The Itinerant Photographer
Luis Maldonado with his camera in the Plaza de Armas in Santiago Chile
The Itinerant Photographer
i·tin·er·ant: a person who travels from place to place.
pho·tog·ra·pher: a person who makes photographs, especially one who practices photography professionally.
We left Asuncion on February 17, 2016 and flew to Santiago. We were met at the Arturo Merino Benítez airport by our friends Pablo and Pili, whom we had first met traveling while there in the late ‘70s, and whom we hadn’t seen since 1982. Obviously the reunion was emotional and pretty incredible. We were to spend the next ten days with them, including a couple of days in Santiago and the rest of the time traveling by car through the South.
The plans for most of the major cities established by the Spanish in Latin America were historically laid out on a grid pattern usually with a large central plaza. This is usually where the government buildings and the Catholic cathedral were located. In Santiago, this plaza is called Plaza de Armas, a large and beautiful park with statues and fountains surrounded by classic and modern buildings. It was a Thursday afternoon when we visited it, and it was crowded with people, mostly locals, I suspect, just wanting to gather in the shade of the trees and enjoy the mild summer weather. It was there that we met Luis Maldonado with his antique camera. Luis was carrying on the itinerant photographer tradition of his father and his grandfather. His camera was around one hundred years old and still functioning. It’s an old self-contained “darkroom in a box” type of analog camera that I described in my earlier blog about the photo man in Buenos Aires, which you can read about here:
Nowadays, Luis uses his camera primarily as a prop and advertisement for his digital photography business that he conducts for visitors to the plaza. In addition to his modern DSLR camera, he has a small ink jet printer which he uses to make 4X6” prints for his customers on the spot. Most of his customers are local people or tourists who want a tangible record of their visit to the plaza. Luis was very surprised and pleased when I asked him to make a photo of Shelley and me with his antique camera. He recognized my enthusiasm for this dying craft and was happy to oblige for a bit more than what he usually charges for his digital prints. It was certainly understandable since the process was much more finicky and time-consuming, and the 150 pesos didn’t seem too much to ask for a unique one-of-a-kind analog silver photographic print. The whole process took between twenty and thirty minutes. He made two paper negatives (the first was a bit overexposed) and two reversal positive prints before he made the one that satisfied him. He ended up giving me all the copies that he made. I appreciated his attention to detail and pursuit of quality, although, from my experience with processing photo paper negatives and positives, he was definitely fighting the limitations of his equipment. During the processing, he told me that his was one of the last cameras of its kind still being used in Chile. He said that at its height, probably up until the advent of digital in the early 2000’s, there were about 300 itinerant photographers in the parks and plazas throughout Chile using this type of camera. He felt proud to be carrying on the tradition, but admitted that he makes very few images with that camera these days. While we were having our photographs made, two young women from Belgium were passing through the plaza and stopped to watch the whole process; they had never seen such a device before and were fascinated at the fact that the photo was chemically processed inside the camera. In the end, they couldn’t resist having their own portrait made in such a unique and old-school way.
While doing a little research on itinerant photographers, I found this short but interesting web post about Luis and his camera at the 2003 Venice Biennial:
My hope is that Luis can hold onto this photographic tradition as long as possible.
The back of the camera opens to allow for focusing on a ground glass plate inside, as well as adding the developer and fixing chemicals to the small trays inside. A circular opening in the door and the attached fabric sleeve allows for light proof access to the inside of the camera during the loading and processing of the photo paper.
A closer view of the interior of the camera showing the two trays of photo chemicals. The developer is on the left and the fixer, the chemical that de-sensitizes the light sensitive photo paper, is on the right.
That strange looking arm device suspended below the lens in front of the camera is hinged to swing up in front of the lens. The paper negative is placed on this and then re-photographed to produce a positive.
The wet paper negative is mounted onto the small easel in front of the lens and re-photographed in natural light. All the exposure times were estimated based on Luis's long experience using this type of camera.
A look inside the back of the camera showing the ground glass viewing screen. The negative image, which is mounted in front of the lens, can be seen projected onto the screen. Once the image is in focus, the back of the camera is closed and another piece of photographic paper is positioned in front of the screen. Another exposure is made which produces the positive paper print.
Another Chilean itinerant photographer. I made this analog image in Dec. 1978 in a park in Vina Del Mar. At that time you could find photographers with large cameras like this in the major cities throughout the country. Even then the contemporary Polaroid camera was available for an "instant image" if you were willing to pay a bit more.
What a wonderful reportage ! Very Interesting ! Never seen that before...
Eric F. / Photographer
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