Todd Schlemmer

Hi Pinholista, please introduce yourself.

My name is Todd Schlemmer, but, online, I typically truncate all those consonants to “(the) Schlem”. I live in Seattle, Washington, in the upper left corner of the USA. I’ve been making photographs since I was a kid.

Tell us a little about the type of pinhole photography you enjoy.

I make pinhole photographs with film, usually with cameras I have designed, 3D printed, and assembled.  I go back and forth between color and black and white, but I’m presently infatuated with the depth and dimension of luscious color slide films. I shoot almost exclusively medium format 120, for the large frames and because it can so easily be used in so many different ways.  I have 4X5 (5X4 for the UK crowd) cameras, but lately, I use them with 120 film backs.

The craft of pinhole photography – making a camera, understanding and handling film, metering exposures – these are, for me, as important as the resulting photographs.  My pinhole photography has evolved over the years, from proof-of-concept, to technical proficiency, and hopefully into a vocabulary for visual narrative. Admin’s note, we’ll let others decide but I have always been a fan of Todd’s pinholes, they are generally wonderful and the Schlem is generally too modest.

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Do you ever shoot anything a little more unusual?

One of the benefits of making your own cameras is that you are not constrained by existing tools.  Although I make most of my cameras primarily for me, I freely share all the designs, and there’s a small intercontinental tribe of people using my cameras. Some of my favorite designs are the result of suggestions by friends or special requests.  

I have designed a few cameras in the last year that I really enjoy shooting.  One is the “Two-headed Turtle” or 2HT, a stereo pinhole camera in 6X6 format. I love the immersive experience of viewing the stereo photos I make with the 2HT.  They’re hard to share, however, requiring either free-viewing skill or anaglyphic (red/blue) glasses.  

Another recent favorite is a 4X5 with extreme short aperture-film (“focal length”) spacing. I designed the P5 MUTO around 4X5 120 film backs, as shooting this camera with sheet film would simply waste the periphery, due to severe vignetting.  The pinhole on the MUTO is also in a plate that rotates in 60 degree increments to allow for asymmetrical perspectives.  The very low oblique angle of incidence through the pinhole at the margins can make for violent color shifts and diffraction effects. It’s a fun camera to shoot, and the distortions continue to delight me.

The terraPin Kaiju is a 6X18 that shoots a concentric wide angle panorama. The negatives / slides are so big that I had to 3D print a special film holder for my scanner. As wonderful as the photos are, the inconvenience of scanning disincents me from using it until I have scanned the previous rolls. Admin’s note, nobody likes scanning…scanning sucks balls so praise all that is good for wonderful labs (with a little shout out here to Canadian Film Lab).

I have tried shooting instant with Fuji Instax, but my success rate is discouraging. I have made anamorphic cameras from tins for friends, but I really want to make an anamorphic that uses roll film. I haven’t made a blender yet, and other projects include a 135 camera, and solargraphic cameras – including an analema project suggested by Jesús Joglar.

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Do you use off the shelf cameras, home-made or a mix?

I tend to shoot my own cameras almost exclusively, but I have a Zero Image 2000, and the new Mark II Ondu 135 pano. Whenever I design a new camera and release the source files into the wild, I want to demonstrate that they work as advertised.  However, I am moving away from banal demonstration exposures to more thoughtful work, even with new untested cameras. Admin’s note, this is a good thing, I tend to shoot really tedious exposures for my first roll and I am trying to move away from that. 

Though I love the cult and fetishism of precious wooden boxes, I also appreciate the simplicity and flexibility of cardboard and gaffer tape cameras. 3D printed cameras fall somewhere in the middle, I think. There are so many beautiful pinhole cameras out there, but I think everyone should build at least one. I also have a laser cut plywood camera kit that I haven’t assembled and a plastic Japanese stereo pinhole camera.  

I should mention that I make all my own pinholes.  You can find precisely laser-drilled apertures on the Internet, but they’re spendy.  Making a pinhole is easy, cheap, and, surprisingly, not the most critical part in making a pinhole camera.  Good enough is definitely good enough. The pinhole can always be changed, too if you don’t like how it works.

(Ed: ALWAYS love to talk about the cameras. Haven’t shared much about the design and build process…)

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What’s your favourite camera to use and why?

This is a difficult question.  The terraPin Prime is the culmination of all I have learned about making cameras, it’s small, and I really like the simplicity of the design – especially the shutter. It’s a minimalist camera, has few parts, fewer bits of hardware and shoots a classic wide angle pinhole 6X6 frame. The tripod mounting threads are also 3D printed! I modeled it to be easy to print and assemble, but It’s become my go-to compact shooter lately. Right now, It’s much closer to cardboard and gaffer tape than fine woodworking.  I want to refine it to be completely hardware-free (except the pinhole, obviously), using sliding joinery to open, close, and lock the camera.

How long have you shot pinhole?

I started this adventure seven summers ago with the construction of my first pinhole camera, a huge wooden box constructed out of basswood and doorskins…and all the brass gewgaws I could find at the hardware store.  I made so many mistakes in building that camera, and trying to run 120 film through it… I had light leaks, and fat rolls, and indexing problems. If it had worked perfectly I would have probably stopped right then, but it didn’t.  So, I built a few more cameras, and got incrementally better results.

When I built my first 3D printer a few years ago, I wondered if I could design and 3D print a camera. Again, so many mistakes, but they worked and the technology allowed me to iterate improvements in hours, rather than in the week it might take with carpentry.  As I solved some of the technical and film-related problems, and refined my process, I started making more artistic photographs.

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Why did you start shooting pinhole and why?

I’ve always enjoyed learning how to make and do things.  Projects have always been a part of my life. Pinhole sprang from my life-long interest in photography, as a slightly obsessive personal challenge to build such a device and make real photographs in the process.  More importantly, I kept shooting pinhole because it wasn’t easy. Technical and artistic challenges keep me interested and the wonderful community of pinhole photographers keep me inspired with their genius, creativity, talent and fellowship. Admin’s note…and there’s the thing isn’t it? The pinhole community is incredible, I love it and I love my part in it. I guess if you’re reading this you are part of it but if not, get in touch and we can make plans.

You’ve given us a few images to share, tell us about them.

The thuggish man standing with a firearm is a self portrait I made for the “Slowing the Selfie” show. The gun has a laser sight and I flashed the laser across the pinhole for a fraction of a second. You can discern actual quantum effects in the interferences of the diffracted laser light. I used a terraPin 6X9 f/178 camera with a remote servo-operated shutter.

The red man was shot on Lomography red scale film in Tacoma, Washington, in front of an historic train station. This was my first time using red scale, and shot during a SCOPES (see below) pinhole meetup. This was shot with the terraPin Prime f/135

There’s a bit of a slide show from my recent trip to Barcelona for Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day. The Gothic interior was shot with the MUTO super wide pinhole camera on Kodak Ektar. Even though the pinhole is only an inch from the film, I use a relatively slow f/165 to mitigate the exposure across several stops of falloff to the edges.  Continuing the theme of holy architecture by the MUTO, there is a black and white exterior of the Cathedral of Barcelona on Ilford Panf+, shot on WPPD. The shot of the atrium outside the basilica of Montserrat was made in the middle of a huge crowd of tourists/pilgrims; Ektar.

The bullring is in Valencia, Spain. It’s a classic brick bullfighting arena and I just discovered that Nirvana made their Spanish debut there in 1992. In true punk rock style, I was kicked out by security the night before for sneaking in without permission. What can I say? The light was amazing; I had to get some pinhole.  terraPin Prime, Velvia 50.

The plaza with the postcards and mailbox was shot with the Prime, outside the Catedral de Granada. Photos like this are the reason I love Velvia 50.

The queue in front of the United airliner was also made with Velvia 50 in the Prime. This was during a recent SCOPES meetup.  

Lastly, I have included two versions of a stereo pair made with the terraPin Two-Headed Turtle.  This was also made on WPPD, and might be my favorite shot of Barcelona. The building is the Palau de la Música Catalana, and the Catalonian flag is draped over the balustrade, flying in the breeze. The anaglyph requires red/blue 3D glasses, but the side by side pair can be viewed by crossing your eyes until a middle image converges in 3D. It takes practice, but it not difficult.

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Do you shoot individual images or do you work within themes or on projects?

I greatly enjoy shooting pinhole while traveling. The process of making a pinhole photograph on a valuable frame of film involves a significant investment in setup, composition, exposure, and timing. It dilates time and burns the moment into your memory. Even if you get a crap photo, you get an indelible recollection of an experience somewhere else.  So, trips, local and distant, become projects.  They invariably include a lot of landmarks and architecture, but I am trying to do more portraiture and “street pinhole”.  That’s a whole new challenge, when long exposures make moving people invisible.

I organize a regular pinhole photo meetup every month and we endeavor to visit interesting places in the greater Seattle area. It’s 50% social, with food and drink featuring prominently in the planning, but it’s a great environment for encouragement and cross-pollination from other pinhole people.  Watching how my friends find compelling subject matter in ordinary places, and how they use their skills and tools to make art never fails to impress me.

There are also themes that seem to be emerging as I shoot pinhole, notably giraffes, and reflection shots.  I am not a religious person, but I seem to be attracted to churches and cathedrals.  

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Have you ever exhibited your work?

I have participated in the Seattle Maker Faires for the last few years. I share my pinhole cameras and some of the photographs I have made with them. I have had a tent outside, and there’s always a problem with wind. Last year I lost a couple framed prints in the gusts, so this year I want to be inside. It’s at the Experience Music Project, and it’s huge fun.

I had a show on display at a local business, last year.  It was in an art-walk neighborhood in Seattle, and they have one big night where everyone opens their shop and thousands of people see your work. I was hoarse after talking about pinhole and 3D printing for five hours.

I was recently invited to be in a show with some very talented Northwest pinhole photographers, called “Slowing the Selfie”. We all shot a number of self portraits and three each were chosen for display. Having a specific assignment inspired more creativity than I can remember in my photography. I am still trying to keep that inspiration going.

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Tell us about a great pinhole photographer.

Just one? I’m tempted to go back through the Pinholista archives so as not to duplicate any of the aforementioned brilliance. But I’m lazy, and I’m not going to do that.

Jeff McConnell (http://www.jeffmcconnell.net; twitter @howthingslook) has an amazing eye for composition and a superb talent for timing. I wish I could see like Jeff. He also makes cameras and experiments with them.  And the solargraphy!

Howard Arthur Moiser (Flickr: weehamx) is possibly the most prolific pinhole photographer in the world. He makes cameras and posts his pinhole photos EVERY DAY. I got to meet him in Barcelona and he is so congenial. He had this crazy green camera with a motorized shutter that used super fast film for hand-held pinhole. Admin’s note, this was a meeting of minds and no mistake. Two evil genii…it was a pleasure to see.

I could have mentioned a dozen other talented people that I know, and many I haven’t ever met, but I can honestly say that pinholistas are all wonderful people.

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Do you shoot other styles of photography?

I love all kinds of photography and cameras.  I think 135 can be underwhelming for pinhole, but there are millions of excellent 35mm cameras and lens out there, and they cost vastly less than comparable state-of-the-art digital rigs. Film cameras, like the bicycle, were refined and optimized years ago, in a competitive consumer market that rewarded innovation and efficiency. The legacy of film photography isn’t going to be erased by the convenience of digital. So I have a few SLRs and, increasingly, various rangefinders.

I recently replaced a broken Russian Leica clone with a newer version (late 1950’s) by FED.  I have a bunch of Russian lenses, and the cameras are a lot of fun to shoot. I used to shoot an old Leica III, and the FED 2 is so much a better camera in many ways. The shutter makes a delicious clockwork “CLAAAK” sound.

I have TLRs too, and they’re nice machines. I think a camera shouldn’t be an obstacle to your photography, and I find reversed viewfinders a little confusing.  But shooting medium format film with vintage gear and getting huge juicy photos is satisfying.

I am not ashamed to admit that the camera on my phone factors prominently in my purchase decision. When I first heard of a “Camera Phone”, I thought, what a stupid idea. I can’t imagine not having one in my pocket now. I make and share photos with my phone (Droid Turbo) every day. My photos are somewhat meta, in that they are often pictures of my pinhole camera projects.

Two years ago, I wrote an article for MAKE: magazine on how to 3D print, assemble, and shoot the P6*6, one of my first 3D printed cameras. They paid me for the article, and, ironically, I used the money to buy a Fujifilm X-E2 mirrorless camera. It’s an amazing piece of gear, but it’s already considered obsolete. I recently bought an adapter to use my decades-old Russian lenses with the Fuji. That prospect makes me giddy.

Assuming you do shoot other styles, do you prefer pinhole and if so, why?

Pinhole is, for me, by far, the most rewarding photography I’ve done.  Creating a camera and then making photographs on film with it is a tremendously rewarding experience. Someone at the art-walk called it Farm-To-Table photography. I haven’t yet run out of ideas to improve my cameras and the photos they produce.

Pinhole has also made my other photography better in every way. I was shooting the Russian rangefinder the other day in a dark interior. I used some pinhole-fu, stopped the camera down to f/22 and used bulb mode for a thirty-second shutter speed. I probably should have added some time for reciprocity failure. The picture might turn out to be shit, but pinhole has given me some skills. And I’ve met an amazing group of people from around the world through pinhole.  

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Finally, where can people see your work, do you have a website?

I archive ALL my film photos, the good, the bad, and the ugly, on Flickr. For my pinhole, it’s a kind of full disclosure. I want people to use my cameras, and I want my results to accurately represent what the cameras can do.  As I approach 10K photographs, I might rethink the posting of crap shots. But I shoot for me, and I value the memory of every photo I make.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/theschlem/albums

I share all of my camera designs on Thingiverse. They’re free to download, print, and modify, but licensed for non-commercial purposes. 3D printers may never become the ubiquitous household appliance that evangelists imagine, but more and more people (and institutions, like schools) have them, and you can probably find one in your community.  

http://www.thingiverse.com/schlem/collections/schlaboratory-photo

MAKE: magazine put me on a list of 100 Makers to Follow on Twitter. This, more than anything, really catalyzed my early efforts to design a solid 3D printed pinhole camera. I use Twitter primarily to share things I am making and connect with the pinhole / photo / tech communities.

@theschlem

I have an Instagram feed, which is duplicated on Twitter, but you don’t have to click a link to see the photo. Anything is fair game, but pinhole and film predominate.

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If you shoot pinhole (or would like to), and you live in the Seattle area, check out the Seattle Camera Obscura Photography Enthusiasts Society. Or just become an honorary member and keep tabs on the mayhem from afar:

http://www.meetup.com/scopes/

Thanks a lot for taking the time to share your work with pinholista.com.

Absolutely my pleasure. Thank you.

Admin’s note, huge thanks to the Schlem for sharing his work and his thoughts. I need to remind you, dear reader, that all images are the copyright of the Schlem and must not be used without prior permission. Remember Todd can 3D print anything, probably from a distance and could probably disassemble stuff too. 

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