From the sublime to the ridiculous, Professor Kevin Strandberg transforms pieces and
parts into sculpture and art.
Story and art by KEVIN STRANDBERG
Hello, my name is Kevin, and I am a compulsive tinkerer.
By all accounts I have always been very adept at taking things apart. Neither crib
nor playpen could hold me as a toddler. Moments after I was buckled into my child
harness and leashed to the clothesline, I would pull a Houdini. Often I would take
apart alarm clocks or other mechanical devices just to get at the little gears, which
I would spin atop my school desk. Later I learned to put things back together — sometimes
in their original form and sometimes according to my own design. My family was not
very well off. Making things from scrounged parts was a necessary skill for us. If
wanted to have a bicycle, I had to build one. It was that simple and that complex.
Nowadays, I can’t stop myself. I take everything apart and put it together in a new
way. Sometimes the motivation is to improve on the original design of something, from
antique Italian motorcycles to a renovated 100-year-old building on Bloomington’s
west side. Other times I concentrate solely on conceptual and aesthetic notions: the
result is an assemblage or a found-object sculpture. In either case, I love the focus
that deconstructing and reconstructing objects provides. It offers an escape from
a hectic, even hostile, world.
Inside the Ames School of Art’s sculpture studio you might find some recent examples
of this incessant tinkering. My students have dubbed them “Franken-cameras” — I don’t
know if it’s because these cameras/sculptures look a bit scary or because I resemble
a mad scientist when combining all the odd bits and pieces to bring these one-of-a-kind
creations to life.
I can trace my passion for cameras back to the 1960s, when my older brother smuggled
me into a showing of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. The film had some brief nudity and was banned by the nuns in my school, which was
all the motivation I needed to see it. The plot involves a fashion photographer in
mod London who finds himself in the middle of a murder mystery. Never mind Vanessa
Redgrave’s bare breasts; I was transfixed watching David Hemmings’ character try to
solve the mystery by blowing up his negatives until the prints become enormous black
grains, barely readable as images. The movie made me want to be a photographer. Eventually,
I bought a Nikon F camera just like one used by Hemmings’ character.
Despite all the research and development done by camera designers, their products
often don’t feel right in the hand or they don’t function exactly as a photographer
would like them to. That was my experience with the Nikon F. It was a revolutionary
camera that was also an ergonomic nightmare. Its most irritating aspect was that you
had to completely remove its back to load film. Nikon introduced the F2 to address
this, but it remained awkward to load. Eventually my tinkering yielded a solution
to this flaw.
Though my early camera modifications were simple ergonomic tweaks, it emboldened me
to take more drastic measures. I began modifying larger-format cameras like the Graflex
XL, which had been engineered for military use in the Vietnam War. The modular nature
of these cameras allowed for easy dismantling and re-integration of dissimilar parts.
An added bonus: the increase in negative size naturally yields sharper images, as
they don’t need to be enlarged as much.
I should add that I am a wide-angle lens freak. Maybe it is the “look” that they give
to the image. Maybe it is just that they have such an extended depth of field that
focusing is not necessary. In the case of several of my Franken-Graflexes, I simply
re-machined lens tubes fitted with super-wide lenses, and the cameras stayed set on
Rebuilding cameras on a larger scale opened another horizon for me: I began considering
them not just as photographic tools that produce artwork, but as sculptural objects
in and of themselves.
For a long time, I have contemplated the form of cameras beyond their function. Perhaps it’s
my Scandinavian heritage, but I tend to believe that all utile objects need this aspect
to be part of their design. Often it is the design and finish that truly make an object
of desire. Since cameras are objects that connect our eyes, our minds and our hands,
they possess a strong tactile aesthetic. Many of my later Franken-cameras were created
with this aesthetic in mind. Still, I didn’t abandon function for form: Most of these
cameras are fitted with a high-resolution German or Japanese large-format lens capable
of producing razor-sharp negatives.
Although we are now decades into the digital age, I continue to make photographic
prints from black-and-white film. My loyalty to the darkroom process is partly because
of all the unpredictable and exciting things that can happen when light hits film.
And though the tasks of developing and printing are often onerous, that moment when
a latent image gradually appears in the developer tray is nothing short of magic every
time. Because of their unorthodox designs, my Franken-cameras can yield even more
Some of those surprises were on display earlier this year in a solo exhibition at
the McLean County Arts Center. Entitled The Franken-camera Project: From the Sublime to the Ridiculous, the show featured 14 modified and/or completely redesigned and rebuilt photographic
film cameras, along with photos I have taken with them. Two of the objects were newly
created sculptures that are also fully functional medium-format cameras. With funding
from an Artistic/Scholarly Development Grant provided by Illinois Wesleyan, I also
published a book I am using to promote what I hope will be further exhibition of this
show across the country. A sampling from the exhibit and book was chosen for this
Artist’s biography: Kevin Strandberg is a professor of photography, sculpture, and glass as well as the
director of the Ames School of Art. After earning a B.F.A. from the University of
Minnesota and an M.F.A. from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, he worked as a
graphic designer before launching his teaching career. Strandberg’s work has been
exhibited in juried shows across the country and is held in a diverse group of corporate
and personal collections (including two chefs in Barcelona and a music critic in Moscow).
To read Kevin Strandberg’s book, The Franken-Camera Project,click here.
To watch a video of Strandberg giving a tour of his exhibit at The McLean County Arts
Center, click here.