Astrid Tilton shoots big pictures on big film

Astrid Tilton posing for her mother with her 4x5 camera. — Photo by Heather Tilton

A confluence of events in the young life of Vineyard Haven 15-year-old, Astrid Tilton, has lead her to embrace the turn of the last century technology of large format, film photography.

Unlike many of her peers who whip out their pocket size cell phones to photograph and video the things going on around them in full color digital formats, Ms. Tilton, a sophomore at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School and a scion of a long line of Island Tiltons, uses a large box camera on a tripod that requires her to insert 4- by 5-inch sheets of film one sheet at a time to photograph the images she choses to capture. She then develops the film and prints the photos by hand — a time-consuming process that requires a mastery of the chemistry that brings the photos to life.

“You have to know about different things using film than you do with digital,” the well-spoken teenager said. “I think the chemicals are really interesting. The way they work is awesome. I like worrying about that rather than using a digital camera.”

For Astrid, using film is more difficult and more rewarding. “The end result is better. I like printing. You have so much more control over the image and you see how it all works. It isn’t like pushing buttons. You are actually doing it. It makes a whole lot more sense.”

Even though Ms. Tilton’s mother, Heather, a teacher at the high school, is a photographer who has a 4×5 camera and a darkroom at home, Ms. Tilton didn’t have much of an interest in photography until she talked to Sam Hiser, the parent of a fellow student, on an eighth-grade whale-watching trip.

Mr. Hiser is a photographer who teaches darkroom technique using an inexpensive plastic Holga camera at Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs. He consulted with the Ms. Tilton’s advisor at the Charter School who helped set up a photo program using a darkroom already at the school.

Her interest in the 4×5 format developed from a photograph Edgartown commercial photographer David Welch took of her and two friends with a large format camera. Mr. Welch was teaching as an artist in residence at the Charter School, and he has since volunteered to mentor Ms. Tilton. She attributes much of her knowledge to the help she has received from him. Mr. Welch oversees an open darkroom program at Featherstone on Monday and Tuesday evenings. The program is open to the public, and Ms. Tilton does much of her darkroom work there.

She likes to look at old photographs that were taken with large format cameras. “They give me ideas of the possibilities,” she said. “Most really old photos were taken with large format cameras.” She has photos from the extensive collection of her grandfather, Robert Tilton of Vineyard Haven. His collection contains old photographs of Island scenes, boats, family photos, and Vineyard Haven post cards. She is interested in preserving and has copied many of the photographs from the collection.

She uses a 4×5 camera and a set of lenses given to her by former Island photographer Robert Schellhammer, who now lives in Tennessee.

A growing number of students at the Charter School have shown an interest in film photography since Ms. Tilton started taking pictures. “I helped teach a photography class last year and taught nine kids how to use the darkroom,” she said. “They used 35 mm cameras.”

At times, Ms. Tilton also shoots with a 35mm film camera.

She likes the convenience of studio photography and uses a space at her home as a studio. “Going to the beach in the winter with a 4×5 camera is like the worse thing ever. Working in a studio is a whole different world,” she said. “You have total control over what you are taking pictures of.” Setting up the home studio has inspired her mom to dust off her 4×5 camera to take photos as well.

Ms. Tilton plans to focus on lighting and working on portraiture in the near future. A trip to Italy, another eighth-grade inspiration, has sparked her interest in eventually taking her photo skills on the road as a travel photographer.