Phil Burgess – Experimental Photographer – Friday Focus
by Christopher Osborne.
Darkrooms on tricycles, 8×10 large format cameras made from breadboards. If there is a long way round then Phil Burgess will be enjoying the journey!
Australian photographer Phil Burgess has an affable demeanour and is always ready to help others. He is also a highly experimental photographer, completely undaunted by the prospect of combining the most unlikely objects to try and push photographic boundaries. Perhaps this should not be a surprise because Phil started life as a plumber, trained as a professional photographer, became an IT networking specialist and a university lecturer.
Phil moved to the UAE in 2005, and in 2009 he became an active member of the Wednesday Group, a photography club that met on alternate Wednesdays. This group switched to weekly online meetings during the lockdown. “These group Zoom sessions provided a much-needed break. I was preparing online courses for 3000 students during the day and it was a chance to talk to real human beings”. A theme is chosen for each week, and many members have spent hours trying to make the best image that they can. Themes include macro photography, flash photography, album covers and so on. Phil laughs, “we are running out of new ideas and may have to start recycling some of our challenges”.
In 2019 the Louvre Abu Dhabi hosted a huge exhibition of early photography “Photographs 1842 1896: An Early Album of the World”. Phil planned a living photography display with the Louvre, and this project materialized in two forms.
Firstly, he designed a cardboard pinhole camera that exhibition guests could assemble into a working camera. Phil also conceived a mobile bicycle demonstration darkroom. The Louvre Abu Dhabi were interested in both concepts.
The mobile darkroom was inspired by research that Phil did into American Civil War photographer Matthew Brady. Phil found a delivery tricycle for sale on a local classified site the first time that he searched. He then set about designing a box darkroom for the back of the bike. He sketched out his design. The darkroom was in the top half of the box, and then there was a storage area below.
Phil then built a full-size replica in cardboard which he took to a local carpenter. Despite the carpenter’s basic grasp of English, the final box darkroom was built exactly to Phil’s design.
The box was stained and varnished in Phil’s apartment before being fitted to the bike.
The Louvre agreed to the tricycle darkroom being located at the exit to the exhibition. Over two days Phil made more than 120 portraits. This required him to kneel on the floor, and it wasn’t overly comfortable. The lid of the darkroom box was fitted with red windows so that museum visitors could watch the developing process in action.
In addition to a portrait shot on Harman Direct Positive paper, he also took an Instax photograph of each sitter. While this was designed to provide a backup for technical issues, they were very infrequent and so most sitters left with two portraits, one made with old technology and one with new technology.
The tricycle darkroom is currently parked in the garage at Phil’s apartment block. His next plan for the mobile darkroom is to ride it around Abu Dhabi photographing mosques.
Phil’s next experimental project was adapting a scanner to the back of his Speed Graphic. By using tracing paper as a screen he can capture digital images from the back of this 4×5 camera.
His latest and possibly most colourful project has been the chopping board 8×10 camera. He bought some 8×10 film holders from eBay and then needed a camera to use them on. He returned from the bargain shop armed with some chopping boards which were close to the perfect dimensions. A jigsaw and a screwdriver saw the chopping boards transformed into a functional 8×10 camera. The bellows were folded from black cardboard. And the focusing screen was manufactured from a sheet of acrylic.
Most of the shots made so far have been made on paper negatives which are scanned. Phil is looking forward to contact printing these onto another sheet of paper.
The Wednesday group took over a local café each Friday morning during the summer , and there is no doubt that this camera works. Other members have been inspired by the 8×10 bug and as a Chamonix and a Wista 8×10 camera have joined Phil’s homemade model.
Images © Phil Burgess 2021. You can see more of Phil’s work on Instagram at @pburgess55
You might also be interested in this article where Marwan el Mozayen from SilvergrainClassics unboxes two lenses. See https://silvergrainclassics.com/en/2020/11/book-review-box-camera-now-by-lukas-birk/
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