The big picture

The big picture

URBANA — It's safe to say Tristan Duke had no idea when he took photography classes at Urbana High School that one day he would be working with — and inside — a giant camera.

The 1999 UHS alumnus travels around the country with the Liminal Camera, a fully functional camera and darkroom inside a 20-foot shipping container on a flatbed truck.

Not a simple pinhole camera, the Liminal boasts a custom-crafted lens and a large white board — the film plane — on which the negative images outside the truck are projected.

To focus, the camera operators move the white screen.

Duke helped build the mobile, solar-powered Liminal Camera when he was an artist-in-residence in 2010 at artist Lauren Bon's Metabolic Studio in Los Angeles.

After his six-month residency, he joined the studio's Optics Division and with Bon and other Optics Division member Rich Nielsen takes, processes and prints monumental photos of landscapes, cities and people.

"It's fantastic. We have a great time," he said.

"It's like nothing else. There's an intensity, especially when we are on the road. It's like being on a voyage. It reminds me of being in a submarine some times."

He especially felt that way in 2011 as he helped the Liminal Camera truck driver navigate the streets of Manhattan. From inside the shipping-container-turned-camera, Duke saw the city basically moving in reverse on the screen across from the camera lens.

"To this day, the map of Manhattan is upside down and backward in my mind," he said.

The Liminal Camera was in New York for several days to take photographs around the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

On that East Coast tour, the team also traveled to Rochester, N.Y., to visually record Kodak factories — the week the film company declared bankruptcy.

The photographs taken in New York and Rochester were later shown along with some of Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum.

In 2013, the Liminal Camera team returned to Rochester to mount at the George Eastman House an exhibition of the photographs they'd taken months earlier in that city.

"We've been doing museum and gallery shows all over since then," Duke said.

Last week the 34-year-old Duke was in Urbana with the Liminal Camera, visiting relatives including his father, Sid.

He left Monday to meet Bon and Nielsen in Chicago for the openings of two exhibitions of Liminal Camera prints taken last fall in Chicago and Gary, Ind.

The monster-camera team spent three weeks in those cities at the invitation of the Chicago Humanities Festival and DePaul University Art Museum, taking pictures mainly of the Chicago River, lake-front industry, water cribs and canals.

"That connects to a larger interest of the Metabolic Studio in looking at water as a resource," Duke said, noting that Los Angeles and much of California are suffering from severe drought and water shortages.

Bon's larger artistic practice through Metabolic Studio focuses on social justice and environmental issues and philanthropy; today the Optics Division team travels to Detroit to take pictures there.

Rather than use film, the Optics Division uses a paper negative attached by magnets to the white screen across from the lens.

The Liminal Camera also harkens back to the pre-photography camera obscura — a darkened chamber in which the image of an object is received through a small opening or lens and focused onto a surface rather than a film or plate.

Other large cameras exist but most are pinhole cameras, Duke said. While building the Liminal, Duke, Bon and Nielsen aimed for versatility and quality.

Duke, an expert in optics, had the camera's multiple lenses crafted at an eyeglass store, according to his specs.

The lenses are snapped into a fixture that allows the operator to set the aperture, or opening, for exposure.

"The main limiting factor in our exposure time is the photographic paper, or paper negative, we're using," Duke said.

It's slower than traditional film and requires a 1-second exposure in full sun, he said.

After an image is captured on the paper negative, light is focused through the negative paper while pressed against a sheet of photographic paper, resulting in a contact print.

Most of the prints made by the Liminal Camera are 4-feet by 10-feet in size; many are amazing in the details captured, Duke said.

The Metabolic Studio's Optics Division purchases paper negative and print paper in 200-foot rolls that measure 4 feet across.

Though a few companies continue to make such paper for silver prints, "It's getting hard to find," Duke said. "A couple of times we bought out the last remaining stock in the U.S."

Last fall the Liminal Camera operators began to experiment with color paper negatives, which are faster than their black-and-white counterparts.

"The color is a new venture," Duke said. "I think we'll do a lot more of it."

Team members develop the huge photographs inside the rolling camera, which is fully equipped with darkroom equipment as well as other things like orange traffic cones and yellow scaffolding.

They print some of the photographs inside the Liminal Camera to show people in the communities they are visiting but also do printing back at the studio in L.A.

A light-tight revolving door behind the truck cab is one way to enter the camera obscura. Equipment is loaded through the back door.

"We wanted this to be a permeable space in which people can come in and see what we're doing," Duke said, adding that hundreds of people entered the Liminal Camera last fall in Chicago.

Working with the Liminal Camera — liminal here is poetic rather than a technical term — is a part-time job for Duke.

In 2008, he founded Infinity Light Science, a research laboratory in L.A.'s Chinatown that specializes in laser holography, interferometry, light-field imaging, hand-drawn holography and relativistic imaging.

Recently, Duke created a hologram for Rush's vinyl album "2112" and a floating holographic angel for Jack White's vinyl LP "Lazaretto," released last year by Third Man Records.

"The angel is visible when illuminated with a focused light," Duke said. "The depth illusion is enhanced when you view it spinning. The angel looks like it's floating directly above the center of the record."

Duke also is a fellow at the unusual Museum of Jurassic Technology, a Los Angeles museum that displays bizarre relics and other artifacts in a way that breaks down conventional boundaries between art and science.

Duke's interest in photography was first sparked at Urbana High. After he graduated he took classes at Parkland College. He obtained his bachelor's degree from Naropa University, a private, non-profit liberal arts college in Boulder, Colo., with a Buddhist educational heritage.

For more on the Liminal Camera, go to

If you go

The Optics Division of Metabolic Studio has two shows opening simultaneously in Chicago, both featuring giant photographs taken with the Liminal Camera:

What: "Liminal Infrastructure," black-and-white and color Liminal prints depicting the city of Chicago as it relates to the resource of water.

When: Through Aug. 9

Where: DePaul University Art Museum, 935 W. Fullerton Ave., Chicago


What: "Liminal Portraits: Larger than life portraits of poets captured by the Liminal Camera during the "Burroughs Bash" in Chicago last October.

When: Through May 28, by appointment only

Where: Co-Prosperity Sphere, 3219 S. Morgan St., Chicago


Topics (2):Art, People