Turning A Blurry Lens On St. Louis

Local Photographer Uses ‘Lo-fi’ Photography to Reveal St. Louis Experience

By John Bent, Riverback Communications

Experts estimate that 1.4 trillion photos were taken in 2017. Of that total, St. Louis area artist CB Adams probably took a few hundred, at best. In an age when all sorts of devices come camera-enabled, Adams prefers to make photographs using decidedly lower – and slower – technology. He not only prefers to use cameras that shoot film, but he prefers cameras that possess almost no manual controls.

“It’s what I call the ‘no approach’ to photography,” Adams says. “No real focusing. No real aperture control. No real shutter options. Instead, I work with the options of available light, choosing from films with different speeds and deciding when and where to shoot. I also have one other decision: which of my vintage, pinhole (lensless) or toy plastic cameras to put in my bag. I choose cameras the way painters will choose a brush.”

Adams finds this “low and slow” approach to photography to be artistically liberating. Fewer options means he has to slow down the process of image-making. He has applied this approach to A wide range of subjects, from portraiture to so-called “street photography.” Many shots are what he calls “one and done” opportunities, which means he has just one opportunity to capture a scene. Sometimes, however, he has the chance to revisit a scene multiple times during different times of day or with different cameras.

Such was the case with a site in North St. Louis City, which Adams calls the “Hanging Tree.” He noticed the severely trimmed tree along Highway 70 on his way home one day. The tree was “decorated” with a large, hand-painted sign and several painted figures.

  Hanging Tree: Gun Play

Hanging Tree: Gun Play

“It caught my eye, not only because of the large sign, but because of how dangerous it must have been to climb high into the tree to hang the sign and figures from chains and ropes. Whoever put up those items must have truly believed in the messages on the sign, to ‘Drop the Gun Son’ and ‘Get Down and Pray.’ Whether you believe in the politics of the message, you have to admire the commitment it took to get that stuff up there,” Adams says.

Adams shot the tree on two occasions with three cameras, including a Chinese-made 120 format camera called a Holga. This is the camera he used to create “Hanging Tree: Commandment,” which was selected for inclusion in two recent juried art exhibitions, the Somerville Toy Camera Festival at the Brickbottom Gallery in the Boston area, and at the State of Our Shared Land exhibit at the St. Louis Artists’ Guild gallery in Clayton, Mo. Adams created the two black-and-white archival prints in his own darkroom from negatives he developed himself.

“To borrow a manufacturing term, I am very vertically integrated with my photography. I control and create as much by hand as I am able. I even mix my own developer because it is not commercially available. I find it amusing and a little ironic that I use the best film, chemicals, processes and papers to make photographs rendered by the lowest-quality cameras,” Adams says.

Also selected for the Somerville-Brickbottom show is “Hanging Tree: Gun Play.” Adams made this photograph with a modified camera he calls an Isolga. Adams created this “Franken-camera” by removing the glass lens from a vintage, 120 format German Isoly camera and replacing it with the plastic lens from a Chinese Holga camera. For added effect, he turned the single element lens backwards, a process known in the toy camera photography world as “flipping” the lens.

 Hanging Tree: Commandment

Hanging Tree: Commandment

“Toy cameras are inherently unpredictable with weird blurs, vignetting around the corners and light leaks, among other eccentricities,” Adams says. “With my Isolga, the flipped lens makes it exponentially more unpredictable. A majority of the images made with this camera are junk, or throw-aways. But every so often, a shot turns magical.”

These photographs are available for purchase through the respective galleries: Brickbottom Gallery, Boston, MA and St. Louis Artist’s Guild

About CB Adams

CB Adams is an award-winning fiction writer and fine art photographer. He has exhibited photographs at State of Our Shared Land at the St. Louis Artist’s Guild, Interpretations and Comestibles at Columbia Art League, RAW: St. Louis Presents Grandeur, Food Glorious Food II and Under at the Influence at Art Saint Louis, Somerville Toy Camera Festival (2018 and 2015) at Brickbottom Gallery and Nave Gallery, respectively, in Boston, Visions at Sacramento Fine Arts Centre, Soulard Art Market's Urban Architecture II, Lenscratch’s My Backyard, The Holga Show at SAANS Gallery in Salt Lake City and four in the accompanying book, The Foundry Art Centre’s Unrefined Light: Image-Making With Plastic Cameras, among others.

His fiction has appeared in Elder Mountain A Journal of Ozark Studies (forthcoming), Zoetrope All-Story Extra, River Styx (twice), Missouri Writers’ Biennial (two stories), Thoughtful Dog, The Distillery Artistic Spirits of the South, Blue Penny Quarterly, and elsewhere. He received first place in Missouri Arts Council’s Writers’ Biennial Competition and MISSOURI WRITING! Competition. He was profiled as “St. Louis’ Most Under-Appreciated Writer” by poet/writer/editor Richard Newman in St. Louis Riverfront Times. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL).