Esteban Pastorino Díaz: The Invented Eye

© Esteban Pastorino Díaz ‘Cementerio Azul’ 1998 [Azul cemetery, Argentina – detail]

I am driven by curiosity… What would happen if…?


The eye does not see like a camera. We do not perceive complete images through sight alone, but rather we construct pictures in the mind from a mixture of visual information, memory and logic. When the camera was invented its imagery seemed seductively strange not only because it was so ‘true to life’ but also because we saw the world in a new way: photographically.

Of course, one of the most obvious differences between a photograph and human vision is that the photograph is frozen and often in focus. We can spend time perusing every detail of a single moment. In contrast, seeing with our eyes involves inspecting many points within a scene over a period of time and then constructing a picture in the brain. Even cinema, which appears to present a continuous moving image, is in fact a series of separate frames, each effectively a still photograph. 

The Argentinean artist Esteban Pastorino Díaz understands the nature of the camera and the many ways in which photographic images can be created. None is quite the same as the way we see, but each approach – each technical and aesthetic experiment he makes – draws on the functional peculiarities of human sight. His images of Art Deco architecture play with print processes and lighting that we associate with the 1930s to evoke a strong sense of historic period. In his aerial photographs he uses adjustments in the focal properties of the lens to suggest a radical shift in scale. His panoramas unfold across time as well as space.

Esteban Pastorino Díaz is an artist and an inventor; an engineer and an illusionist. He takes the inferences born of our experience and the conceit that a camera is like the eye, and orchestrates those expectations, inviting us to look at the world afresh.

Alasdair Foster

© Esteban Pastorino Díaz ‘Municipalidad de Carhue’ 2000 [Carhue town hall, Argentina]


Alasdair: The first of your photographs that I saw were of buildings designed in the 1930s by the architect Francisco Salamone. What drew you to make these images?

Esteban: In 1997 I saw an exhibition documenting Francisco Salamone’s work. I had been planning a series about monumental buildings in Buenos Aires and I instantly knew that this was the subject I was seeking. Salamone designed more than 50 buildings that were erected over a four-year period from 1936-1940. The architecture was, consequently, both extensive and coherent. Yet, at the time, his work was almost unknown, even among Argentinean architects. This intrigued me.

The aesthetic is striking, shooting at night and then using the gum printing process. Why did you choose this approach?

I wanted to emphasise the monumental aspect of these buildings. The dark background isolates the building, frees it of context. The lighting is usually from street lamps or a hand-held flashgun, which intensifies the contrast, giving definition to the buildings. And, since the light is directed upwards from ground level, it increases the sense of scale. All this helps to create a dramatic feeling that suits the nature of the buildings, which were mostly cemeteries and slaughterhouses.

I decided to use the gum printing process because it had been popular at the time of this Art Deco architecture and lends to the image an ambiguous sense of time, making it difficult to say when it was made.

[Left] © Esteban Pastorino Díaz ‘Cementerio Saldungaray’ 2000 [Saldungaray cemetery];

[Right] © Esteban Pastorino Díaz ‘Matadero Salliqueló’ 2000 [Salliqueló slaughterhouse]

What exactly is a gum print?

The gum print was invented in the late 19th Century, but it remained popular in the early 20th Century among Pictorialist photographers. I think there are probably as many ways of gum printing as there are printers, but this is how I do it… First, I coat a heavy and textured watercolour paper with gelatine. Later, a coating of emulsion is applied with a soft brush. That emulsion is a mixture of gum arabic, potassium dichromate and carbon pigment. The negative is laid directly over the prepared paper and exposed in sunlight. While the original negatives are 20 x 25 cm, I enlarged them to make 64 x 80 cm copy negatives for the contact-printing stage.

In its natural state, potassium dichromate is soluble in water, but exposure to sunlight makes it insoluble. After exposure, the print is soaked in water. The parts where a dark area of the negative protected the paper from the light remain soluble and wash away, leaving white paper. Meanwhile the areas exposed to light remain and the carbon in the emulsion shows black. I repeat the process three or four times to increase the density and contrast of the print, and I use small brushes and a water jet to wash out certain areas of the prints in order to enhance details, which effectively makes every print unique.

© Esteban Pastorino Díaz ‘Spaghetti No. 1’ 2006

You have made a series of photographs that look like shots of model scenery. But they are not, are they?

No. All the images in the aerial series depict real places. I began with the idea of questioning the way we read photographs. By faking the short depth of field and shooting from a high angle I get a ‘miniaturising’ effect, like looking at an elaborate toy town.

I built a large-format 4”x 5” camera in which the lens can be tipped and lifted to produce a sloping plane of focus: the so called tilt-shift effect. Today this effect is well known – it is included as a filter in software such as Photoshop and even in small digital cameras – but back in 2001, there were no such options available and it had to be done optically.

Why did you want to present these scenes in this way, rather than more naturalistically?

I wanted to create an image that can be read in two different ways. At first glance the subject seems to be a model or toy, but after closer inspection, one realises from the level of detail that this must be a real subject… yet it still looks like a model. This contradiction questions the way our perceptions are formed.

How do you get so high up? Did you hire a helicopter?

Hiring a helicopter was the first idea, but I soon changed my mind once I knew the cost per hour! Besides, helicopters are not allowed to fly at the low altitude over populated areas, so it wouldn’t have been a solution anyway.

After researching for other ways, I found that in the late 19th Century Arthur Batut made aerial images using a kite. I thought: if it was done more than 100 years ago, I can do it now! Using a kite turned out to be a good choice. It was cheap, reliable, easy to transport and has the strong lifting power necessary to carry the 4”x 5” cardboard camera up into the air.

© Esteban Pastorino Díaz: [Left] The cardboard camera that is suspended from a kite

[Upper Right] Operating the camera  on a kite

[Lower Right] ‘Barrio Magdalena’ 2003 [the neighbourhood of Magdalena]

So, inventing and making things is all part of the process for you?

Yes. I am driven by curiosity… What would happen if…? The question is usually linked to an unconventional way of using photography that requires me to develop my own equipment because what I am trying to do cannot be done with a shop-bought camera.

I also enjoy the idea of creating something from scratch; making something with my own hands rather than buying it or having it custom made. I believe that all the challenges and solutions that arise as I am designing and making leave their traces in the final image… and that makes it unique.

What other technical innovations have you created to make unusual photographs?

For the past fourteen years, I have been designing and working with long panoramas using slit-scan cameras. In 2004 I created a version that can produce a single negative of up to 1.6 metres in length. This is the one I use most often. It can also shoot in stereo using two parallel rolls for film.

© Esteban Pastorino Díaz ‘Washington D.C.’ 2011

How would you describe the result that is captured using this technology? It’s not quite a ‘snapshot’, in that it is not a single moment frozen, but it is also not a moving image…?

While, a traditional camera exposes or records the entire frame simultaneously, the slit scan camera on the contrary, exposes the film sequentially. This means that what is depicted on one end of the image took place seconds, minutes or even hours before that which is on the other end. This is because of the way the camera exposes the film: while the shutter is open the film moves continuously behind a narrow vertical slit. What is depicted along the film is not space but time. That is the big difference. So, one can’t think about this kind of image in the same way one does about a normal photograph or even cinema, which is itself simply a sequence of separate still photographs.

According to the ‘Guinness Book of Records’, one of your photographs has been confirmed as the longest continuous negative ever made.

Yes. The image was made in June 2010 and depicts the main streets and avenues in Buenos Aires along a 3.1 kilometre route. The camera was designed and built to take 35mm cinema film (which is available in longer rolls than that used for still photography) and mounted onto the roof of a car. The shot took approximately 15 minutes to expose and during that time the camera rotated 97.5 times. The negative is 39.4 metres long.

Is it really the longest negative ever made?

Well, it is the longest negative validated by Guinness World Records, but is not actually the longest. In 2010 I photographed the New York City Marathon in a single shot 305 meters long, which is the length of the longest film commercially available. In this case the camera was stationary on a tripod registering the runners as they passed in front of the camera. The exposure of the whole film took a little over two hours.

Such long images must be hard to share with others – in gallery or in a book or on a screen. How do you negotiate those challenges?

In some cases, especially the very long panoramas, it can be difficult to show the work in a way I would consider ideal. But it is still possible to do it in a way I like in the gallery. I have had a few opportunities to show the 39-metre image completely in larger galleries. However, I have never, so far, been able to show the New York Marathon image laid out completely. When I did show it, it was on a long wall between two spools, one at each side, which allowed the film to be wound from one side to the other, but one could see only sections at a time. In a similar way, it can be shown on screen with the image scrolled horizontally. For printing I select details from the whole image. When you have an image with this unusual proportion – around 12,000:1 – you must expect some compromises when presenting it. But I still believe that someday I will find the right place for it…

What are you working on now?

I am working in a series of 360-degree ‘portraits’ of cameras that have been influential in the history of photography. Their influence might have been because they marked a technical milestone, or because they were manufactured and bought in massive numbers, or because they were used by important photographers. I believe that the relation between the photographer and the camera (artist and instrument) is unique; more so than for any other medium. Cameras not only influence work, but also, I think, come to reflect aspects of an artist’s personality. And, of course, the camera is the very place in which the image is created, something that is unique to the medium.

If you were not a photographer, what occupation do you think you would have had?

I think it would relate to aeronautics. I have been fascinated by planes since I was a child. I made my first aerial photograph when I was fifteen using a remote controlled aeroplane and a tiny 110 camera. Some years ago I finally got my pilot’s license and started the long-term project of building my own homemade aeroplane. It’s hard for me to think of any occupations beyond photography and aeronautics.

© Esteban Pastorino Díaz ‘Aeroclub Veronica’ 2003 [Veronica Flying Club – the airfield where Esteban learned to fly.]

Biographical Notes

Born in Buenos Aires in 1972, Esteban Pastorino Díaz studied mechanical engineering at University of Buenos Aires before going on to study photography in Argentina and later in Greece. From 2004 to 2006 he continued his artistic research during residencies in the Netherlands and Spain at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, Amsterdam, and Casa de Velázquez, Madrid.

He has exhibited in solo and group shows in galleries and museums around the globe. His work is held in the permanent collections of major international museums including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Museum of Modern Art Buenos Aires, and Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts in Japan. He has won a number of prestigious art awards including AACA Photographer of the Year Award (2001), the Leonardo Prize for Photography (2001), the Antorchas Scholarship (2004) and the Photographic Exhibition of the Year Award from the Argentinean Association of Art Critics (2006). He holds the Guinness World Record for the longest single-image negative (which measures 39.54 meters in length). He lives and works in Buenos Aires.

This article was first published in Chinese, in the June 2014 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.