Photography as art in a digital age – The Mercury

Photography as art in a digital age – The Mercury

Remember Fotomat?

Somebody in a little box sat in the middle of the parking lot at West Goshen Shopping Center. They were alone because there wasn’t room for anybody else. You dropped off canisters of film from your car.

A couple of days later you revisited and picked up paper prints of your photographs. It was expensive and time-consuming.

Eastern State Penitentiary as photographed by Howard Sundwall/Courtesy photo

Thankfully, times have changed. With digital cameras, we now get instant gratification. In this virtual world, we can almost instantly send photos to Grandmom with Facebook, text, or email.

Does anybody remember postcards? Now our friends can even follow us along on a road trip, almost in real-time.

Right away, we can view our recently snapped photos through our cell phones, which we lug around much more often than most of us carry around a “real” camera.

Fotomat didn’t have a chance. It’s gone like buggy whips, legroom on airplanes and so many print editions of newspapers.

And, for better or worse, we regularly post photos of meals, babies, dogs and sunsets.

Now, I shoot photos with my cell for the paper. The quality is pretty good, but I miss out on the darkroom experience.

Call me a reactionary, but we are missing something. I loved to work in the darkroom developing film and prints. Like the ketchup ad, it was all about the anticipation.

I’d zap a 35 mm negative with a bright enlarger bulb, shooting an image onto a blank piece of photographic paper.

I still remember the divine smell of photographic chemicals — developer, stop, fix, hypo.

Place the print face up in developer under a red safe light and watch it gradually appear. Time-consuming, yes, but pure black-and-white magic.

We’d fool around with a pinhole camera. Thirty-second exposure times replaced 125th of a second. We created “positives” rather than negatives and everything that was black turned white and all that was white was black. Subjects became ghosts.

The pinhole camera was a Quaker Oats box with a small hole poked through a piece of taped-on tinfoil. Because the photographic paper was placed on a curved surface — inside the oatmeal box — everything was joyfully distorted and at weird angles.

Photography is fun!  So, it was nice to attend a meeting of the Chester County Camera Club, which regularly meets to exchange ideas, discuss techniques and share their enthusiasm for photography.

That night’s speaker was Svenne Juul, the club’s outings coordinator.

Juul showed us something that he refers to as “Storytelling through Living Stills.”

With a laptop and a screen, he used several still photos to tell a living, breathing story. It looked a little like a movie, but the photos were taken in rapid sequence with a still camera.

“You are telling a more complete story than with just a single image,” Juul said. “It looks like there is life in the still image.”

One sequence depicted athletes running a foot race. It’s an exciting technique and Juul seeks both a patent and the help of club members. Local photographers are going to be part of the process to improve this already way cool technique.

Then it got complicated. Most of the 30 or so people in the room started peppering Juul with questions. Had I missed something here? Together, these photographers were already intensely embracing this new process. Like a developing print, they were exposing the concept, improving on it, and learning from the inventor.

There was a buzz in the room as photographers were collaborating after learning about something they’d just heard about. Although technically, the conversation was way over my head, it was fun.

Past club president Howard Sundwall said that since retiring in 2013, he’s bought six expensive cameras. We talked about the changes.

He said that an advantage of digital versus film is the ability to post-process and use software to photoshop.

Sundwall told me that the brain has two hemispheres — the right, the creative side, and the left, the technical side.

“With photography today, both sides of the brain are actually active,” Sundwall told me. “One side is dedicated to making a beautiful artistic image, while the other side can be directed to technology that today’s cameras and software make available.”

Current club president Denise Molzahn enjoys sharing beauty with friends and family and practicing art through photography. She agreed with Sundwall and likes to improve and impact the image with digital software.

Virginia Apostolacus is the vice president and a former president of the 134-member club. She enjoys creating and photographing everything, with few distractions.

Since 1933, photographers have been gathering in Chester County. That year, 12 men calling themselves the West Chester Camera Club met in an old garage on Church Street, while another club met in an upstairs room of the Coatesville fire station. The two clubs held annual competitions until the Coatesville club disbanded during World War II.

An obituary notice from the Daily Local News in 1991 credited Herbert Jeeves, Bill Yetter, Len Zeidman and Hank Rosenberg with founding the Chester County Camera Club in 1982. Since then, the shutterbugs have met in banks, churches, restaurants and community buildings to share information and photographs, to develop their skills and enjoy each other’s company.

Betsy Wilson is a former club president.

“I love the way it makes me observe nature, people and life,” Wilson said about photography.

The club recently took field trips to Morris Arboretum, Philadelphia’s Chinatown, the Cowtown Rodeo, Hagley Museum, Valley Forge, Reading Terminal Market and the Keurner Farm, which inspired The Wyeth Family.

“It is a wonderful place to photograph and step back in time,” Wilson said about the Keurner Farm.

Wilson talked about the ability to snap photos locally.

“We don’t need to travel to get good photographs,” she said, “So many want to travel to Ireland, which is great, but you can observe beauty in your backyard and ordinary subjects like Andrew Wyeth did.”

Member Carol DeGuiseppi likes photography because she can capture the moment.

“I like to remember things and I like to share what I love,” she said. “I like to create art with my photographs.

DeGuiseppi is a volunteer at Longwood Gardens and said that everywhere you look there is beauty.

“I’m always seeing something I haven’t seen before,” she said, about Longwood. “It gives me ideas for my garden at home.”

Get inspired. Create art. Make something great. Record for posterity. Capture an instant. Have fun with your cell camera! And, no Fotomat is required.

Bill Rettew is a weekly columnist and Chester County native. He will tell you that while photos are free, phones are still expensive. The best way to contact him is at