What a 3D-Printed Vintage Camera Can Show You About Fake News

Drew Nikonowicz won the Aperture prize; now he wants to help novice photographers experience a favorite format — and gain a deeper understanding of our visual world.

The Standard 4x5 creator Drew Nikonowicz hopes that democratizing this foundational tool of photography education will help develop deeper literacy in visual culture.

American soldiers are lined up on the ground, machine guns at the ready. A helicopter hovers nearby. The image, captured in Haiti, seems to depict a dangerous war zone — until you view the same scene from a different angle. Another photo taken at the same airfield reveals the line of photographers in front of the soldiers; now, the first image looks more like a photo shoot. The illusion of danger is gone, and the subjective nature of photography is on full display.

Drew Nikonowicz mentions this pair of images to illustrate how literacy across photography, media, and tech is entwined. If you want to understand fake news, he says, study photography. And if you want to understand photography, Nikonowicz recommends you look back to its 19th-century origins.

The Standard 4x5 camera makes a staple tool of photography education more accessible.

His Kickstarter campaign for The Standard 4x5 is his 3D-printed take on the large-format film camera. The technology dates back to the early 1800s and has shaped the work of artists like Ansel Adams, Chuck Close, and Rineke Dijkstra. It’s hard to find a good 4x5 for less than $1,000 — “maybe you can find one for $500 if you spend a lot of time on eBay,” Nikonowicz says — and many serious photographers have never used one.

Backers can order The Standard 4x5 as a pre-assembled camera or as a kit to build themselves, with the help of an instruction manual.

By 3D printing the parts and offering them in a some-assembly-required kit, Nikonowicz is able to create a more affordable camera, give backers a better understanding of all of its components (he’s creating an instructional guide to help with that), and contribute to a growing trend of affordable large-format cameras on Kickstarter. In so doing, he hopes to help more people engage with the type of photography education that’s shaped his artistic — and epistemic — worldview.

Nikonowicz hadn’t even graduated from his BFA program at the University of Missouri in Columbia when he won the 2015 Aperture Portfolio Prize for This World and Others Like It, a series that merges 19th-century film techniques with contemporary digital visual practices. Though the vistas and aerial vantage points in his images suggest travel and adventure, he produced most of the series either on a large-format camera in his campus photography studio or with a program called Terragen at his computer; the series thus incorporates technology from opposite ends of photography’s history, drawing inspiration from early survey photography as well as Halo and Minecraft. His images capture “the growing chasm between reality and mediated fiction” and ask what it means to be an explorer in the 21st century.

This image from the series “This World and Others Like It” looks like a natural landscape at first glance, but was produced with a computer program.

“The project came out at a time when a lot of people were just starting to realize how interconnected our lives are digitally, and how these big corporations have access to a lot more [of our] information in meaningful ways.” Facebook’s problems with fake news were just starting to enter mainstream conversations; the privacy concerns that would eventually lead to GDPR were gaining political momentum. People were losing their trust in tech.

Nikonowicz’s favorite image from “This World and Others Like It” was captured in a video game.

The way platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube treat incendiary and unverified content has sparked conversations about the nature of truth: how can we be sure that what we see there is accurate? When two opposing perspectives are presented, how can we process information in a balanced way? These feel like new and urgent conversations, but it’s a theme that has always been embedded in photography, Nikonowicz says.

“Since the birth of photography, it has been treated as an authority — it’s permissible evidence in a court of law — but at the same time, you can completely fabricate entire experiences just by the way you choose to frame your photograph,” he says. “It has an incredibly complicated relationship with truth.”

This “pre-Google artifact” from the series is a card catalogue listing for “advanced record system 1977.” Its inclusion comments on how “technology has become the great mediator of navigating everything.”

Nikonowicz thinks his art-school education has helped him navigate that complicated relationship and create work that starts new conversations on the topic of truth. But he realizes that to make that type of education — or even self-education — accessible to more people, the tools need to be more available. Though he was an avid film photographer in high school, he didn’t know about large-format photography until his professor brought historic cameras into an intermediate photography class. Nikonowicz doesn’t want other photographers to go so long without seeing one.

“In a photography education program, working with a large-format camera, even for a little bit of time, is incredibly foundational,” Nikonowicz says. The format requires patience, attention, and thoughtfulness. “You have to have a tripod; you have to meter for the light; you have to get a film holder. There’s this whole procedure that you go through just to make one photograph. Something about that slowing down changed the way I thought about image making, and it changed the places and the things I was looking at in my images while I was actually making them.

“Being able to stop and ask, ‘Is this real?,’ whether it’s an article or a photograph, and being able to navigate those waters is hugely important culturally,” Nikonowicz says. “I’d like to think that by making any kind of photography more accessible, the whole system benefits.”

—Katheryn Thayer