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Visiting the Penumbra Foundation

traditional portrait by non-traditional photographers

Story by Jonathan Potter June 6th, 2017

raw material

Visiting the Penumbra Foundation is like taking a step into a different world. It isn't a museum, it isn't a traditional studio; rather the feel of the Penumbra Foundation is as if you were opening your eyes after a long sleep, very comfortable yet somehow disorienting.

Silver nitrate, black aluminum, collodion, ether alcohol, leather, steel, wood, glass: these are the elements that feed the heart of the Penumbra Foundation. The real hearts at work - Geoffrey Berliner and Jolene Lupo - are the photographers. We had the utter pleasure of sitting for a 4x5 wet plate tin-type portrait in December of 2016. It was, hands down, one of the finest experiences I've ever had.

Our view while posing for our portrait.
A very simple portrait studio, a few stools, a back drop, and a single overhead lamp.
The camera used to make our portrait, sadly I've forgotten who made it - but it will take at least 8x10 images

If you've never had a portrait session where only a single image will be made in an hour's visit, you should make a time to do so. The process of having our image made at with Geoffrey and Jolene was less about the camera, and more about getting to know us. We chatted about art, theater, personal projects, New York, and even photography. By the time we left, it was as if we had entered into their close circle of friends. The image now, even months later, reminds us of the deep affection we felt for the place and the photographers.

Photographer Geoffrey Berliner, a New York native, takes a moment to sit while the plate sensitizes

As a photographer myself, it's easy to see how deeply passionate and knowledgeable Geoffrey and Jolene are about their craft. They got everything set up, posed us, and captured our image effortlessly, chatting with us the whole time about life and the world. Truly something to aspire to.

Ether alcohol bottle, repurposed for developer.
The plain black aluminum plate that was to become our image.
Geoffrey Berliner pouring the collodion on the fresh plate.
The collodion is carefully spread over the plate, then sensitized in a silver nitrate bath.
A few of the other tin-type and glass plate negatives awaiting pickup at the studio.
Geoffrey develops the plate in the darkroom adjacent to the studio.
Our plate, in the wash water.
Geoffrey and Jolene inspect the final plate.

A visit to the basement and the Library

The Penumbra Foundation is more than just a studio for historic photo methods. They also have a camera repairman who shares the basement, and house a massive collection of old camera bodies, lenses, parts, and just about every kind of unique film photo equipment you can think of. If you have any interest in photographic ephemera, no visit to Penumbra would be complete without a tour of the basement and library.

Racks full of Graflex bodies.  Geoffrey mentioned that he much prefers cameras made in New York.
How many repair shops have a stereo Graflex on the shelf?
Inside the camera repair shop.
Lenses.  Some with boards...some without.
Geoffrey shows a lens mount - or maybe it's a Packard shutter, I can't recall.

Luckily, Geoffrey absolutely loves cameras and it really shows.

An utterly massive wet plate camera, I think it is is something like 24x24.  Those are standard magazines on the top for reference.
My entire early photographic education came from this Time Life series.
A lovely older view camera in the library.
Some of the books out in the library.
A library of photographic information, plus a lovely personal camera collection of the foundation's president.

Make an appointment

If you are going to New York and have a couple hours to spare - go get your portrait made. It will be the best thing you can bring home, it is absolutely worth it for any one who has any interest in the photographic arts. It's even worth it for someone who just wants a unique portrait.

Penumbra Foundation, East 30th Street, New York, NY, United States