Interest in photography has grown at a rapid rate, particularly with smart phones and cheap digital cameras lowering the barriers to entry. It is conservatively predicted that one trillion photos will be captured and stored in 2017 alone. Be honest. Who hasn’t taken a picture of their food or the odd selfie, or the cat behaving strangely?
And while apps like Instagram and Facebook make it easy to “retro” our photos through filters or create 360 degree panoramas, a small number of photographers in Hanoi are taking niche photography — that which requires significant effort — to a whole new level.
The Right Chemistry
Other than the one installed on his smart phone, Tam Nguyen doesn’t own a digital camera. What he does own, however, is a passion for large-format cameras, and collodion wet-plate processing. Beginning with medium format cameras around 10 years ago, he moved into large format two years ago, and then on to collodion processing.
Entirely self-taught, Tam — a 40-year-old banker — learns from books and YouTube, and finds inspiration in other photographers. “Apart from telescopic lenses, digital has not reached the level of quality [of large-format cameras]. The bigger the negative, the better the quality.
“And with large-format cameras, you can move perspective, change the shape and the depth of field.”
While taking pictures of landscapes was primarily the reason Tam moved into large-format photography, he is now more interested in portraits, and collodion processing in particular. Invented around 1851, this process involves painting a chemical — silver nitrate — onto a stable surface, for example, glass or aluminium. The image is “positive” so there is no need to transfer it to paper.
So far, Tam has made 20 portraits this way, mostly of his friends. The resulting monochrome image is incredibly sharp, yet soft. “You can use black aluminium or coloured glass.”
It’s not an easy medium to work with. “There is no flash. [The subject] needs to stay perfectly still. [The film] is sensitive to colour. Red and yellow are difficult to expose for.”
While he says his photography is just a hobby, Tam’s studio with its azure walls begs to differ. It houses two large cameras — one over 60 years old — a large light, and an upholstered chair in a floral brocade for portraits. His bathroom serves as a darkroom and he keeps film in the freezer. One of his lenses is worth thousands of dollars. And one photo takes around 30 minutes to make and costs US$10. This is serious business for a hobby. Indeed, the silver nitrate is so difficult to come by in Hanoi that it has to be imported from the US.
Tam does have plans to exhibit in the future, which means making more portraits, but in the meantime, he is committed to honing his craft.
“I just want make it better,” he says.
Unpredictably Beautiful Polaroids
Boris Zuliani has had a love for polaroid photography — instant analogue film — since he was 16. The evidence of this love permeates his apartment, which is home to thousands of pictures stored in military boxes packed onto shelves. Favourites, in monochrome hues of pink and black and grey, have been printed and hung on the exposed brick walls. A selection of polaroid cameras, delightfully old school, are within easy reach.
The genial 39-year-old Frenchman, who has been living in Hanoi for 10 years, began working with polaroid when he was a photographer’s assistant for an advertisement studio. “I was so bad at school, I had to do something.” Before filming advertisements, the set-up was checked with polaroid and he “fell in love with it.”
That love has had to overcome major obstacles, particularly the bankruptcy of Polaroid, which subsequently made the film impossible to get. Boris bought as much of the original film as he could — over 120kg of it — which he has stockpiled.
“The polaroids [film] are out-of-date, so the end results always change. The colours are surprising. You don’t know what you are going to get. Mistakes make things beautiful.”
Well-known in photography circles, Boris was one of only a few photographers asked to create a series for the Impossible Project in 2010, an organisation dedicated to preserving and reviving polaroid. “They have tried to recreate it, but it’s not like the original,” he says.
While Boris exhibits and has personal projects on the go, his latest is probably the most ambitious, he is building his own camera — a 50cm x 50cm black box with a lens — and loading it onto a jeep that has its own laboratory, and travelling the coast of Vietnam. As always, he will give away many of his polaroids on his travels.
“It’s the way I communicate with people. I shoot [take their picture] and give them away.”
And that’s something you can’t do with digital photography. “It’s just pixels,” says Boris.
Send in the Drones
Graduating with a degree in communications and new media in 1995, and keen on experimenting with technology, it was inevitable that Lindemann — a laid-back 41-year-old American — would find his way to drones. “I like my toys,” he says.
His fascination with drones and drone photography began around seven years ago with the waterproof point-and-click digital cameras he used for diving. That led to stitching shots together to form panoramas, and also dabbling in flying remote control planes.
After gaining his Google Earth certification, Lindemann was drawn to aerial photography, and, as they became more available, drones. “Drones started with quad copters and unmanned aerial vehicles. In 2014, Chinese companies made the technology more accessible. No one freaks out [about them now],” he says.
It wasn’t hard to learn and was relatively cheap to do, apart from the camera. “Learning the technology wasn’t difficult. The buttons were different, but the concept was the same. And no other English-speaking person was doing it [this kind of photography].”
Prior to drones, aerial photography was — and still is — an expensive business, requiring not just a decent digital camera and lens, but also an aeroplane and a pilot. But at least they had airport clearances.
Lindemann says he rarely flies his drones in Hanoi, with the airports, military and government buildings making it essentially a no-fly zone. Villages, scenic locations and golf courses — and places with zero pollution or interference, fluffy clouds and blue skies — are his preferred locations. Locations like Hoa Binh, around 80km southwest of Hanoi.
“Location matters. And it’s all in the planning. The equipment needs to be checked every time I go out; blades, rotor, motors, buttress, SD card. I also check the compass and look at restrictions and no fly zones.”
While some drones fly as high as 5km, he’s happy with his 1km kit, which also includes one on-ground monitoring camera. “Drones give a fascinating perspective — from take-off to up in the air.”
Keen to push the envelope where photographic technology is concerned, Lindemann’s next foray is into virtual reality, particularly for virtual tours.
“With sound, it’s a better experience.”
Photos by Julie Vola