The idea that we all see the world differently; through filtered viewpoints, our own unique perspectives and individual angles was a concept I was keen to portray photographically. I had pictured a person in the middle of many different cameras who would then be photographed from multiple positions and each camera with its specific placement, lens, format, sensor or film would in turn reveal its signature image of the same person.
Capturing all the images simultaneously would be nigh impossible but then a lightbulb moment – what if all the cameras were in complete darkness, all in bulb mode and a light/strobe went off – the photographs would be at the exact same moment! To convey the concept effectively it would need to have a large number of images – fifty sounded right. The project was virtually dormant for a number of years, but then in 2018 it became a reality.
With some great help of friends – one of whom was willing to be the man in the middle – we set off one afternoon with plenty of cameras, tripods and enthusiasm to do the shoot in a hall. Rather than just a static portrait we thought of splashing the middleman from above with water for effect. Several hours later we finally returned home just before midnight after a dismal failure. Working in the dark with fifty cameras is no easy task and we so went back to the drawing board with new determination.
Back home I have a garage with a tall ceiling and so we decided to make this our project space. We redesigned our water splash plan and made a three sided black backdrop. We still needed more tripods which came in slowly from various online classifieds. Over time I had accumulated a fair number of cameras, many from a collection my father gave to me as well as gifts from kind friends and colleagues.
To diversify the cameras I purchased some Toy cameras, completed the Nikon F line up to the F5 and I finally found a Leica M3… and then ended up with two; another story.
We were ready for our second shoot, and the water splash was great. but again the difficulty of triggering fifty cameras in the dark was extremely frustrating, and not aided by sticky cable releases. Luminous tape on the back of the cameras and tripods to help find them made a small difference, yet the third and fourth time were again unsuccessful. It became clear that the camera triggering wasn’t a solo operation.
Brand new reliable cable releases arrived and then perchance I spotted a large number of Manfrotto autopoles for sale with which we could build a rig around the middleman with several horizontal poles making the access to the cameras so much easier.
The fifth attempt was closer but finally on the sixth attempt with everyone now triggering a bank of cameras and then disappearing behind the black curtain we were confident. The digital images were looking great, so with the b&W film being developed at home, we waited for the colour film to be processed. Many of the films were expired but when the colour films returned it was a great sense of relief as we now had 55 images. We had set up 56 cameras to allow some room for error but only one camera’s film was blank despite having tested it before.
Each image was indeed unique and there were pleasant surprises such as seeing so-called lesser toy cameras delivering a unique look, and then there were beautiful unexpected flares too. The difference between a large format image and a one inch digital sensor was evident however this was not a comparative technical test in superiority but rather a celebration of the diversity of each frames contribution to a bigger picture. I have included a number of the frames such as that of a pretty rough Nikon F4 loaded with expired Ilford Delta 100 which delivered a pleasing symmetrical photograph (above).
My favourite image was taken with a 1930s Voigtlander Brilliant on Lomography Redscale film which was an impulse buy from a camera store sale. It was an accidental double exposure of the the water splash on what must have been a very long exposure of the garage where the autopoles perfectly transect the man in the middle. The placement of the flashes in the top corner was purely accidental too and the resulting flare with the intense colour just had this underdog of a camera live up to its Brilliant name.
A plasticky Diana F which was an inexpensive eBay purchase from the United Kingdom rendered a glowing halo of spheres. A newer Diana F+ and a Holga sourced from China via eBay didn’t disappoint either.
There were nine digital cameras in the collection and the Fuji Xt2 with a wide 10mm yielded a crisp image. The Fuji cameras have a useful T setting however the battery powered digital cameras weren’t as simple to operate as the mechanical cameras of which some like the Nikon F’s, FujiGSW690iii and large format lenses had a T setting too.
The LeicaIIIf with a 50mm Summitar and EfkeKB14 (exp 1992) just showed the resilience of old technology. The oldest camera was a Kodak Brownie No2 which I didn’t position particularly well probably due to it’s small viewfinder. There were a few frames where the focus was off, however in the spirit of the project one could say that is what the camera/viewer saw.
A blue flare from the Rolleiflex just highlighting the beautiful unexpected twists in the tale!
The Rolleiflex Sl66 with its wide 40mm allowed me to get quite close to the man in the middle – this lens was wiped down after each shoot. This expired Tech Pan film had hardly any grain even developed in Rodinal.
The Man in the Middle project was hugely satisfying on so many levels. After many pleasant evenings around the dinner table problem solving with friends, hitting so many walls and overcoming them, using the cameras for what they were made for and getting to know each camera’s individual handling quirks it was a sweet moment seeing all 55 frames after six months. The realisation that I couldn’t trigger 55 cameras on my own and how wonderful it was to complete this journey jointly as a team was most rewarding. Pondering over the different angles, colour casts, lens renderings, flares, focus errors etcetera
At some stage I questioned my motives – was all this just a way to showcase my camera collection? and then I wondered why couldn’t I just take normal photographs? In the end my motive was to complete a project that started as just a mere thought and then became so much more challenging as it unravelled. More importantly though it felt as though it was a way for us to pause to consider and to reflect on how we view the world and all the different perspectives we have. Hopefully the 55 frames convey how unique each person’s vision is and how diverse an identical object can appear.
Photography is a fascinating medium and may we continue to explore the endless beauty of a moment frozen in time, from any angle.
Thanks for reading
Mark van der Wal
A one minute video/slideshow of the images.