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Photography students travel back in time to capture an image of the original Strub Hall

To commemorate the centennial of Strub Hall, Paul Tzanetopoulos’ photography class embarked on an ambitious project—to take a photo of the 100-year-old building with a 100-year-old camera. Paul’s extensive camera collection includes an early folding model used by photographers around the same time that the 500 Bellefontaine estate was built. The final result was a spectral and awe-inspiring portrait of Strub Hall, an image that looks very much like those in the Mayfield archives. We sat down with Mr. T to discuss how this photograph came into being.
What was the general idea behind the project?
The lesson basically is to use photo logic and figure out how we could take this picture. I had never done this before. It made sense—but I hadn't ever tried it...

Did you have to buy 100-year-old film?
We had to make film. The negative film is what doesn't exist anymore. But you can still buy paper sheet film. So we took the negatives with a paper negative, one for the sky and one for the building, and then we reversed these digitally in Photoshop, combined them and created this picture.

Can you explain the process?
It was a little bit of a mental exercise for the girls to figure, okay, everything in photography is about reversal. So if we take a snap, what are we going to end up with? Of course it was going to be a negative, but the negative was going to be on paper and not transparent film. 

And how does a paper negative become this final print?
We scan the paper negative. And fortunately in Photoshop we can reverse things. 

How did you even find a 100-year-old camera? And how did you make it work?
I have a camera collection in my studio—50, maybe 60, cameras. This particular camera was actually bought in Pasadena in the late ’70s on Colorado Boulevard at a thrift store. The corridor of Fair Oaks and Colorado there was just a little art community. It's one of the very first places I visited as a young artist when I was considering coming to Los Angeles or New York. All the thrift stores were spectacular.

Have you revived old cameras before?
I didn't buy them intending to use them. Those particular cameras—the older cameras—I use them as demonstrations, because cameras have all the same functions literally over a hundred years ago as the cameras do today. Physics are physics, optics are optics—they do not change. So it's really nice to be able to show a turn-of-the-century camera, literally, that might've shot images of the Civil War, having the same physics and numbers and f-stops and everything that are in our digital cameras right now.

So it’s an anatomy lesson...but the camera is the body.
It is. It takes you back to the actual fundamentals. This class, the beginning class, when they use a manual camera, they're using all those things on purpose. Everything in Photoshop came from lab work, every filter, every effect. So they know that they could do something in Photoshop that might take a week of fussing [in the lab].

How did the girls feel about working with a turn-of-the-century camera?
Well, it was all an experiment! They were very jazzed to see the finished thing. Everybody had a hand in this. Logically I knew it should work. The thing is that I had never actually done it. I tried not to do too much ahead of the class so I could stay honest to the process. I tested just enough stuff so it wasn't leading them into failure. To get those final exposures, we had to take numerous shots because there's no meter in the camera. In other words, the camera doesn't have a brain in it like our modern cameras do. It was about a bunch of experimenting. So it might've taken eight, or nine tries to get through those final negatives. 

What do you do with this extraordinary final product?
We printed it at a larger scale, like a poster. I had the class sign it, and we framed it!
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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 21 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.