a photographer from the past makes slow instant portraits

an experiment

the method is straightforward: i set up my camera with a few sample portraits and wait. on most days, the installation arouses curiosity even before i am ready.

working with a box camera slows things down – time for sitters and bystanders to tell their stories of portraits, to talk about photography here and today, in the past and in different cultures.

it happens that skateboarders argue about the original and the copy. the smell of developer coming from the camera reminds retired photographers of their early darkroom work. spectators estimate the just price of a hand-made instant portrait. a man from syria recounts having his first passport photograph taken with a box camera in the 1960s. younger clients debate whether a unique print is mainly awkward for sharing in social networks – or rather a precious object … 

some portraits become gifts, some may remain with the sitter. some travel in wallets; others are proudly exhibited, nicely framed, on living room walls.

as soon as i find time, i write down the tales of the day in my notebook.

a few sample portraits from recent projects:

the drawing above is by andy fischli.

how it works

the making of a box camera portrait in five steps (photos by raphael good):

1 focus and composition - photo raphael good
pose, composition and focus

2 light and settings - photo raphael good
metering the light, camera settings

3 counting to three - photo raphael good
counting to three: ne bougeons plus!

4 developing the photo - photo raphael good
developing the photo inside the camera

5 watering the photo - photo raphael good
watering the print

the portraits are usually 4 x 5 inch or half that, similar in size to smartphone screens, cartes-de-visite or prints we find in our grandparents photo albums.

the original unique prints remain with the sitters. i keep scans of some portraits (if i may) and fill my notebook with anecdotes.

boxkamera-foto gerahmt mit passepartout
box camera portrait, matted and framed

boxkamerabild im portemonnaie
box camera portrait, travelling in wallet

the afghan box camera

a street portrait photographers’ workhorse and a combination of camera and darkroom: the same box serves for taking pictures and developing them (within a few minutes). archaic ancestors of photo booths and polaroid cameras, variants of these devices were used all over the world.

in afghanistan they are called kamra-e-faoree. there are also indian, russian, latin american, african and european models. here you see pascual miralles, a ‘fotografo minutero’, taking portraits in spain. a box camera turns even up in ‘the good, the bad and the ugly‘. and this video shows qalam nabi at work in kabul where box camera portraiture was still widespread a few years ago.

the book ‘box camera now’ by lukas birk (2020) is an anthology of work by ‘neo afghan boxeurs’ (i am on page 264). a companion website to the book has more photographs, some historical background, films …

my replica is inspired by the ‘afghan box camera project‘ (by lukas birk and sean foley). modifications to the basic model permit to mount different optics and to use paper and film up to 8 x 10 inch (20 x 25 cm). the camera was built during a residence at the studio buchegg (thanks again to beat for the woodworking support).

projects and selected series

zurich-kaboul 8/14 (gestohlene räume / stolen spaces)

zug-kaboul 10/15 (ohne rast / restless): interview

ce n’est pas très beau / souvenirs from glauser’s world (strauhof)

portraitdienst / double exposure (11/18 buchbasel)

la scatola magica (interview by fausto colombo)


bookings for festivals, exhibitions, events or portrait sessions at the studio: please call or write an email.


my box camera under a starry sky (drawing by andy fischli)