Peter Steinhauer lives for black and white. He loves the aesthetic, the quality and all the history associated with the medium.
Peter has spent much of his career behind large format cameras printing his work in his own darkrooms for over 18 years. Today he is fully digital and has been enjoying pushing his Phase One digital backs to their limits, capturing ethereal landscapes with extraordinarily long exposures. He uses the P45+ back because of its ability to make long, noiseless exposures. The P45+ can easily handle Peter's long exposures which are typically from 30 seconds to twenty minutes. He is testing the Phase One Achromatic back now which is a pure black and white digital back.
"I like to photograph on a project basis. I have a particular objective in mind. If I go out to shoot the landscape, that's all I do. And since all my landscape work is tripod based, it's hard to switch to portraiture halfway through a landscape shoot anyway unless when I am working in countries far away from Hong Kong, where I am based, then I must take advantage of the time constraint and photograph both as I travel.”
Peter shoots throughout Asia, mainly on location. He lived in Vietnam for 13 years and Singapore before settling down in Hong Kong. While working commercially, he always had a number of personal projects running concurrently, including several books. Two books on Vietnam are already published and there are further books in production including two on Hong Kong, one on Bali, India and Burma. At the beginning of a project, I envision a large body of work with the final body of work designed as a book."
Black Moor, Hong Kong
Black Moor is a combination of man-made structures, the environment and typical atmospheric conditions found in Hong Kong.
"This is very much Hong Kong weather", Peter explains, "with heavy skies and lots of mountains. When I first started photography, I was intrigued by 19th Century images in which portraits of the people were a little blurred, but this in turn created a photograph that was really alive, almost moving. At that stage, I wasn’t aware of how exposures affected the image. I was just intrigued by the ghostly people. However, as my education progressed and I moved into landscape photography, I continued to return to the early 19th Century for inspiration. I was drawn to this style of work from late 19th century photographers, Eugene Atget and the Scottish photographer, John Thompson, as opposed to that of Ansel Adams in which all movement is pretty much stopped. This is why I primarily started working with longer exposures. When I can and when it's appropriate, I like to put movement into my work. The wind is always blowing, the sea always moving – I think long exposures add more life to the photography."
Black Moor was photographed using a Phase One 645AF camera with a P45+ back and a 150mm lens. The exposure was around three minutes and Peter uses a number of neutral density filters to ensure long exposures, even during daylight.
"Each ND filter represents about four stops, so I might use three or four of these filters with my lens stopped down to f/16 to achieve the long exposure time. It all depends on the ambient light. For this particular exposure, it was towards the end of the day and overcast, so I didn't need as much neutral density. I like these atmospheric conditions and the soft light in the early morning and late afternoon. The light is at its softest then and it is my vision for this type of light."
Ma On Shan View
"This image is taken in the New Territories. Hong Kong itself is an island, but it includes mainland areas all the way up to the border of China. Where I am standing is in a national park and people are amazed when I tell them this is Hong Kong! It's nothing like the dense urban areas of HK and Kowloon. It's a long hike to the top of the mountain from the car park. There are hiking trails all over Hong Kong and, coming from Colorado, I get out into the hills as much as I can. It's a really important part of my life."
"I shoot in black and white because that's the way I see. I just think and see that way. "The diptych and triptych presentations of my work are again influenced by the 19th Century ways of shooting and the banquet cameras. The only way to fit 100 people into the picture was to use a long, glass plate camera and I love this format. When I get into areas like this, I feel all this space around me and so I need to create a work with a long format. However, I intentionally make two and three separate images for these. I don't take one image and split it into two, rather I have a very high-end leveling tripod which I use to precisely frame each photo. I make the first frame, and then turn the camera to one side so the edges line up and then make the next frame."
Using the P45+, Peter says he can confidently produce 40x50 inch prints for exhibition. "The files are fantastic and the images are as sharp if not sharper than a drum scanned 4x5" negative. Certainly using the Phase One is far superior to shooting with a 4x5" camera and I guess the only drawback is when you take a 20 minute exposure because you have to wait another 20 minutes for the noise reduction software. It would be good to have two backs!
"This is one of my best selling prints. The scene has never left my mind since I first photographed it from the ground it back in 1994, but it wasn't photographed the way I wanted, inside a flat from the 15th floor, until a couple of years ago after I moved here."
"It's a disappearing part of Hong Kong, but it shows the density of the old block estates which are being rebuilt and replaced. It's only around 15 meters from wall to wall and I knew I needed to be about half way up the building to produce the symmetrical composition I had in mind. However, obtaining access was difficult. The people who lived there were worried I was a developer or that I might take away the home they had been living in for the last 50 years. Their security really checked me out and I had to submit my books and portfolio to them."
"After we obtained permission to do the shoot, the next challenge was opening someone's window and getting the camera into position. The windows are only 50 centimeters wide, so it's even tough to get your head out to have a look! In fact, if I had a 4x5" or 8x10" camera, there's almost no way this photo could have been made! How would you get a film holder in or stop the lens down? I like to do as much processing as I can in Capture One, getting the tones exactly as I want them. I leave the black and white file as an RGB and process it out to 45x60 inches. I process all my files to this size and then shrink them if needed to make smaller prints."
"In this image, the building is lighter at the top and gets gradually darker towards the bottom. It's such a narrow opening that except for the top couple of floors, the sun would never hit the walls directly. My approach to the image was just as if I were working in the darkroom, dodging and burning the file to lighten the bottom and balance it more closely to the top. I don't think I've ever been so happy or satisfied about an image as this one, and I was just as excited to see it for the first time as a print It was an image that was consistently on my mind for 15 years until I was finally able to make it the way I had originally envisioned it when viewing it from the ground."
Landscape and portraiture make up the majority of Peter's photography and he's currently working on a project which documents the varied faces of people in different Asian cities.
"I'm visiting different countries and cities, shooting people with a Mamiya 120mm macro lens. Some frames are full body shots, others are just faces tightly cropped. It's amazing to see the differences in people's faces from country to country. I started this project with a 4x5" view camera and each image has the film rebate around it. If you look at 19th Century photographs made with glass negatives, you can see where the glass was taped or held during processing. These marks produced a frame and I always liked this effect. I had modified my film holders to produce this as if it were a glass negative. I'm continuing it with the digital files and each frame is individually made. It's not a stock frame."
"The Phase One files are a good match for the 4x5" negatives, but there is a difference in the depth-of-field. Both 4x5 and 8x10 of course have a much shallower depth-of-field than medium format, so the closest I can get to the large format effect is to use the 120mm macro lens wide open at f/4. And that's another difference digital has made to photographing people. I used to travel with a suitcase of Polaroid print film. I'd make an image with the Polaroid, show it to them, and then take a second frame using film. It worked really well in places like rural Vietnam, Cambodia and India. Today I have a Fujifilm instant camera which does a similar job, but it's the Phase One camera that makes the final exposure."