• Log In
  • Sign Up
    • Please join me in welcoming Geoffrey Berliner, Executive Director of the Penumbra Foundation, for a Cake Panel.

      A bit more about the Penumbra Foundation: The Penumbra Foundation is a non profit organization that brings together the Art and Science of Photography through education, research, outreach, public and residency programs. The Center for Alternative Photography (CAP) is the educational department of Penumbra Foundation which was developed in 2001. CAP is dedicated to teaching historical, emulsion based and alternative photographic processes.

      Welcome Geoffrey!

      Update: for those who want to ask Geoffrey additional questions, please post in this thread and we'll come back to them in the future. Thank you!

    • 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. 

    • Preserving photographic techniques and history is so incredibly important, and I know that the Penumbra Foundation has a large collection of books, lenses, cameras, historic memorabilia and more. How many collections does Penumbra have?

    • Well, the collections are sort of divided between Eric and myself. And there’s a separate functional collection of equipment that’s been either donated by myself, Eric, or that Penumbra purchased for teaching workshops or the tintype studio, or for use by residents for our workspace resident program. And there’s also some equipment we’ve purchased for research.

      But for the most part, the historically significant collections that are available would be my collection of early photographic lenses and equipment, and Eric’s collection of early photographic manuals and books. Eric keeps his equipment collection offsite.  The library is very important, because it’s a doorway to the complete history and development of photography, especially the technical aspects of photography, from the 1840s to the present. 

      I have a comprehensive collection of historical and early photographic lenses, which span the entire development of the photographic lens and optical design, from 1839 through the 1960s. Maybe 1,500?

    • We have different kinds of items for different purposes. In the tintype studio, certainly the cameras and the lenses for the wet plate processes, and as you need to do larger formats, you need larger cameras and lenses. When you can shoot a 20 x 24 inch tintype, it’s exciting and wonderful to have the camera, and then have a lens that will not only cover but give you the perspective you want on that format. Most photographers will understand what I’m talking about! You may have a wide angle lens that will cover it, but you want to not stretch the subject’s face, so it’s not just a matter of covering, but also having the desired focal length to render the kind of image you want.

      We have different kinds of giant cameras. For instance, the camera that Timothy O’Sullivan shot on back in the 1860s-1870s, he carried 2,000 pounds of equipment, meaning tanks, glass plates, but the cameras itself was a field camera that weighed only about 15 pounds. But in the studio, we have much heavier and larger lenses that require studier cameras. We have a 20 x 24 inch studio camera that’s a reproduction of a camera from the 1870s that is about 30 inches high, 30 inches wide, like a gigantic wooden cabinet.

      A very interesting lens collection I have is from the late 1800s through the 1920s-30s was the “Photo-Secession movement” founded by Alfred Stieglitz. He was a proponent of the idea that photography is not just a technological practice, but could also, and should be considered, as an art form on the par with fine art painting. He founded this movement, Photo-Secession, a block and a half away from here at Penumbra on 30th and 5th Avenue. And he had a gallery called the 291 Gallery, 291 5th Ave, where he showed his works and the works of people like Edward Steichen, and other art photographers of the period, with the idea of elevating photography to a high art form. And that movement turned into what we call the Pictorialist movement, where artists were using photography in not only capture but also printing to create works of art that had painterly qualities to them. One aspect of making photographs like this was using particular special effects lenses, or “soft focus lenses,” that would render a dreamlike or painterly-like quality onto the negative that would differentiate these images from the more clinical, technical aspects of photography. One of the first people to use lenses and techniques like this was a woman named Julia Margaret Cameron, who was one of the first people to really apply her artistic vision to photography. She was very influential on Alfred Stieglitz and other photographers of the period, so she was considered the “Mother of Art Photography.” She began to make narratives, movement, dreamlike qualities, and create drama by going very close, taking tight shots. It’s even been suggested that the Impressionists were inspired by her and the early Photo-Secession photographers. So I have a very comprehensive collection of these lenses, one of every type and there are probably 100 types or more, of soft-focus or special effects lenses that were used by these pictorialist photographers. And later even cinematographers started using them. Some of the lenses were made for the cinematography industry, which was also beginning around that time! 

      I love Graphlex Cameras. They are large format, 4x5 and larger, single-lens reflex cameras that allow you to make a large negative and focus, along with your subject, so they allow you to be very creative and candid and less formal. They are wonderful machines. And then I mount different lenses of them. We have a collection of them here at the Penumbra Foundation. Below is a photo taken with a Graphlex camera with soft focus lenses. 

      Then there are some original equipment pieces we use in the Tintype studio such as “head rests” to keep people stable during long exposures, or to keep them in the right field of plane, or the “baby brace” in which we lock the baby in, put the dress over it, so the device can keep the baby still (*nobody gets actually injured using these). We would acquire a lot of this gear at flea markets, garage sales, as most people don’t know what these things are. They look at these items as garbage. We are very curated here, and we are looking for very specific things over time, to add to the story of the history of photography.

      Photography came to America in 1839, being brought by Samuel Morse of Morse Code, who met Louis Daguerre in Paris for the World Exposition at that time, and Daguerre gave him a complete setup of equipment. As soon as Morse brought the equipment back here, and he was friends with a guy called John Draper at NYU, I believe he was a chemistry professor, the first photographs taken here in the New World were from a window at NYU, not even half a mile from where we are now. As soon as photography was brought here and caught on, the early portrait studios started popping up along Broadway and the Bowery. And because photographic equipment was very expensive and being made in Europe and taxes and tariffs were high, very early on manufacturers started making photographic equipment and lenses in New York City. So the earliest photographic equipment was made downtown, in Lower Manhattan. And as a Native New Yorker, I’m most interested in the earliest equipment made here in NYC at the dawn of photography in the 1840s and 1850s. That’s another part of the collection, is finding the items from that period, as well as daguerreotypes or tintypes from that period made in NYC as well. 

      I have collections within collections. 

    • For those who aren’t familiar with photographic techniques, if we were to take one of your workshops in say, wet plate photography, what would we learn?

    • Well, the first thing I’d want to say is that all of our processes are taught the way they were practiced in the 19th Century. For the most part, you need to know nothing, you need no equipment, you can just show up. 

      You learn the process, and you make many different plates, portraits, still life, but essentially you learn the process as it was practiced back in the 19th Century. 

      For Wet Plate, you learn about the materials, including “tin” (the metal on which the image is captured: originally it was iron, they were called “Ferrotypes” and they got the nickname “tintypes” because tin snips were used to cut them to fit into a case, as cased images - we now use aluminum, which already has a blackened surface). We provide all the materials, you learn all about the process, how it was invented, how to mix the chemistry, safety, and then once you have your chemistry down, you learn how to pour the chemical onto the plate, how to sensitize in silver nitrate, how to put it into a camera, how to expose it, and then bring into the darkroom, how to develop it in-hand, how to stop it, then wash it, and then fix it. The fixing process is when the image goes from a negative into a positive in a very dramatic way - as you experienced. Then it’s dried, and varnished, and that’s the entire process.

      We teach daguerreotype as well - you’d learn how to polish a plate made out of copper that has a very thin layer of silver polished to a high mirror surface, then it’s sensitized using iodide and bromine, then it’s exposed, and then it’s developed utilizing vaporized mercury. We use many safety techniques so people don’t get affected. 

      Every process that we teach here - the printing out process is like platinum printing, we provide the paper, we provide the platinum, we provide the negatives if people don’t have one, to teach them the process. We teach everything that’s needed. 

      The idea is you don’t really need to know anything. In fact, the less you know, the better! And the workshops are open to the public. Anyone High School Junior / Senior level and above can register on

    • My personal favorite might be Tintype photography, as how I originally learned about Penumbra was thanks to your booth at the Jazz Age Lawn Party at which I got a Tintype gift certificate for myself two years ago. Your Tintype studio FAQ says about the technique “Considered by many to be the Polaroid of the 19th century, the tintype is made almost instantaneously through a process that uses hand poured chemicals on an enameled sheet of metal. Tintypes, often found today in near original condition, were passed down as family heirlooms and valued for their time-tested archival stability.” Suffice to say, it was a really cool experience to take a Tintype photograph. Can you tell us more about how Tintype photographs work? 

    • So the Tintype studio is a separate program - we call it a “gateway drug” - as a way of training people, introducing people to the wet plate collodion process, as it would have been practiced in a portrait studio in the 19th Century.

      And so the wet plate collodion process requires that the image has to be made at that time. You’re making the medium, exposing it in the camera. But what we do in the Studio is we apply a professional portrait techniques. So the person isn’t just standing there. You are leaving with a high-quality product or portrait of that person, so the process is a big part of it. The subject of the photograph is the leading role. So we provide a very high quality portrait of the person, and a very accomplished technique of the wet plate collodion process.

      The Studio is a working commercial tintype portrait studio where there are several different options and formats that can be chosen by the client. It could be as small as a 35 mm tintype (we actually make that using a very small 35 mm camera - we make a “tiny type”) or we can make a tintype as large as 20 x 24 inches. A particular format I like is a 14 x 17 inch tintype, where you’re photographing the person “one to one” - you’re rendering them onto the plate in actual size. You’re actually encountering that person. It’s not an enlargement, it’s the actual size of that person on the photographic medium. ‘

      Because this is a unique image object and it’s not a negative that would be transferred to another medium like being printed on photographic paper of some sort, the actual light that hit the subject has been captured in the medium.

      We do stress that having a tintype portrait made is as much learning about the process and seeing it take place and being a part of the image-making process as much as the image itself.

      Below is an image of a 14 by 17 inch tintype of artist Marco Breuer by @geoffreyberliner being washed and developing its image.

    • Well, Julia Margaret Cameron comes to mind. Matthew Brady. Alexander Gardner. Timothy O’Sullivan. Gaspard-Félix Tournachon aka Nadar. It was the predominant photography of the mid 19th Century. 

      The below image is Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Alice in Alice in Wonderland, by Julia Margaret Cameron.

    • Like in everything you do today, you can go to our website, and there should be a popup that asks you to apply: I think the application process is still available, and what’s unique and wonderful about our workspace program residency is that every year, we have an online Paddle8 auction: called Artists Supporting Artists, a selection of curated artists who donate their work, and the proceeds from the sale go directly to funding the residency program. 

      This year we are increasing our residency from 2 artist recipients to 6 artist recipients - to include 2 national winners, 2 international recipients, and 2 recipients from only New York City. The residency provides a workspace for artists, materials, a stipend, and usually they provide a talk to our community and also a piece of work from their residency here that goes into our archive. It’s a very cool program. 

    • If someone is interested in becoming a part of the Penumbra Foundation as a supporter, volunteer, taking a class, donating a vintage camera - where would you suggest they begin? (and will you come back and answer more questions in the future)?

    • Go to our website and go to the "Support" tab: Becoming a member is a wonderful way to immediately become a part of our community, support what we do, and it also provides wonderful discounts on many of our programs, including the workshops, the Tintype Studio, and at the photo lab next door. There are also opportunities to volunteer, and to become an intern. And we also have facility rentals and commercial studio spaces (like our North Light Studio) that are also used by artists to do their work. There's also a "donate" button if you want to contribute.

      And of course, absolutely to answering more questions! Or as they say in France, absolument.