Last Updated on 05/07/2013 by Chris Gampat
I had previously pored over the images and sketches from David Lo after initially hearing about him on Japan Camera Hunter. Lo is a street photographer and engineer in NYC who often documents the happenings of Chinatown in a gritty and true to life form synonymous with something Daido Moriyama might capture in his earliest days–all while maintaining an allure that no one can quite put their finger on. I went to David’s apartment to look at the work in real life–for David has sketch after sketch of camera designs, but the catch is that many of them can actually become functional and working models.
Phoblographer: You’re a street photographer with an engineering background–how did you catch the photo bug?
David: Firstly, thank you for the opportunity to be on your site. I was the only one who used the camera in my immediate family, although my grandfather and uncle and aunt were in the business and into cameras. In recent years, a friend of mine told me my Polaroids looked like Moriyama photos. I knew nothing about him and began to google him and everything he did seemed to me was the way it should be done. He is immensely talented as a writer too. Studying his work, his writings and shooting 30,000 exposures was my one and only learning curve.
Phoblographer: What was the first camera that you took apart and had a look at what was under the hood? Why did you decide to do it?
David: I bought a number of vintage cameras in the 1990’s, things that were too beautiful to pass up and in exquisite condition. I’ve digitized almost all of them. The first camera I tried modifying was a beat up old Contessa, though its bellows was intact. I just thought the idea that these things could be used on the street was too enticing, and when I found the results were more than passable, I was hooked. I do post-process my shots though. The Micro 4/3rd camera’s software already is processing the image so in my opinion it’s just a matter of degree of processing. The thin quality of the digital negs from a vintage camera also is something I could not easily replicate on a modern camera. Kind of like a very vintage Diana.
Phoblographer: Why did you get into designing cameras?
David: After I had worked on 5 cameras it seemed there were less and less viable candidates which could be digitized or were unavailable or prohibitively expensive (most of my cameras cost under $25, including shipping). When my twins were born a few months ago, I couldn’t shoot street in any meaningful way anymore, so I began to draw what I could not modify in the very early morning hours. There are some cameras just too beautiful to behold and their look at once brings back an era, like the Linhof Technika or the humble Canomatic M70.
To me, if you can’t have it, you can at least have the vicarious pleasure of drawing one and possess a replica. I believe Daido Moriyama or Sherrie Levine might agree with that surreal idea. In regards to my process, I have been a student of Joseph Cornell’s work for twenty years now and from his work I have adapted the idea of doing homages to historical figures as art. When I studied the work of architects like John Hedjuk and John Diebboll it seemed rather clear that a camera seen as a building opened up great possibilities while keeping a mindful eye on the history of photography itself. Couple all that with the rigorous biographical process of the historian Richard Holmes and there you have the basis and aspiration of my designs. That was a large spoonful of art history.
But getting down to basics, the camera is a very restrictive thing. It’s basically a lens, an interior space for projection and focus, and a shutter. This makes for a really great premise upon which to build ideas and to think deeply upon, like the canvas and ground in a painting. After all, anyone would enjoy a camera custom made for them. And since ideas are things, a camera design without construction is nevertheless already out in the world, clicking away in the minds of people who are drawn to my work.
Phoblographer: Have you ever thought about shopping the designs out to companies or getting a Kickstarter going to begin the manufacturing of cameras for a niche audience?
David: Sort of, after I made some innovations on parts of cameras but i think they were more about theory than about gadgetry. I thought it wise to copyright the drawings and contents. I’m in the process of trying to put together a book. I have at least 53 more ideas in my notebooks waiting to go onto the drawing board, literally. As Moriyama has said, you can’t get quality without quantity. I really need a publisher/curator more than anyone else at this stage, in my opinion. Kickstarter, wow that’s a cool idea, please advise me. Maybe I should also be making physical prototypes as art.
Phoblographer: You’ve had a number of photos on Flickr Explored and most of them are right in Chinatown. Do you ever feel that the inspiration for shooting in the same place over and over again goes dry?
David: To be honest, yes. Although some artists like Joseph Cornell were armchair travelers who never left home but lived in fantasy in a far off country. For him, his backyard in Queens was France and not leaving New York was a stimulus so he could make art; if he flew to France, the mystique might have been ruined. For me, I don’t really look at the buildings anymore in my town, I look at the people (who are all holding cellphones) and particularly at the light as it plays upon the buildings and streets. It’s not so much for proper exposure as it is for moments of déjà vu or presque-vu that present themselves, when I’m feeling transported. At those moments, the inspiration is abundant and strong and to capture this on film is indeed a valuable act. By the way, I’ve found that my Polaroid Swinger Model 20 is particularly suited to get this type of photograph although I can’t accurately explain why. Incidentally, digitizing this camera was a Herculean task, I’m so glad to have done it though.
But getting down to basics, the camera is a very restrictive thing. It’s basically a lens, an interior space for projection and focus, and a shutter.
Phoblographer: If you had to choose one camera that you’d want to create the most, which one would it be and why?
David: The most difficult question in this interview! Probably the James Bond attaché case and camera (“From Russia with Love”) because that attache was iconic in the history of gadgetry and I was able to transform it from a deadly weaponry case to a peaceful “James Bond as a street photographer” concept. Some other vices of life though, like cigars and martinis, are part of this design; and I get to work on the vintage Hasselblad SWC. It’s dedicated to Sir Roger Moore who did not star in the movie. He is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for the rights of children.
This caught my interest, and I sought to bring back and amalgamate the lure of the Bond mystique in the ultimate camera bag. I’d love to be able to show him the case, just like Q does, and point out the camera features along with a hint or two on how to shoot street with it.
Phoblographer: Lots of your drawings are done by hand on paper–and they’re kind of reminiscent of a photographer’s notebook or DaVinci’s in some ways. Most people do this type of stuff these days on an iPad. What about the analog world appeals to you so much?
David: Firstly, thank you I’m truly gratified that you mentioned DaVinci. I had looked through his automaton drawings when I was starting out my work and it gave me some moral courage that perhaps my notes could be seen one day as art.
I like freehand architectural sketches very much. There’s something tangible here that just does not exist yet on any computerized CAD drawing for instance. What I am doing is mapping out an experience for the viewer. The act of drawing slowly with a very thick, soft 25mm sketch pencil in order to find a solution to a problem is a lovely part of this process. When one goes to an architect’s presentation as a client and he or she does a rendering to illustrate a feature of the design or makes a thumbnail sketch of the original idea which inspired a design, that is a very hypnotic experience. An ideal architectural sketch can articulate the seen and reveal the unseen in a structure. That is one of my main goals in my drawings. Just like a building, a final sketch gives the structure in 3-D but the sectional drawings let the viewer emotionally experience the various parts and features of the structure. I think a fantasy camera design on paper is very similar. Even if it’s done badly and is not complete, it still leaves a powerful impression. To me the intrinsic value of doing all this on paper by hand allows the viewer to explore the theme and concepts of a design with me. As such, they are analytical sketches; which give the viewer more of a role. I also wish to mention that before I make a complete sketch, I write an essay. For me the ideas start out and get all the kinks worked out in the act of writing which outlines the experience, then the drawing is done as a kind of map, with many little side journeys.
Phoblographer: Not only are you a camera designer, but you’ve also got a fashionable side. Tell us about the Daido Moriyama camera bag.
David: Japan Camera Hunter has a wonderful “In your Bag” series. I thought it was a great creative outlet as people love to empty out their “kits” and arrange the contents for a photograph. For us viewers, it may be a voyeuristic experience looking at these. For the photographer, having ten Leica rangefinders may be considered a kind of fetishism also, which is cool. Anyway, I thought the series provided a fantastic structure to design upon. I have at least three more bag ideas so far, Moriyama is my inspiration for all these, you could wear them in Harajuku and be the next big trend.
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