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The man reviving the century-old art of street box camera photography

The man reviving the century-old art of street box camera photography

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  • Can you believe photographer Jovel Lorenzo took these black-and-white photos in the last two years with a camera he built himself?

One Sunday in Escolta’s creative space Hub: Make Lab, we met full-time professional photographer Jovel Lorenzo of Box Camera Ph. He’s been in the photography business for 20 years now, initially as a photographer for magazines using a 35mm film single-lens reflex (SLR) Nikon FM2 and a medium format cam. 

“I eventually switched to digital,” he told Nolisoli.ph over email, “but I’ve always tried to go back to analog photography in my professional career.”

And go back he did. That weekend, he brought something different. Something that dates back decades.

[READ: Why analog is here to stay]

Instead of snapping photos with a sleek compact camera, he asks his subjects to pose before a wooden contraption propped up by a tripod. The device was a street box camera he fashioned from parts scoured from the internet and built himself over the course of the quarantine in 2020.

Lorenzo with another street box camera that he also created.

A street box camera, minutera camera, lambe-lambe, or an Afghan box was first used by traveling photographers in Latin America who would mount makeshift studios in locations without one. Soon, it was popularized in tourist spots in Europe because it was able to develop black-and-white pictures within minutes as it is both a camera and a darkroom.

More than just the novelty of analog photography, Lorenzo’s photos capture something else: a rawness amplified by the black-and-white format, something even a smartphone with advanced lenses can’t recreate. His photographs, 5”x7” print, seem like they were taken a century ago, projecting a mysterious aura that’s out of these contemporary times.

A photograph from his “Island Quarantine” series

“The look of the photograph is very different,” he said. “It has more texture, more depth, so you feel like you’re looking at something soulful.”

The process in itself is just as fascinating. While waiting for the final photo to develop, he shows you a glimpse of what it would look like by viewing the negative through a phone camera whose display colors have been inverted. 

There was a point in my life when I got bored doing photography using my digital camera, it became just that—a job.

Initially, Lorenzo and his street box camera used to only accommodate private sittings at his wife’s shop in Pasig and then at Photokitchen Studio in Kamuning, Quezon City. A two-hour session for one person or a couple starts at P4,500, inclusive of the black-and-white print.

It wasn’t until last month that his craft was made more accessible to the greater public through a series of pop-ups. The first one was at a photographers’ film meetup in Quezon City, then at a Father’s Day event at a mall in Makati, and more recently at HUB: Make Lab’s Pista ng Pamana.

In this interview, we talk to Lorenzo about the novelty of analog, his passion for photography, and how to make subjects comfortable in front of the camera.

When did you start using a street box camera? 

I started playing with the idea of creating a street box camera in 2020 during the pandemic after watching several YouTube videos about it. I was able to build one and it took more than a month (from design to build). By November 2020, I had a fully functioning camera. 

How does a street box camera work?

A street box camera operates as both a camera and a darkroom in one. What’s unique about it is that it doesn’t use film and instead, uses chemical-based photo paper to produce both negatives and positives.

Ideally, a street box camera develops pictures on the spot and I do that during special private sessions. I basically take another photo of the produced negative via a special arm which I also created. 

But for sitter sessions, where I take several portraits, I would develop the photographs via my dark room. This helps me save on photo paper since I have fewer mistakes and I end up with pictures with outcomes I can control better.

How does a portrait session usually go?

[At popups] a sitter session takes about 15 minutes (P1,500). Usually, I ask if they have a pose in mind and we can start from that. I also ask what their interests are and we sometimes get an idea from there. Subjects hold their pose for several seconds as I prepare the camera. They hold about 1-2 seconds for me but on instances where light is dim, they stay still longer. The longest was 18 seconds but that was a rare case.

Glorious DiasJodinand Aguillon photographed in Escolta. “I didn’t bring my lights that time, just the box and it was a bit dim inside the Hub so had to adjust his pose to make sure he was comfortable for 18 seconds. I usually ask them talaga not to move,” Lorenzo remembered of the shoot.

Can you recall your most memorable subject/shoot? 

All my shoots are memorable because the process of doing it is really complex. But if I really have to choose it would be those I took as part of my art sessions. The first [was] a 14-day portrait I started during the early months of the box camera. 

The series was called the “Island Quarantine Series” where I tried to capture island life and personalities for each day of my two-week mandatory quarantine when I visited my island hometown of Tingloy in Batangas. 

From Lorenzo’s “Island Quarantine” series

I also have three images that captured typical provincial life using another box camera I created. This one produced 11”x11” images and I had to create a separate box as a dark room. I had to lug both anywhere I [went] but it was worth it when I got to produce the three images.

Why do you think people are drawn to analog stuff lately? 

The challenge and novelty of doing analog are beautiful and something that people appreciate. The excitement of not knowing what’s going to come out, of doing your best because you only have a few frames to work on is enticing. During this pandemic, in particular, people had a lot of time on their hands, so they had the chance to go back to something that took time to produce.

Lorenzo’s street box camera fashioned from parts scoured from the internet and built himself over the course of the quarantine in 2020.

What’s the best part of what you do?

The best part for me is going back to what I really love doing. There was a point in my life when I got bored doing photography using my digital camera, it became just that—a job. When I got to do photography with the box, I was so happy that I got to apply what I knew before. Suddenly it was exciting again. It [means] that I won’t stop learning and it’s such a beautiful and unique medium that I am eager to share with younger photographers. 

Nolisoli.ph © 2020. Hinge Inquirer Publications, Inc.

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