Matt Callow

Matt Callow
a pinhole photographer

Tottered on: 2 March 2007
Temperature: 28
Ceiling: big downy flurries
Ground: soft snow pack
Wind: WSW at 14 mph


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TT with HD: Matt Callow


[Ed. note: Reference 'the workshop' is to an event run by Matt at the Malletts Creek Library some two weeks prior to the ride, during which participants were led to build their own pinhole cameras. Examples of Matt's photographic work can be found on his website. Information on the Krappy Kamera Club's exhibition, Cheap Shots can be found there also, as well as on the left sidebar of this website.]

HD: And that'll have to work. Hah. Alright. Okay, let's sit down. Before we do, you want to ...

MC: ... I'm going to try and take a photograph of you while we're going ...

HD: ... okay, we can pause and you can stash it [the camera] when you're done so it doesn't get wet. I'm sure it's not good for it to get wet, right?

MC: Ah, it's fine, it's not going to get wet. I've been in worse.

HD: Then, let's climb aboard, and we'll take photographs of each other.

MC: [laugh]

HD: We don't have to teeter totter while we're photographing.

MC: This is the camera that people are either horrified when they see that I've made a lovely old German twin lens into a pinhole, or they think it's the ...

HD: ... coolest thing in the world?

MC: Yeah, it was a camera that was, I think, my wife's grandmother's or something like that. I get so many cameras given to me by people.

HD: So are you actually taking photographs right now? Oh! [laugh]

MC: Yeah. I took three.

HD: Oh, you're all done!?

MC: Yeah, well it's a bit like those matchbox things [from the workshop] ...

HD: Okay, let me get the standard shot of you [with my digital camera]. That'll work. And one more just so I have plenty to choose from. Now let me whip out my pinhole camera that I actually made at the workshop, because it would, of course, be fitting.

MC: Oh, yes!

HD: Ahh, some of that tape was coming unstuck, and I hope that didn't cause things to leak [light-wise]. And did you happen to see what I did with that piece of plastic [for winding film] that at one point I had in my mouth?

MC: No, I noticed it was in your mouth, but ...

HD: Well, I can just grab this and turn it, right?

MC: Yeah. I've got one myself, I sometimes do. Keys will work. Yeah, you might have to stick your finger in there. I don't know if you've got nails or not.

HD: Oh, so I can't just turn the outside?

MC: No, you can turn the bottom, but it might not pull it along. The bottom, the other one. Yeah, I guess a further modification would be a more permanent solution to that turning thing. But that's the nice thing about a simple camera like this is that there are so many improvements that people can possibly make.

HD: Yeah, ordinary objects.

MC: I really liked the possibility of using the matches in there somehow [from the matchboxes], making a tripod or something. I haven't worked it out, yet. Are you a photographer?

HD: Not at all. I'm going to do one more, just because I want to take this to Big George's as soon as possible after this, and I figure this is a nice way to finish off the roll. Alright! With all that photography out of the way, let's see if we can actually do some teeter tottering. Welcome to the teeter totter, by the way!

MC: Well, thank you very much for having me.

HD: So in Wolverhampton, where you're from originally, do they call these 'teeter totters'?

MC: No, you're right, they're 'see-saws'. Teeter totter was not a term I'd come across at all [laugh].

HD: Really?

MC: I never looked it up, but I did try and think about the etymology of that, and I guess they teeter in a way, and they totter? I don't know. But then 'see-saw', I suppose also is one of those words ... Do you have the nursery rhyme, "See-saw Marjorie Daw, ..."

HD: It might exist, but I'm not familiar with it.

MC: I can't remember how it goes, but it's a nursery rhyme. It's one of those rhythmic things you can sing whilst doing the see-saw.

HD: Do you know it by heart? [Ed. note: HD's not daft, but apparently did not quite process MC's phrase "can't remember" from before.]

MC: I just know the first two lines: "See-saw Marjorie Daw ... "

HD: Marjorie Daw?!

MC: Yeah, I don't know, made-up nursery rhyme language. "Johnny can't run any faster?" ... No, you're going to have to look it up on the internet after this to find it! [Ed. note: The complete rhyme is appended to the bottom of the Talk below.]

HD: [laugh] Well, listen, I wanted to publicly thank you for the public service you did organizing that pinhole camera workshop at the Mallets Creek Library.

MC: Thank you!

HD: That was a smashing success from my point of view.

MC: It was a smashing success from my point of view, too. I think of pinhole photography as a virus, and it's actually really quite difficult to escape from that virus. A friend of mine at work, whose wife is a photographer, wasn't into pinhole photography, but one day--I don't remember how he did it--but he got hold of a camera that he then converted into a pinhole camera. And I said, You know, it's a virus, and you're going to catch this! And he said, No, no, no, no way. And sure enough, he takes pinhole photographs all the time. You are what, on your third roll of film?

HD: I think it's actually my fourth roll.

MC: You see?

HD: It could be my fifth. I'm trying to remember. I think I just shot the one roll after the workshop, and then I got two more and also got those developed, and so now I'm on, that would make it my fourth, right.

MC: Yeah. I very much caught the bug by accident ...

HD: ... so you were a regular photographer before you became a pinhole photographer is that the progression?

MC: Yes. Because I don't do weddings or portraits or pet photography or seniors, or anything like that, I sometimes struggle with the idea of saying: I am a photographer. It's certainly part of what I do. Because I take photographs, I publish photographs, I show photographs, I teach photography, so yeah, I guess I'm a photographer.

HD: You seem to grudgingly accept that label, though.

MC: Yeah. Yeah, You've almost caught me at a strange, contrary period in my photography career. I'm not feeling awfully enthusiastic about it at the moment--for various reasons, none of which I'm really going to go into here, but for various reasons. And part of that is about identity. You know, it's about calling myself a photographer, an artist. And once you've done that, you've identified yourself in that role, if you're not doing it all the time, and if it isn't all-consuming and taking up your entire life, then you somehow feel kind of fraudulent. That's kind of the point where I'm at. Which is an odd thing to say, because I ran a pinhole workshop two weeks ago and I've got a show coming up in another two weeks. But it's a personal thing.

HD: You said you feel kind of 'fortunate', is that what you said?

MC: Fraudulent. Yeah, I feel like a fraud over the word, 'artist' all the time. And at the moment I'm feeling like a fraud over the word, 'photographer', but that comes and goes. And it's as likely to be about mid-winter blues as it is actually about anything else.

HD: I know a guy who readily accepts the label of artist, and what he talks about when you ask him how do you know if you're an artist, he says, Well, you just ask yourself if you're doing the sorts of things that other artists do. Are you creating something, doing your art, on any kind of a regular basis--if not every day then once a week, or once a month or something? Do you talk to other artists about your work and their work? Do you submit your work to shows? And stuff like that. So I guess to his way of thinking, a lot more people are artists than maybe would be willing to accept the label.

MC: By that definition, then okay, I'm definitely an artist. I do this stuff all the time. When I moved to this country, I made almost a philosophical decision that my life would be more about art, creativity, interesting things, less about work, the rat race, the usual things that take up one's life. And luckily my wife is very supportive of that point of view. So, while I'm currently working--I do a part-time job that's four days a week--it leaves three days a week to follow my artistic side. And there's been other periods since I've been here, when I've been a photographer full time. I don't make any real money out of this. I mean, it doesn't pay the rent. It pays for itself and that's kind of important.

HD: So it's self-sustaining at least.

MC: That's part of the nature of the kind of thing that I do. I mean if you're making cameras out of matchboxes and cheap expired film, then you don't need to spend 2000 dollars on the latest lens! Part of the reason I do that was out of necessity, was that I couldn't afford all of the most amazing gear, so I had to do it on a shoestring. The way I got into pinhole photography in the first place, I was working for a company here in Ann Arbor that sells science toys to schools and they had a cupboard full of samples that different firms sell them, and one of them was this paint can that was a camera. And I thought, That's kind of cool, I'm a photographer, I'll take that home and maybe use it one day. Didn't use it for a long time. It just sort of sat there in amongst the big box of assorted camera gear that I've got. And it was actually a day not unlike today, really kind of dismal--it wasn't snow--so it was very dark and gloomy. And I wanted to do some photography, but didn't really have the equipment to go and do it. I figured that a pinhole photograph would work in any light, I would be able to take a photograph in the most gloomy of conditions, because you just have very long exposures. So I took this thing off the shelf, took it out to the park, took a photograph, took a while to get it right, but that afternoon, I had an absolutely gorgeous picture in Ypsilanti of the river just around the corner from my house. And I was hooked, because it was just so gorgeous. So I stumbled into pinhole photography through necessity, through a freebie that I got from work ...

HD: ... so that picture of the river, do you have that framed and hung in a special place, as your first pinhole photograph?

MC: Okay, that picture of the river, it's certainly framed at home, it's on my wall at home, I've sold it many times. I did a series of my photographs that I mounted onto painted boards, and scratched them up and made them quite distressed looking, and it fits quite well within the subject matter and the nature of the photography, and it was quite a battered photograph by this point. I actually sold that to the the outgoing Mayor of Ypsilanti, ...

HD: ... so, Cheryl Farmer?

MC: Cheryl Farmer, at the first Shadow Art Fair. It was one of the last things she did as mayor: she came along and bought this picture of mine, really, I guess, as a memory of Ypsilanti, maybe to hang on the wall of her surgery or living room, or wherever she's going to hang it. So yeah, that's quite cool! Of course, it doesn't look anything like Ypsilanti. It's a pastoral scene of this beautiful long-exposure water--which is very smooth and glass-like--and there's the old, English-style church in the background, and these trees. It all looks very beautiful and rural and nothing at all like the city of Ypsilanti. Maybe that's why she wanted it? I don't know [laugh]!

HD: So there is this certain aesthetic to pinhole photographs, at least the ones I've taken with the matchbox--they don't need to be distressed particularly--a lot of them are already looking quite battered and beaten and distressed. But even, say, like the photographs you take with your super pinhole camera there, the nice one with laser-drilled hole and whatnot, there is a certain quality to them, that I don't know if it's readily identifiable as pinhole photography. But it certainly is distinctive in style. Are you able to identify a photograph as definitely made with a pinhole versus one with a lens?

MC: I don't think so. The best pinhole in the ideal camera will take a photograph that's almost as sharp as a fairly good lens. I mean it's never going to be anything like the top-end lenses, but I think if I were to see the physical photograph--the print--up close, then you might be able to tell. So often, the photography I see is on a computer, on the internet somewhere, and it's very difficult to tell from a small J-PEG whether or not it's been taken with a pinhole camera or not.

HD: So are you aware of any people, or any person--one would hope there's not a lot of people doing this--trying to pass off pictures taken with a regular digital camera as pinhole shots?

MC: Not that as such, not in a fraudulent way, I don't think. But there do seem to be a lot of people who try and recreate some of the dreamy aesthetic that you get from these type of cameras with Photoshop and with digital cameras. I'm not a hundred percent certain that I really see the point of what they're trying to do there. Actually it's less so with pinholes and more with some of the other cameras. Do you know the concept of lomography?

HD: No, how do you spell that?

MC: L-O-M-O-graphy. Lomo is a Russian camera, a cheap plastic Russian camera, which has something of a cult following--initially amongst art students and hipsters of various sorts. And there's a culture surrounding it, which is very much about photography-without-thinking, point-and-shoot, shoot-from-the-hip, ...

HD: ... so literally shoot from the hip?

MC: Yeah, it's a very tiny camera that you can hold in the palm of your hand, and you can take photographs without people really seeing what you're doing. That in itself became quite a big thing. The pictures are not dissimilar to a pinhole in some ways: they have a lot of vignetting, they're kind of soft, they have sweet-spots that are in focus and are out of focus. And one of the things that people like to do with that is to shoot expired slide film--so a positive transparency film that is out of date--and then process that in the wrong chemicals. It's called cross processing--chemistry that's meant for regular print films. So you get prints from it, and you get colors that are crazy and completely out of whack, and depending on the film you're using, it can be highly saturated, or just reds looking like blues, or whatever it might be. So there's a certain look, it's a 'lomographic' look, this has become pretty trendy, pretty common. There's an Austrian company, they run the Lomographic Society, I think they're called--lomo-dot-com, I suspect--and they sell these Russian piece-of-crap cameras for ten times the amount they should be, and they sell pinhole cameras for ten times they amount they should be. They make a lot of money out of marketing an image, a photographic myth. My point was that particular look, people do try and create in Photoshop and digital cameras. And I not sure the point of that, because it's easy enough to do, just shooting from the hip with a cheap plastic camera. I mean, it's about as easy as it gets, photography-wise!

HD: But for the purposes of, say, an art show, a juried event, where people are submitting stuff, if a photographer represents something as being shot with a certain kind of camera, do they typically have some way of verifying that it was really taken with a Minolta whatever, or an Olympus whatever, or a pinhole?

MC: No, not at that level, I think. And I'm not sure why an artist would be defrauding a show in that way anyway. I don't think it would necessarily be something they might do. One of the big debates in the photography world now, is the archival nature of ink-jet prints versus the archival nature of old-fashioned silver gelatin prints.

HD: Ink jet has a shelf life of under a hundred years, doesn't it?

MC: We don't know! Because ink jet has only been around for however long it has. Whereas photographs, there was a show at the art museum here in town--I don't know if you saw it last year--about the history of photography and there were some of the original William Fox Talbot salt prints from the 18-whatevers.

HD: Salt prints, S-A-L-T??

MC: Yeah, prints made from a combination of table salt--sodium chloride--and silver nitrate, the photo-sensitive salt. A very, very simple technique, which I've done myself as well. You get a nice brown, soft image from it. Some of his original photographs exist. They're kept in the dark--they were actually behind curtains in the gallery, so you actually had to open the curtains to look at these prints. But we know that those things exist 180 years later. Ink jet prints, we don't know yet. The top end, the high-quality stuff done on super-expensive printers with super-expensive pigment inks and things, the chances are they do have the longevity and they are archival in the same way. I'm sure they're doing testing, but we don't know for certain. A lot of galleries will not accept ink jet prints as a valid medium to submit photography. And whether people try to defraud galleries in that way, I don't know.

HD: So for the show that the Krappy Kamera Club is doing later this month--when is that exactly?

MC: March 23rd through April 6th [2007]. The opening is on the 23rd at 7 o'clock.

HD: Did you guys just sort of decide amongst yourselves that everybody would be allotted a certain number of pieces to be hung, or did you have an informal jurying process, or what?

MC: It was a source of much debate over many weeks as to how we should do this [laugh]. We do a lot of debating over various issues in the Krappy Camera Club. We like to talk through our various disagreements on the nature of what 'krappy' is, the name of the group--that's a whole debate we're having at the moment--and how we were going to jury the show was a big issue. We wanted an outside juror. We didn't want do this ourselves: we wanted someone to come and do it for us. But we also knew that we wanted everybody who wanted to be represented to have something in the show. And that's kind of difficult when you're asking an outsider to make a qualitative decision about work, except that you've got to choose ...

HD: ... one from each of these groups of work.

MC: We weren't very clear about that process ourselves in our own minds, and I think there may have been some confusion then passed on to the juror. In fact, he has chosen a really nice selection of work. I think there are 28 pieces, 17 of us are represented. Some of us have a couple and everybody has at least one.

HD: And there will be another show at some point.

MC: I hope so.

HD: So maybe those who were not represented this time will have another...

MC: ... I think everybody who wanted to be represented is in there. There's a lot of lurkers, and not just in the online sense, but people that just haven't come to the meetings and things we've had. There must be about 40 people here locally who are interested in being in the group. Of those perhaps only 20 or so have come along with any regularity to our meetings. But I think that everybody that wanted to submit something did. Yeah, we'll do all sorts of things. The show is just the start. I think there'll certainly be future shows, there'll certainly be future group shows. I think there'll be individual shows under the guise of the Krappy Kamera Club, where just one or two of us perhaps will do stuff.

HD: Have you won any converts already from the workshop to the Krappy Kamera Club?

MC: Mmmm, no. There's one woman who was going to come to our last meeting, which was just this last Tuesday, but she didn't come.

HD: You mentioned just before we climbed onto the teeter totter that the final head count for that workshop was 41, is that right?

MC: Yeah.

HD: And how many confirmed successes do you have for successful photographs taken with the matchboxes?

MC: Just a handful. There's a number of groups on Flickr and one of them is an Ann Arbor local group. I advertised the workshop on that board and there's a long discussion thread after that workshop, which now includes a number of photographs from people who went to that workshop that have posted their work to the group. But it's just a few. I'm thinking many people there probably don't have the means to scan, put online, post to Flickr. I've got a few emails, like from yourself, saying, Here's an example of the work! And I've seen a few in person.

HD: I guess there is somewhat of an irony in taking a photograph with a pinhole camera, getting it developed, and then scanning it and posting it online.

MC: Yeah! And I'm sure there are people that have huge existential crises about, you know, I'm analog photographer, I work entirely with film as my medium, I use old cameras, but I also belong to all these online communities where I scan stuff, and play with it in Photoshop, and post it to the web! I personally try and make my online version of any of my photographs as honest to the print--or what's come out of the camera--as I possibly can. I don't like to work too much in Photoshop and do something that isn't real off the computer.

HD: But what about say, for example, I have this situation where the prints that Big George's made, they look actually quite nice. But when I ran the negatives through the flatbed scanner--and actually that's something about my scanner I learned you could do from taking the workshop. You mentioned that you could actually print from a flatbed scanner, some models, and I thought, Hmm, wonder if that's possible from mine?

MC: And was it?

HD: Oh yeah, I went to the owner's manual and there's this little gadget, still in the box, ...

MC: ... right, right, okay, yeah ...

HD: ... this little frame thing, that when I first opened up the printer and installed it, I thought, What is that for--I'm sure I have no use for it whatever it is! But I tried it. And there's no option to adjust anything: you just print and that's what you get. The version that came out there was much, much lighter, pretty unattractive. And then I thought, Well, I'll just scan it directly to the hard drive and adjust in Photoshop. But then I thought, Where do you draw the line then?

MC: Absolutely. But one of the things that's happened is your negatives--and I'm guessing from what you've just described--that they're pretty overexposed, which is an easy thing to do with a pinhole camera this small, with exposure lengths as short as we're dealing with. One of the things that's happened, is when the person at Big George's came to make your prints, they've done some adjusting themselves ...

HD: ... I figured as much ...

MC: ... they've used whatever the software is on the mini-lab to pull the brightness right down, to increase the contrast to give you a print. That's not going to happen at somewhere like Wal-mart or Target. That's why I suggest people go to Big George's where someone who knows what they're doing is dealing with the prints. But yeah, then there's the question about, What is the 'real' version of this photograph? Is it the negative? Is it the prints that that particular technician has decided to make from your negative? Is it the print that you make from your own negatives back at home? There is no definitive answer to that. One of the great examples here is the photographer, Ansel Adams--generally considered to be one of the greatest photographers of all time. What he was extremely good at was working in the dark room on a print. He would, sure, make beautiful negatives, on enormous cameras, on enormous film--8 by 10 or bigger--out in beautiful countryside or wherever. But then he would do huge amounts of work on making a print from that negative. And then once he'd got the perfect prints, lots of other technicians would go off and make prints to his specifications, based on what he'd done. But that's the equivalent of Photoshop, but just done in the darkroom, which is what Photoshop is, I guess, just a ...

HD: ... digital darkroom.

MC: Yeah. What is that actual image that Ansel Adams is producing? Is it the negative, or is it any one of the myriad of prints that he could make from that negative? I don't think there is an answer there.

HD: I noticed that at the workshop you were wearing your 'Buy Indie in Ypsi' T-shirt. At this point, have you lived in Ypsilanti long enough so that it feels comfortable to you, like it's home? Or do you feel like you really wish you could get back to Wolverhampton where you really belong?

MC: [laugh] Well, not Wolverhamton, no! I lived in Wolverhampton, I grew up in Wolverhampton, I left Wolverhampton when I was 18, so I've lived away from Wolverhampton as long as I've lived in Wolverhampton. If there's anywhere in Britain I would go back to, it'd be Brighton, on the south coast, which is the place I feel closest to. It's where I lived most of my adult life. It's a kind of artsy, liberal city, not dissimilar to this place really.

HD: By 'this place' you mean Ann Arbor?

MC: Yeah, I guess I mean Ann Arbor-stroke-Ypsilanti, a mixture of those two. Ypsilanti's definitely home. Ypsilanti's got a lot of problems, and not least its economic problems. And its proximity to Ann Arbor is an issue for Ypsilanti. I love the sense of community, particularly amongst creative people there, which is the ones I tend to be involved with. But there's also a lot of people involved in community politics and community issues in Ypsilanti that I'm not hugely involved in myself. But I know many of those people.

HD: I think it's actually very impressive that the community involvement in local politics in Ypsilanti is what it is. I think they blow Ann Arbor out of the water, quite frankly. For the Ypsilanti mayoral debates, they put upwards of 300 people in a room. And you know, we had our mayoral debates over here in Ann Arbor down at the CTN studio, where there may have been an audience of less than 10, and a television audience of probably about that as well.

MC: Well, that kind of stuff comes down to just a handful of very committed people who want to make a real difference in Ypsilanti. It's, I think, a relatively small movement of people who do an awful lot of work. But I think that's the nature of local politics, anyway. And it's a small town, you know? It's 20,000 people, so it's a much smaller town than Ann Arbor, and therefore, those people that are involved in their community can make a much bigger difference than perhaps people here, who are banging their heads against a brick wall more often.

HD: Could be. Do you have anything else on your mind? I noticed you put your gloves on, and my fingers are also getting a bit cold.

MC: Yeah, I was getting cold. These are my special photography gloves, they actually ...

HD: ... Oh! That's pretty cool! [Ed. note: MC peels back the glove fabric from his thumb and index fingers]

MC: I think they're fly-fishing gloves in theory. But they give my pinhole fingers ...

HD: ... is it just the index and thumb or the other ones as well?

MC: No, it's just those two. No, I don't have anything else on my mind.

HD: Let's duck inside then. Thanks for coming.

MC: Thank you for having me!


See, saw, Marjorie Daw,
Jennie shall have a new master.
She shall have but a penny a day,
because she can't work any faster.

See, saw, Marjorie Daw,
Jimmy shall have a new master.
He shall have but a penny a day,
because he can't work any faster.