Chilean dreams of rescuing box camera photography

Luis Maldonado is the last remaining photographer in the main square of the Chilean capital still using a wooden box camera.

Clients are scarce, with days, even weeks, passing before someone asks him to create a portrait with the old-fashioned contraption. But coming from a family of box camera photographers that includes his grandfather, father and an uncle, Maldonado is unwilling to give up his beloved wooden box.

To make ends meet, Maldonado has taken on gardening and janitorial jobs. He's worked as a security guard and as a photographer shooting digital Christmas photos of kids sitting on Santa's lap.

"I know that you have to eat and live. But if it were up to me, I'd only be doing box photos. It's what fills me up," he said. "I'd be empty without the box."

The box camera was developed and became popular in the late 19th century. Its mechanism is simple: Light enters through a lens and the photographic paper inside captures a negative image of the subject photographed.

The box works both as a camera and a photo lab.

Once the negative has been developed, the photographer takes a picture of the negative image, using his arm to hold a special paper in front of the lens to get a positive print.

The process lasts about 20 minutes, resulting in a vintage-looking image.


In this Sept. 2, 2016 photo, photographer Luis Maldonado prepares his old wooden box camera at a fair in Santiago, Chile. Maldonado is the last remaining photographer in the main square of the Chilean capital still using a wooden box camera. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)


At about $7.50 per portrait, a box camera photograph costs more than twice as much as the $3 charged for a digital one.

Because most people are unwilling to pay more for a box camera photograph, Maldonado finally gave in and bought a digital camera and a small printer to make cheaper photographs.

For photographs with either kind of camera, the 48-year-old keeps a wooden horse and cow that children can pose with.

"While I take one photo, my colleagues take 10," Maldonado said of other photographers who take digital photos at the Plaza de Armas in downtown Santiago.

The first wooden box camera arrived in Chile in 1911 and seven years later there were about 300 box photographers in the country, Chilean historian Octavio Cornejo said. The box photographers union had more than 5,000 members by 1942, but that number plunged to about 300 by 1972, he said.

Maldonado believes box photography can be revived and wants to help raise awareness about the art form.

He remains proud of the work he did at the 2003 Venice Biennale in an exhibit about traditional Chilean art forms by artist Eugenia Vargas, using his box camera to photograph people who lined up to have their portraits taken.

"You need to live and also do the things you like in life," Maldonado said, smiling. "And I do what I like ... It's beautiful work, it's nostalgic and it's a part of me. I carry it in my veins."


In this Sept. 2, 2016 photo, photographer Luis Maldonado carries a prop to a fair where he will set up his old wooden box camera and take clients' portraits in Santiago, Chile. "You need to live and also do the things you like in life," Maldonado said, smiling. "And I do what I like ... It's beautiful work, it's nostalgic and it's a part of me. I carry it in my veins." (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

In this Dec. 1, 2016 photo, photographer Luis Maldonado talks to a client next to his old wooden box camera in Plaza de Armas of Santiago, Chile. Because most people are unwilling to pay more for a box camera photograph, Maldonado ultimately had to buy a digital camera and a small printer to make cheaper photographs. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

In this Aug.16, 2016 photo, plastic birds sit on the frame of Luis Maldonado's old wooden box camera in Plaza de Armas in Santiago, Chile. Maldonado uses the bird to call clients' attention when taking their portraits. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

In this Dec. 18, 2016 photo, people take a selfie with Santa Claus as photographer Luis Maldonado waits for more clients at a mall in Santiago, Chile. Maldonado, the last remaining photographer in the main square of the Chilean capital still using a wooden box camera, has taken on other jobs to make ends meet. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

In this Aug. 11, 2016 photo, photographer Luis Maldonado descends the stairs after putting away his old wooden box camera in Santiago, Chile. Maldonado comes from a family of box camera photographers that includes his grandfather, father and an uncle. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

In this Sept. 1, 2016 photo, photographer Luis Maldonado waits for clients by his old wooden box camera in Plaza de Armas in Santiago, Chile. Clients are scarce, with days, even weeks, passing before someone asks him to create a portrait with the old-fashioned camera. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

In this Dec. 20, 2016 photo, street photographer Luis Maldonado shows a negative that he says was made by his grandfather, his father, or his uncle, at his home in Santiago, Chile. Once the negative has been developed, the photographer takes a picture of the negative image, using his arm to hold a special paper in front of the lens to get a positive print. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

In this Sept. 2, 2016 photo, a dog slows down to timidly check out a fake horse, used as a prop by photographer Luis Maldonado in Santiago, Chile. Maldonado stopped by his friend's home to pick this horse up, along with other props, ahead of an annual fair where he usually has his best day of business taking portraits with his old wooden box camera. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

In this Dec. 20, 2016 photo, Luis Maldonado's photo album holds images of his trip to Venice, at his home in Santiago, Chile. He remains proud of the work he did at the 2003 Venice Biennale in an exhibit about traditional Chilean art forms by artist Eugenia Vargas, using his box camera to photograph people who lined up to have their portraits taken. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

In this Aug.19 2016 photo, the wooden box camera and prop horse and cow sit next to the elevator as photographer Luis Maldonado prepares to stow away his gear after a day's work in Santiago, Chile. Maldonado believes box photography could be revived in Chile and wants to help raise awareness about the art form. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

In this Sept. 2, 2016 photo, photographer Luis Maldonado poses for a portrait with his old wooden box camera as he waits for clients who want their portrait taken at a fair in Santiago, Chile. "I know that you have to eat and live. But if it were up to me, I'd only be doing box photos. It's what fills me up," he said. "I'd be empty without the box." (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

In this Sept. 2, 2016 photo, a prop horse for scenes set up by portrait photographer Luis Maldonado fills the viewfinder of his old wooden old box camera as he waits for clients during a fair celebrating Independence Day in Santiago, Chile. The box camera was developed and became popular in the late 19th century. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

In this Sept. 4, 2016 photo, a family having their portrait taken fills the viewfinder of Luis Maldonado's old wooden old box camera, during a fair marking Independence Day in Santiago, Chile. The box camera's mechanism is simple: light enters through a lens and the photographic paper inside it captures a negative image of the subject photographed. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

In this Sept. 4, 2016 photo, a group of friends fill the viewfinder of Luis Maldonado's old wooden old box camera, during a fair marking Independence Day in Santiago, Chile. The image making process lasts about 20 minutes, resulting in a vintage-looking image. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

In this Sept. 4, 2016 photo, a family having their portrait taken fills the viewfinder of Luis Maldonado's old wooden old box camera, during a fair marking Independence Day in Santiago, Chile. At about $7.50 per portrait, a box camera photograph costs more than twice as much as the $3 charged for a digital one. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

In this Sept. 4, 2016 photo, a girl getting her portrait made on a stuffed horse fills the viewfinder of Luis Maldonado's old wooden old box camera, during a fair marking Independence Day in Santiago, Chile. Maldonado believes box photography could be revived in Chile and wants to help raise awareness about the art form. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

In this Sept. 4, 2016 photo, a portrait lays in fixer as it's developed inside Luis Maldonado's old wooden box camera in Santiago, Chile. The box works both as a camera and a photo lab. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

In this Sept. 4, 2016 photo, photographer Luis Maldonado rinses a freshly developed portrait taken with his old wooden box camera during a fair marking Independence Day in Santiago, Chile. "While I take one photo, my colleagues take 10," Maldonado said of other photographers who take digital photos at downtown Santiago's Plaza de Armas. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

In this Dec. 20, 2016 photo, photographer Luis Maldonado shows negatives made by his grandfather, father or uncle, using this old wooden box camera, at his home in Santiago, Chile. The first wooden box camera arrived in Chile in 1911 and seven years later there were about 300 box photographers in the country, according to Chilean historian Octavio Cornejo. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

In this Sept. 4, 2016 photo, a woman looks through the viewfinder of the old wooden box camera used by photographer Luis Maldonado during a fair marking Independence Day in Santiago, Chile. Chile's box photographers union had more than 5,000 members by 1942, but that number plunged to about 300 by 1972, according to Chilean historian Octavio Cornejo. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)


Text from the AP news story, AP PHOTOS: Chilean dreams of rescuing box camera photography, by Eva Vergara.

Photos by Esteban Felix

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