Well, I’m the cofounder of the organization. It started out as a for-profit workshop-type organization, with the idea of teaching historic and analog photographic processes. The original organization was founded about 15 years ago, and a few years after that, I met the founder of The Center for Alternative and Historic Processes. What a mouthful, right? And that was founded by the other cofounder of Penumbra, who was named Eric Taubman. And he was a photographer, but he owned many photolabs around the city and the world - he had a lab in England, a lab in California, many in NYC. And he was also very interested, along with his wife Joani Sternbach, in historical photographic processes, in the late 1990s. And through that interest, especially in the history of analog photography, he found other artists, who were working in these historical processes. The idea was there were 2 aspects to this:
One aspect was that this was at a moment, since he was somebody whose business was in labs, so digital was taking away from his business developing film. The inkjet printer was coming around, and so people were stopping using film. So there were several interests in these historical processes, most notably making your own film. And some of these processes, especially these original photographic processes, which were “capture” processes (such as daguerreotype and calotype, which was invented by William Henry Fox Talbot, the same year as the daguerreotype, 1839).
The other aspect is because with digital (and people can make the argument that there’s different types of film - there’s color, b&w, chrome, tungsten film, other color palettes) for the most part you get a flattening, where everything is sort of the same. Everything is sharp, everything is contrast-y. There’s a lack of texture, of palette, of the ability to find expression using the different qualities of film. Digital flattened everything out to look very similar. So if you’re an artist who wants to experiment with different mediums using photography, you technically are saving money because you aren’t spending on film, processing, workflow, no chemicals. Technology has this seductive quality of making things easier, less expensive, but those who are creative are always upset by what is lost. The conveniences are such that it’s very attractive, especially from a commercial perspective, but from an artistic perspective people are looking for more possibilities and expression. But digital was limiting possibilities for artistic expression.
So artists started to worry about these types of techniques disappearing, along with film and printing papers - there used to be hundreds of different kinds of printing papers available before digital, so if you were a printer in B&W or color and you wanted a particular gloss, matte, feel or contrast, etcetera, these films were disappearing very quickly. And what was left in its place was inkjet papers. And people started experimenting with watercolor papers, even now people take different types of papers and put them in inkjet printers. But the general printer companies provided a limited number of coded printing options. Maybe now certain companies like Legion or Hahnemuhle and other paper companies are beginning to provide papers for inkjet printing, but they also provide paper for photographic artists who want to coat their own paper with platinum printing, salted paper, albumen and such. Art photographers weren’t warming up to the workflow of digital photography necessarily in front of a computer, and it can be argued that photography is abstract, but if you take a photograph on film, and you contact print it, you’re closer to reality that someone who is cutting, pasting, and manipulating the image digitally. So that adds another layer of mediation from the classic or typical photographic processes. Art photographers have been doing that for years, not for documentary purposes, but for artistic purposes - even though there was a famous National Geographic cover that originally had a Coke can in front of the Pyramids, and it was removed, and there was a huge uproar over its removal. Or Alexander Gardner, who moved bodies in Civil War photography, for composition purposes. So the idea goes back a long way.
So the idea was at that time that people who were interested in working in film, people who wanted a particular palette or medium, if film was going to disappear, they wanted the ability to make their own. And looking backwards to a time before film was manufactured - before Kodak film, or flexible film, or flexible film on glass (aka dry plate) - if you wanted to make your own medium, you had to make it yourself. So the ways you would do that would be with a paper negative (calotype), a daguerreotype (a unique image object that could not be reproduced unless you photographed the daguerreotype again), OR with wet plate collodion photography on glass (which was invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer, which turned into tintype photography in 1856 by Hamilton Smith in the United States). In wet plate collodion photography you make an ambrotype (positive) and then you’d paint the back black, that would give you your shadows, and the same process, but exposed differently for density and developed differently for detail was glass negative, which allowed you to make multiple prints on salted paper or albumen paper (which at that time you’d have to make yourself too).
So those are the techniques we teach here. We teach every photographic process.
I was always interested in photography as a young boy, shooting 35 mm and medium format, and I always loved Leicas and Rollyflexes, and after that you have large format, and in the late 1990s I was more interested in larger format and collecting historical photographic equipment like brass lenses and large format cameras. And I was shooting large format film, and I was worried about film disappearing. But there was something that was very important to me, and that was teleological, teleology, the study of purpose - comes from the word “telos” and vision.
If I found a brass lens, I wanted to use it for the process it was originally intended for. Some of the lenses I collected were from the 1850s and 1860s, and I wanted to use these lenses and this equipment for what they were originally intended. And that’s when I took the workshop with Joani Sternbach, and she introduced me to Eric, who was also a collector, and through our friendship, interest and passion for the history of photography and collecting and historical photographic processes, we became friends. And he asked me if I could become the director of the workshops. And I said “Thank you, that’s an interesting idea, if I can develop a nonprofit around it, that would be of interest to me, one that would support artists, one that would have greater education, residency programs, research, a library, and more.” At that point, we became the cofounders of the Penumbra Foundation. And here we are!
That was about 10 years ago.