What a big shot!
Local artist using giant camera from old ACC graphics building
ALPENA — Remember negatives? Well, these negatives are 16 by 20. So you know the camera’s big.
Alpena artist and art instructor Joe Donna procured and converted a roughly 1,000-pound process camera from the old Alpena Community College graphics building, which was torn down in 2009, Donna recalled.
“A process camera is a camera that they used to use, before computer technology, to enlarge things, to duplicate things, to make what they call half-tone screens, to do any sort of color separations,” Joe Donna said. “It was kind of like the workhorse of the commercial printshop, back in its day.”
He said once computer technology was introduced for the same types of jobs, the process camera became obsolete. But he saw its potential.
The camera was going to go down with the building, but Donna wouldn’t have that. He sawed the camera in half to get it out of the building, and created a sturdy metal frame so he could use it in his studio.
“I’ve been building this thing for years,” he explained.
Although he’s been building it for years, Donna just started using the camera regularly.
“It’s not a fast process,” he explained, as he loaded the 16- by 20-inch paper into the camera, which takes 15 seconds to take a photo. He sets up his shot, loads the negative, closes the hinged wooden door and hits the button which starts a timer for 15 seconds per exposure.
The stage lights are turned on to brighten the subject, since the camera has no built-in flash.
He constructed the stage lights along the ceiling in his studio, which is part of a huge pole barn along the Thunder Bay River.
“I’ve got — I don’t know how many — 10,000 watts of light shining down on these things,” he said of the subject matter, arranged on a stage he built.
After he takes the photo, he shuts off all the lights, unloads the negative and carries it in a light-tight box to his dark room. To get to the dark room, you have to walk through a room full of fish tanks, then a room full of bicycles, but those are just two of Donna’s other hobbies. He has thousands of fish, hundreds of bikes and a plethora of plants in his greenhouse upstairs.
“I have kind of a knack for collecting things,” he said. When asked if he sleeps he said “occasionally.”
But today’s story is about a giant camera. In the dark room, he dips the negative first in developer, then in stop bath, then in fixer, then in a water rinse before hanging it on a clothesline to dry.
Donna photographs inanimate objects in eclectic compositions that make people wonder what’s going on. In this case, he has been photographing naked mannequins.
Now, let’s address the giant camera in the room. Why build it? And why take photos of naked mannequins?
“I just wanted to see if I could do it,” Donna said of building and transforming the beast into a functioning camera. “It has its advantages, and it has way more disadvantages than it does advantages. The advantage is, of course, that it makes incredibly large negatives, so an incredibly large negative can be blown up to an incredibly large final picture. So that’s what I do … I can easily print a 40 by 60 picture from one of those negatives.”
As for the subject matter, Donna likes to surprise and even shock people with his unique artwork.
“I tend to like to photograph inanimate objects or still lifes,” Donna said. “But, kind of, in an eclectic way. Mannequins, old machinery, and just kind of odd things and juxtaposing them in situations where they wouldn’t necessarily be together. Like, one of the pictures I took with the big camera was of the mannequins posing with a boat propeller. Why would they be posing with a boat propeller? It just kind of worked with the composition, too. It adds a little edginess, and kind of makes people think.”
He has entered photographs he has taken with the giant camera into the Art Prize competition held annually in Grand Rapids. If selected, his artwork would be displayed at a venue in that area, be it a restaurant, gallery, or other public building, in the fall.
“I don’t know if you want to look at a creepy naked mannequin while you’re eating your dinner,” Donna said of his work being placed in a restaurant. “But there are other venues where they would be appropriate. So hopefully, those venues will find me and want them.”
Donna teaches photography and other art classes at Alpena Community College and retired from teaching at Kirtland Community College in 2015. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in ceramics from Michigan State University. He also has a master’s degree in photography.
“I’ve been working part-time at ACC for over 30 years,” he said.
Registration is open for Donna’s upcoming sculpture class at ACC. For more information, visit discover.alpenacc.edu.