By Harry van Versendaal
Photo-sharing app Instagram last week announced it had reached the 100 million-user milestone. Jennifer Trausch is one of them. But the Berlin-based artist much prefers to make her instant photographs using a refrigerator-sized vintage Polaroid camera.
Trausch, 36, can normally be found operating one of the five such machines, built in the late 1970s by the former US tech giant, at her studio in Berlin, where she moved this January after spending a year in Paris.
Before moving to Europe, the Ohio-born artist lectured and made photographs at the 20x24 Polaroid studio in Manhattan, where she was director of photography for about eight years. In a daring project that spanned from 2006 to 2011, Trausch, a Cleveland Institute of Art graduate, took the vintage camera out of the comfort zone of the protected studio environment and onto the rural roads of the American South to shoot poster-size, black-and-white pictures of fairs, auctions, bars and rodeos – a project that gave birth to her well-received “Touching Ground” exhibition.
From Germany, Trausch is currently trying to spread the love for instant photography, putting much of her time and energy into Impossible Works, a Berlin-based nonprofit supported by the Impossible Project, a company that manufactures new instant film for Polaroid 600 and SX-70 cameras. The mission of Impossible Works is to support artistic projects made with instant films.
Trausch was recently invited to Greece to participate in the jury of the 4th Cedefop Photomuseum Award – a 5,000-euro prize granted to photographers from all over the world by the EU's European Center for the Development of Vocational Training and the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography in the context of its PhotoBiennale.
During her stay in the northern port city, Trausch delivered two two-hour workshops at the museum on the basics of working with Impossible Project instant films with a variety of cameras and film types.
In an interview with Kathimerini English Edition, Trausch discussed her love for large-format photography and the particularities of her work in the digital era.
What drew you to large-format photography? What do you think is special about the 20x24?
I started out in photojournalism / documentary photography, so I really began my career shooting with small- and medium-format cameras. In 2001, I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to use the 20x24 Polaroid camera, and I have been working almost exclusively on large format ever since. I like how laborious shooting with big cameras is, how much attention you end up giving to each image.
Large cameras, especially the 20x24, also demand much more out of their subjects. The 20x24’s grandiosity makes people look into it in a different way, perhaps because it commands a certain kind of respect as a human-scale object. With the 20x24, there’s always a limited depth of field, and the way the world falls off behind the focal plane can be quite surreal, soft and graceful.
The 20x24 instant prints also have a material, painterly quality that is all their own; it is the sharp detail of a 20x24 negative in a contact-print, mixed with the softness of a print made by the diffusion transfer process.
How are you able to carry around and work with such a big and heavy machine that was meant for indoor use? Is it a hindrance?
The 20x24 Polaroid cameras – there are five original units built in the late 1970s – each weigh 105 kilos, so I had no choice but to find a way of working that was relatively easy. For my “Touching Ground” project, I chose B&W film since the film is fast enough that I could work in most conditions without extra lighting or equipment. I tried to simplify the shooting process so that it was just the camera, film, black cloths to keep the light out, and my assistant Kimberlee Venable and I.
I tend to not like when too much credence is given to the technical side of photography, as in what equipment or techniques were used for a certain effect, but I have to admit that in this case the camera had a huge influence over what we could and couldn’t do. Sometimes it held us back as the camera couldn’t always go where we wanted it to go (on a rooftop or on an oil rig) and other times it was exhausting to push it up muddy hills or to lift it over train tracks.
Taking the camera out and setting up always took a lot of effort, which added a certain pressure on each shoot to get things right.
This also meant that when I didn’t “get the shot” I hoped for, it felt much more devastating because of the extreme physical effort it took to set it up in the first place. Perhaps if I had had more hands to help we wouldn’t have felt this pressure and disappointment so much, but I really preferred to work without a giant crew so that the process with my subjects could be intimate.
What are your favorite themes? What kind of things do you like to photograph?
I am interested in the idea of place, the culture and traditions surrounding a particular place at a particular time, and whether I can take you there to feel it.
For me this is always a mix of portraits, landscapes and activities that are indicative of that place. Sometimes it is specific to one environment, such as my “Skateland” series, or in the case of “Touching Ground,” it’s about a much broader portrait of regional American culture.
I also am interested in the idea of sensations in photography – whether images can elicit the physical sensations of being there for the viewer standing in front of the final print. It is always my goal to make images where you could almost feel the heavy humidity on your skin, hear the leaves rustling, or taste a swamp’s scent wafting through the air.
Could you tell us a few things about the Impossible Works project?
Impossible Works is a nonprofit supported by the Impossible Project, the main manufacturer of instant films today. The mission of Impossible Works is to support artistic projects made with instant films. We accept proposals from anyone looking to use and challenge the instant medium.
How does it feel taking photographs with a huge, slow and hard-to-move analog camera in an age when people upload thousands of pictures a second on social media that it takes them all of a second to frame, and their friends all of another second to “like”?
The process of working at 20x24 definitely creates a different kind of image, in the attention that you and your subjects inherently end up giving during a shoot.
The final prints can be shared as you work, in all of their incredible scale and detail, which transforms the building of an image. While this can partly be equated to sharing digital files online or during a shoot, it’s pretty easy to lose the fine, subtle details of an image looking at it on a glowing screen or on the back of a digital camera.
I do share some of my images online in similar ways to many digital photographers, but only as a teaser, not as an end to themselves – I don’t think you can really experience the work until you’re in the room with the original full-size prints.
Do you own any smaller cameras, and, if so, do you like using them?
Yes, quite a few. I use them mostly when I am traveling, which these days is quite often. When I am traveling, I test a lot of Impossible Projects small-format materials on Polaroid SX-70, 680, and 110B cameras, mostly for sketching out ideas.
But in general I’ve gotten quite accustomed to working on a larger ground glass and seeing my images upside down. I think this is the way my brain is wired these days.