If you want to stop traffic in Jackson Square in New Orleans, just set up a 1930s Graflex Speed Graphic and start making photographs. That’s Elisa Mason’s advice, anyway.
Originally from Mississippi, Elisa is one of the many artists who now calls the Crescent City home. But her photographic tools set her apart. She doesn’t use fancy Nikons or Canons to make her artwork. Instead, she uses antique film cameras, Altoid tins and Pabst beer cans.
She repeated some advice she once heard: “You can shoot something everybody else has shot, but you’ve got to find a new way to do it if you want people to look at it.” And sure enough, New Orleans has been shot millions of times. Her new way of doing it, in fact, delves back into the history of photography. Even when she’s not using one of her many antique cameras, she makes lensless, pinhole cameras out of household items.
A pinhole camera can be made of any hollow, enclosed object. A strip of film or light sensitive paper is placed inside of the chosen object without being exposed to light. The only source of light is an incredibly tiny hole – literally a pinhole – opposite the film that is created with the very tip of a pin needle.
After Elisa has loaded her empty PBR can with a sheet of 4×5 film, she “shoots” by positioning it so that the pinhole (covered by a strip of black tape) points in the direction of what she wants to photograph. Then, she pulls the tape back long enough to expose the film and create an image. After 30 seconds or perhaps a minute and a half of exposure, she covers the pinhole back up. Finally, she goes home and develops the film in her homemade coffee-based developer and scans the image.
But pinhole images aren’t sharp. They take a lot of work, and they are wildly unpredictable.
So why shoot pinhole?
“The pinhole gives you effects, the atmospheric things,” Mason said. “When you do a pinhole shot and you do it well, the sky moves. It gives a feeling that nothing else quite does. And film is totally unpredictable. I have done pinhole shots and gotten rays of light where I didn’t think there could be. I have been in cemeteries and captured little orbs that weren’t even supposed to be there.
“Film has a way of capturing an essence of something that digital doesn’t do. Digital is very, very literal. With film, you’re going to get those little nuances, those changes, those glimmers, those little orbs. You’re going to get things that, to me, make it interesting. I don’t want to be that picture-perfect person. I want to be the person who gets the happy mistakes.”
After shooting with Elisa for a day, I get it. She took me to the St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery in the 9th Ward, where she taught me how to shoot my first pinhole photos. The first one, I shot with one of her Altoid tins.
The second one, I shot with one of her PBR cans.
As a photographer who has shot thousand of photos and spent untold dollars on the latest equipment and sharpest lenses, I have to admit that there was something special about seeing the results of those pinhole photos come to life. There was something beautiful and ghostly about the way the pinhole cameras rendered those tombs.
Elisa said she loves the pinhole medium’s impressionist nature. It makes sense; her art heroes are all impressionists and post-impressionists – artists like Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse and Cezanne.
“You photograph like a painter,” a boyfriend once told her. And it’s true.
In fact, she’s never taken a photojournalism class. Instead, she shoots for beauty.
But her lack of training proved a challenge when she began teaching a photo art class at Clovis High School in New Mexico in 2008. She was unexpectedly given a darkroom to teach in.
“Well, they told me, ‘Oh, and here’s your darkroom.’ I had never been in a darkroom in my life,” she said. She immediately enrolled in a darkroom class at the local community college to learn. Three weeks later, she was excelling at darkroom work.
Her students back at the high school, meanwhile, were given a special assignment: they were to form a “paparazzi unit” in which they were assigned administrators to prey upon for environmental portraits. “Get them in their best light,” she told her students.
The outcome was overwhelmingly positive.
“They made Manuel Molina – the dorkiest little Mexican administrator – look like a movie star,” Elisa said. “One of my girls – God rest her soul, she was killed in a car accident a few weeks later – she got him with his little sunglasses and his little hat leaning against a way. She made him look like James Bond. And she got this dorky, squeaky voiced security guard guy, with his little Segway, sitting over there looking like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.”
Her art students weren’t popular, she said; they were the outcast kids. And for outcasts, administrators are adversaries. But her assignment formed unexpected bonds.
“The next thing you know, Molina and the kids that thought he was the biggest asshole in the world were sitting there having lunch together because he saw them portray him in his best light,” she said. “And it became a fun interaction with somebody they would’ve never interacted with before.”
After the Christmas break, she returned to a surprise.
“I was sitting in the faculty meeting – and I’m not going to cry about this – I went back after Christmas, and they told me that their National Making a Difference Award was going to me, because I had made a difference with kids and, in my first semester teaching there, had really made an impact,” she said.
While Elisa no longer teaches high school students, her craft still has the power to draw joy out of total strangers.
“Sometimes, I’ll be shooting with my 1939 Kodak Vigilant 620 at St. Louis Cemetery No. 3,” she said. “And I’ll have elderly tourists come up to me and say, ‘I know what that is! That’s what my mother had! That’s what she took pictures of us with when we were kids.’ And then little kids will come up to me and say, ‘What is that?'”