s more information on the website and Facebook page. Looking forward to seeing you there!

~ Johnathan

PS. The images in this article were created during workshops in May and June of 2019, and are paper negatives with contact print positives. The original images are 4×5 inches in size, and although they are small they capture an immense amount of detail.

Notable aspects of these images​: Photographic paper has quite a different response to the color than the human can see. When using standard photographic paper to capture images, it does not respond to the color red. Because of the reds in skin tones and anything else that is primarily red, red will read as black on the final positive image. Conversely, paper is overly sensitive to blue light and as such blues in the final positive image read as white.

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About the author

Jonathan Potter - Test Shoot

Jonathan Potter

Jonathan Potter is a photographer based in Los Angeles, California who specializes in performance and process documentation for theater and dance. His artistic practice focuses on the tactility of the image making process and explores ideas around the physical...

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