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"Ancestral Portraits"

Pinhole Photographs on Polaroid 600 Platinum Film

Working on this exhibit allowed me to combine two of my favorite interests, photography and genealogy. Photographically, I wanted to create a body of work using the pinhole camera. As I began to work, my original intent was to create hand-colored black and white pinhole images inspired by the boxes and tins used to make the pinhole cameras, and to exhibit the cameras with the photographs. So, I spent weeks making pinhole cameras. Once I began testing the cameras for light leaks, and working on the pinhole diameter making the images became more important than the cameras. I was collecting objects to photograph which reflected the cameras, and ended up with a collection of old family "stuff". Not quite antiques, just stuff from childhood, and mementos of generations past. One of the boxes I was using as a camera had a Halloween theme, and I began creating Day of the Dead altars to photograph. The materials and props I collected for the altars were gaudy, ghoulish and colorful, and led me to make a camera to hold a Polaroid film cartridge, which I used to photograph the altars in color as well. It turned out that Polaroid 600 Platinum film created for the One-Step camera was quite well suited for pinhole work. The ISO is 640 and the fast speed resulted in 15 second exposures in the studio using 2, 500 watt lights and a daylight blue gel filter. Or exposures from 15 seconds to one minute in available daylight. Now I was spending more time making altars and using the Polaroid pinhole camera than I was making images to fulfill my original intent with the 20 or so other cameras I had made. One day just before Day of the Dead on November 6, 2000 I brought in photos of my parents as young adults to use in an altar. These two pictures "Fay" and "Jean" started this exhibit. I was encouraged by the qualities the pinhole camera brought to the old photos, and I loved combining the photos with objects personal to my experience, but which could tell many other stories depending upon the viewer's imagination.




Jewel Box

Young Fay

Tea for Two





Three Sisters


Stella and Fay

Rose (Polaroid image transfer of cross-processed slide)


Jean's Christening


Genealogically, I fell in love with a cardboard box in the stairway closet when I was about 13 years old. About the time I was beginning to feel all the usual "who am I" adolescent angst. I loved sitting on the floor of the closet and going through this big cardboard box which was mostly photographs with a few birth certificates, school memorabilia and news clippings thrown in.There were the photo albums made by my paternal grandmother. Black felted paper and embossed photo corners held the wavy edged photographs of family memories. My father's family were camera bugs. Or just vain. Or both. They photographed new clothes, new cars, family pets, and occasionally the laundry. The oldest album has photos of my grandmother's high school graduation and my grandfather at the age of fourteen. It also documents the gay life of a group of young cousins and friends in their twenties, in Illinois, around 100 years ago. The descriptions of the photos are written with an old pen dipped into opaque white ink. There was an album my grandmother made documenting her only son's career in the Army Air Corps during WWII. My father had started an album documenting his college days...whimsical outings which ended when the war began. My mother's album went a bit beyond high school, and included short stories she had submitted to writing contests, a Valentine she had sent to a boy which was returned because he had moved, and suggestions of a serious "boyfriend" before my father. I became the keeper of the cardboard box of photos and the family Bibles and about three years ago began to revisit the treasures to glean whatever information I could to document my family history.The old photographs I have used in the prints for this exhibit are all my ancestors, and for the most part were taken before I was born. These are people I never knew. Young people who had hopes and dreams and ideas for a life that were probably quite different than the life they ended with. The pinhole camera was the perfect technology for my illustrations. It wouldn't seem right to me to make crystal clear studio table top shots of the altars. It would be like my saying I really knew these people and their lives. In fact I only had a fuzzy, indistinct and childish impression of these lives. And, if a light leak creates a "ghost" on the film, well...who knows. It is an exhibit of personal images, with what I think is the universal appeal of old photographs and the idea of having a peek into the past and someone else's life.

These images were first exhibted at the Darkroom Gallery in Sacramento, California in 2001, and subsequently at Modesto Junior College in 2004.

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copyright 2008
all rights reserved
Donna Fay Allen
Updated 6-3-2008