The Man Behind the Camera: Meet PONF Founder Raffaello Palandri

In our interview series introducing the different members of the PONF team, you might have started to wonder who was the creator of this ambitious, innovative company. Rest assured, we didn’t forget about Raf, he has just been SO busy behind the scenes in thousands of hours of meetings, strategy development, and research, that we weren’t able to share this interview with you until now, but here it is! Without further ado: introducing PONF’s founder and director, Raffaello Palandri.

A lifelong user of film and digital cameras, Raffaello also brings to PONF many years of wisdom in leading large, complex IT projects. He applies this knowledge of quality, teams and systems to execute his vision and successfully create a camera that many others have talked about for years but never quite managed to bring fully to market. He is busily networking within the photography industry to create a new kind of camera company, one that is a friend and collaborator of all, to create a future for film photography that is sustainable and accessible to all.

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Where are you from, where did you grow up? Where are you living now?

I was born in Florence, Italy (its Italian name is Firenze), but I grew up mostly in Rome. When I started working on the idea of an innovative camera, I had the luck of finding in my best friend, my soulmate, Tiziana. To start the PONF Multiback Open Camera Project we moved to Dunfermline, Scotland, the old Capital of Scotland, before Edinburgh got the job. After the vote on Brexit, we decided to move to Germany, and after a few weeks in search of the perfect spot, we chose Nuremberg, Bavaria (and to be more precise in Middle Franconia).

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What is your earliest memory with photography?

I have memories of me keeping my mum’s Olympus Pen when I was probably only 4 years old. I still have that camera, and I love its silent shutter and the pleasant smell of the leather bag, that reminds me my family and my childhood.

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Describe your first encounter with digital photography.

My first digital camera has been the Konica Minolta Dynax (Maxxum in the USA) 5D. I still use as avatar a selfie taken with that camera. I was amazed by the technology, having always been the guy that disassembled everything he had on his hands. So, I started shooting both film and digital, never leaving film, though.

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What is your favorite film and camera or image making equipment/process?

Apart from PONF? I love 6×6 cameras and, being a collector, I developed a passion for TLRs (twin lens reflex). I love their design, the sound of their shutter.
For image making, 4×5 is a really lovable format. It generates fantastic images, and you can do everything at home, development and printing.

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What has your career been like? What are some of your favorite or most formative past projects or roles?

I had the luck of getting good experience in managing projects, including very large ones. I think I had many different roles on the same ladder. I have always worked in IT related jobs/projects, from really humble roles to managing ones. What I always loved about working in IT is the huge potential computers have in helping us, if we are able not to lose our humanity searching profit. I have been a quality manager, and from that role I have learned how to follow any process in detail, something that now is becoming essential in the development of our camera.

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How did you get involved with PONF?

I had the idea, I did the research, and I bootstrapped the company until now. I have been lucky in finding many people interested in the project, including the many companies and institutions which are supporting us in different ways. We are building up a team, and that’s important. I would like to find our project, in a five years time, deeply rooted in the photographic industry and development. We are investing to help people learn how to make better photographs, how to write with light.

 

Tell us about your role with the project, recent successes, in progress developments, etc.

Formally I am the director of the company that runs the project and the head of R&D. Using less official words, I am one of the team who is developing this amazing camera.
We are generating a lot of interest around the project, making every day steps forward, learning from our mistakes, considering them as opportunities to better learn. We are now teaming up with amazing companies, amazing institutions, amazing people. We can boldly say that we are small, but we are growing strong.

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What are you interested in besides photography?

Well, I am Curiosity with a capital C. I am an avid reader, and I usually read 150 books per year, in addition to those required by my job. I am a tinkerer, I like to touch things and learn how they work to improve them. I love calligraphy and collect writing instruments. Apart from that, I relax practicing meditation (one day I will come back to teach it) and ki development.

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Let’s end with your advice to another photographer but with a twist: Ten words or less or a Haiku.

Follow the light
the one outside you
the one inside

Great Haiku! Thanks Raf. You can drop Raf a line at raffaello@ponfcamera.com, and follow him at his website, Twitter, Instagram, and blog, as well as on the PONF Facebook, Instagram, and newsletter. So many ways to get in touch! 

Focused on Photographs: Meet Gregg McNeill

In this interview, we meet photographer, filmmaker, and educator Gregg McNeill, who joins the PONF team as our key tester of the prototype of the PONF Camera, and leader in the PONF Foundation for Photographic Education, which will provide resources to Fellowship members.  He is currently based in Scotland, but was born in the United States and has lived all over the world, working as a director of photography and photographer on TV and film documentary projects including the acclaimed “Outside The Wire” for The Red, White, And Blue Project, the heartfelt story of soldiers working to make the lives of children better in climate of war in Afghanistan. He has also worked on many other commercial and personal projects. Because of his love of all types of picture-making, from digital filmmaking to traditional (or alternative) photographic processes such as wet plate collodion, we think he is an excellent resource for all of us in the PONF community and his test images are certain to be beautiful. Without further ado, we are pleased to introduce Gregg.

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PONF: Where are you from, where did you grow up? Where are you living now?

Gregg McNeill: I was born in Michigan, grew up in Ohio, moved to Virginia and currently live in Scotland with my wife and daughter.

What is your earliest memory with photography? 

My mother used to take snapshots with a Kodak Instamatic. The ubiquitous form factor of that little camera has stuck with me. It used the blue flashcubes. There were always a few stashed in a drawer in the living room.

Describe your first encounter with digital photography.

I was shooting for a company in Virginia and they had bought a digital camera that I was asked to become proficient in using. It was an early Nikon (I don’t remember the model number).  I was a fairly late adopter of digital photography. This wasn’t intentional, it was just that my personal work wasn’t calling for it. After using several digital cameras, I understood digital’s place in both my professional life as well as my personal work.

Several years ago I was shooting a documentary in Afghanistan. I was shooting both video and stills. There would have been no way to do that job with film. I was a one-man band, with all of my gear carried on my person. In addition to the video gear, I had a Canon 40D (that had just been released), a kit lens, a Nifty-50 and a 35mm 1.4 prime. I shot some of my best portraits with that set-up. Digital was definitely the right tool for that job.

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I feel like in the last 5 or so years, we’ve gotten beyond the Film VS. Digital debate and that is a good thing for the photographic community in general. Both mediums have their place and we need to remember that. Analogue photography is becoming what it was always meant to be, an artistic medium that can be practiced by anyone. It’s not as cheap as it used to be, but any artistic pursuits never are.

What is your favorite film and camera or image making equipment/process?

That is a tough one.

I have a great affection for the Pentax K-1000. It was my first camera. Its shutter clack has always been comforting to me. The K-1000 is in my opinion the very best student camera ever made. It’s very sturdy and has an accurate meter. The 50mm 1.8 lens that came with mine is a great piece of glass. To this day I still shoot with it.  I love the quality of image this camera and lens produce. When coupled with TMAX 3200 and a high acutance developer. The sandy granularity of the images brings to mind the classic looks of old-school street photography from the 40’s and 50’s.

The Original Holga is right up there. At one time I had 5 of them. Each one had a different personality, photographically. I shot exclusively with them for about 5 years. The removal of the inserts meant that I was framing and exposing to the edge of the film itself, often including the edge numbers of the film in the final image. The focus fall off and vignetting combined with the 6×6 format made this a wonderfully challenging camera to shoot with. It’s tough plastic construction meant that they could sit in the bottom of my bag all the time. 2 or 3 Holgas were my constant companions for many years.

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The Bronica ETR always felt really great in my hands. The 2¼ frame was a really nice format for framing objects and people. The tack sharp lens and rectangular frame was a nice compliment to working with the Holga.

Where the Holga taught me to let go and embrace the unknown, The 4×5 Graflex Press Camera brought me back to a place where I had to really slow down with my images and concentrate on the components of the frame again.

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When I took up Wet Plate Collodion, I bought a Vageeswari 10×12, my current favourite. It’s the most simple and honest camera I have ever used. The process of Wet Plate Collodion is the most challenging, frustrating, amazing and fascinating process I have ever done. I constantly feel challenged and right at the edge of my comfort zone. I haven’t been this excited about photography since the first time I got excited about photography over 30 years ago.

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Favourite film is easy: Medium Format Tri-X Pan ASA320. The tonal gradation and grain structure of that film was always second to none.

What has your career been like? 

I’ve been making images since I was a teenager. My photographic journey has taken me through many film formats (Minox, 35mm, 120mm, Polaroid, Pinhole, LomoKino, 4×5, 8×10, 10×12). I am currently obsessed with the Victorian wetplate Collodion process. I split my time between Corporate Video and Documentary work and Wetplate.

What are some of your favorite or most formative past projects or roles?

My first University photography teacher (whose name has been long since lost in my memory) had a tremendous influence on me in ways I didn’t realize at the time. She instilled in me, among other things, the maxim of framing in camera. So that we couldn’t crop our shots in the darkroom, our first assignment was to hand cut our 35mm negative carriers out of matt board so that the whole frame of our printed work was presented within the grindy uneven frame of the carrier, sometimes showing portions of the sprockets. (I kept that negative carrier and when I later moved to Medium Format, I cut another neg carrier, this time in 6×6, for that very purpose.)

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This idea of framing in the viewfinder had an enormous effect on my work. It kept me looking at the frame as well as objects within in the frame, moving a step here or there to keep things out of the frame or move things into the frame.

Knowing that whatever I saw would be included in the final print, made me very aware of my subject and it’s relationship to the other objects in the frame.

Another incidental effect this would have on my work was that the edge of the negative carrier and the film frame itself worked as another frame for the image, allowing me to let highlights blow-out on the edges of an image, not having to worry about detail in a bright sky or a streetlamp, to save more important detail in the darker parts of the image. A side effect of this is that the neg carrier became part of the image itself. This would also tune me into experimentation with frames within a frame (the jagged neg carrier would become the frame of the frames within the frames.).

I was working for a media firm in Alexandria, VA. One of their clients, a group that certified sustainable forests, needed images for a new campaign and website. My boss VC1had seen my work on Flickr and asked me to shoot some images of old growth forests and executives in those forests. He told me that he liked the “old-timey” look of my work.

When I started to explain what I would like to do, he stopped me and said, “I don’t understand a word of what you’re saying. Just do whatever you need to do and show me when it’s done.” The only stipulation he added was that he wanted me to take the digital Nikon to shoot backup images of the portraits, just in case. I walked away from that conversation knowing I had the Holy Grail of assignments. It would be one of the best photo experiences of my professional photographic life. The Film tally of that project was: 120mm Tmax 400, 120mm Ilford Delta 3200, 120mm Portra 400 NC, 120mm Portra 400 VC, Polaroid 690, Polaroid 3000 BW , Minox 400 colour, Minox 400 BW, 35mm Portra 400 NC, 35mm Tmax 400, 35mm Tmax 3200. Cameras used: Canon A-1 (28mm 2.8, 50mm 1.4), Canon T-90 (wide zoom), Pentax K-1000 (with a screw-mount East German 400mm f5.6 lens for portraits), Minox B, Holga, Holga fitted with a pinhole, Polaroid 200 Land Camera fitted with a pinhole, Nikon Digital (kit lens)

The first leg of the trip was to Shenandoah National forest. I was awestruck by the size of some of the trees. I came back with several amazing images. I had them scanned by another photographer I knew. This was one of my first experiences with a hybrid process (capturing on film and finishing digitally).

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The second leg of that trip would be to a National Forest outside of Vancouver, British Columbia. Words fail to describe the beauty I captured there. For the post on this series of images I purchased an Epson Perfection V750 scanner and a wet-scanning kit, as well as several film holders and ANR (anti-newton ring) glass. The library of images for this job was as vast as it was varied. I loved using the different formats and films within the same project and the results were great.

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How did you get involved with PONF? 

I contacted Rafaello through Instagram when I saw one of his first posts about the project. I told him that I wanted to talk to him about what he was doing and that I’d like to test the camera and help him refine it. We met at a café in Edinburgh for a ‘quick chat’ that ended up being a 2½ hour in-depth conversation about what we loved about film photography, cameras and lenses.

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Tell us about your role with the project.

I will be one of the very first testers of the camera, sharing my work along the way, and also will play a key role in the PONF Foundation with a focus (pun intended) on education. I will be co-writing educational materials and leading courses on photography available to members of the PONF Fellowship.

I am very excited to introduce this camera into the world and I’m looking forward to helping new photographers make the most of the PONF system. My personal goals for this project are to get more people shooting and help young photographers to gain enough experience to be able to shoot with intention.

What I mean by this is to visualize the image that you are after and using your knowledge of what your camera, film (or sensor) and chemistry can do, and more importantly they can’t do.  With this level of understanding of your tools, you can more easily make the images you want rather than hoping for something amazing to happen.

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What are you interested in besides photography?

As a filmmaker and photographer, my vocation and my hobby have joined forces to destroy me.

Let’s end with your advice to another photographer but with a twist: Ten words or less or a Haiku.

Know All Of Your Tools

Always Shoot With Intention

Go! Make Images

Thanks Gregg! To follow Gregg’s work, you can check out his wet plate website, Dark Box Images, his commercial photo/video website, Blue Box Images, or you can follow him on Flickr or Instagram. Stay tuned to learn more about the team here at PONF, and the development of the world’s first multi-back 35mm film and digital camera.

A Camera For All: An Open Letter to the PONF Community

KPhipps-10Hello PONF, I’m Katherine Phipps, nice to meet you. I’m pleased to introduce myself to the growing community as the new PONF Marketing and Communications Director. I’ve been shooting photographs for nearly a decade now, and have been working in and around the photography industry since 2015 when I graduated from Pratt Institute with a BFA in Photography. When I first heard of the PONF Fellowship, I was enthusiastic to get involved with an organization which is so committed to creating a camera which is meant to suit the needs of all photographers, no matter which side of the imaginary digital vs. analog line they fall on. In fact, I find the need to decide one versus the other to be arbitrary and limiting as they both have their own distinct place in the modern world as a way to make photographs, in art, in professional photography, and perhaps most importantly, in  photographic education.

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I fell madly in love with photography when I was 16 and let me be honest in saying that it has been the longest standing, most healthy relationship of my life. I shot, processed, and printed hundreds of rolls of 35mm and 120 (shot exclusively in my Holga) black and white film in my two years of amazing photographic education under the loving guidance of Nicole Croy, who has since been recognized as one of the best photography teachers in the United States by the Society of Photography Education. In 2011, I was awarded a Regional Gold Key for my photography portfolio and a National Silver Medal for a photograph in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. I then decided to pursue photography and art as a career and moved to New York for art school.

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The hybridization of analog and digital photography is fascinating to me because it quite literally offers unlimited possibilities in image making to artists. When I was a sophomore in college and preparing to transfer from a tiny upstate art school to the school of my dreams, Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, the then-new department chair Stephen Hilger visited the group of incoming students and described the method of working he was introducing into his curriculum. It involved taking photos on film and then using incredibly high resolution scanners and large format printers to make a final print.  Where the more purist students guffawed at the idea of editing their precious negatives in Photoshop rather than meticulously c-printing them, I saw reference to my beloved darkroom process in every step and began to transition my workflow to include digital editing and printing processes.

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Screen Shot 2018-01-09 at 3.41.05 PM.pngFast forward to senior year of art school. I wasn’t working in the darkroom much anymore, but I was incredibly prolific: I was shooting exclusively large and medium format now for my art and making large prints on rag paper. I was also developing a style I really liked in silkscreen, which informed a gum bichromate print that I worked on for 30 hours and really loved. I was making books and preparing my gallery show. I’d also began working for a wedding photographer and was not only editing high volumes of images for him but also learning to make photographs that I liked with a DSLR at weddings and in the studio. I will admit that as a film shooter accustomed to extreme contemplation in my photographic process, it took me a lot of practice before I was able to use my digital camera intuitively, fast enough to capture every moment the way I could see it unfolding before my eyes. I missed a lot of times but I was able to see my mistakes in real time: missing focus, botched exposure. That instant feedback was valuable. Now, my clients trust me to document some of the most important moments in their lives, to accurately translate their intimate experiences into art, and I am confident that I can do it, because not only have I found an equipment setup that really works for me, I know that camera inside and out from experience.

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Once I left school I was hit with a massive realization I had not expected: for the first time in six years, I didn’t have access to a darkroom or the expensive medium format cameras I had been using, and my photography process had to change. However, I was using my digital camera a lot, as I had managed to secure a steady stream of small shooting and editing gigs which was really thrilling until I dropped a hard drive and had to experience both client frustration and a gut wrenching six weeks of anxiety while I waited for the miracle of data recovery to be performed. I learned an important lesson about the impermanence of pixels and my desire to shoot film was stronger than ever, but I had a silly misconception that serious artists didn’t shoot 35mm film and thus I was resistant to using the Canon Rebel K2 I’d carried everywhere with me in high school. Even more so the Holga I’d once bragged about in my Photo 101 class, much to the chagrin of my artsy professors keen to teach exposure and contrast.

Screen Shot 2018-01-09 at 3.53.41 PM.pngIt all changed when my friend told me, after listening to me lament my hard drive woes, that Lomography was hiring for customer service in their NYC office, a position I held only briefly before my role expanded to Online Marketing, PR, and Community Manager for USA and Canada. My time at Lomography was deeply formative and I acknowledge with gratitude that I unlearned every pretentious idea I ever had about photography: that it wasn’t for everyone, that we shouldn’t document our lives intimately with selfies and snapshots and every kind of picture in between, that there is any sort of hierarchy in equipment or format. I was fortunate to work with many artists, students, journalists, educators, curators, musicians, and best of all, the creative geniuses on the Lomography team around the world in my years there and was inspired by all of it. I learned to trust the process and not worry about the outcome, in order to produce a something better than you could have imagined. This is the beauty of analog, the magic of the latent image. But above all, I would say my greatest takeaway is that everyone has something meaningful to express and capture through photographs if given the opportunity.

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The other really important thing that I learned at Lomography is that in general people do not only love film in the so-called “digital age”, they crave an interaction with something tangible and are definitely willing to experiment with cameras aside from their smartphone. Instant cameras and mobile instant printers saw a huge jump in popularity between 2016-2017, and major media outlets like TIME and the Today Show touted the resurgence of analog among consumers, while Wired and Wall Street Journal wrote guides about which cameras to buy. Proudly declaring that film was not dead, many companies released new cameras as well as new film emulsions and formats, much to the delight of film shooters, who for years had only heard news of camera stores and film factories shuttering their doors. I can confidently say that whereas early in my career in art school my colleagues and I worried about the sustainability of our love for film, this is clearly not a problem anymore as there is an evident, renewed interest in analog. The 2000s digital pro-sumer popularity boom is waning, once again making space for a bright future for film photography.

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All of this to say, my experience in photography is a number of things: academic, professional, artistic, democratic, experimental, fluid, but most of all, driven by a love of pictures and a recognition of their importance in our lives. Everything I’ve learned so far has lead me to believe that the more photographers connect with one another as a community, and connect with and refer to analog, alternative, and even antiquated photographic processes as a medium, the possibilities for photography in the coming age are limitless. There is an integral place for digital photography and digital workflow in the modern world, and there is no reason that the two forms of photography cannot exist side by side as I personally see them both as necessary and important tools in my practice of photography. This is why I’m pleased to be on the team bring PONF to life. I’m passionate about photography, and photography on film. 

One of the first things I worked on was updating the website with more information about the PONF project. What do you think of the new design? Do you have questions or thoughts to share? We want to hear from you.

Comment below or drop me a line: katherine@ponfcamera.com

All photographs by Katherine Phipps except the first portrait, by Daniel Schaefer, and the instant photograph of Katherine and Al Roker, by Kyle Depew.

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