Heavy-metal photog makes ‘old-school Polaroids’

Robert Kalman uses a vintage photo technique to shoot a portrait of celebrity photographer Johnny Rozsa in Tompkins Square Park. Photos by Bob Krasner

BY BOB KRASNER | You may wonder, what is a retired elementary school principal doing in Tompkins Square Park with an old 4-x-5 camera, making images of East Village denizens using a process that dates back to the Civil War?

Portrait photographer Robert Kalman, who has been shooting with large formats for 30 of his 45 years of camera work, has only recently begun using a wet-plate process to exercise what he calls his “gift for making portraits.”

Invented in the 1850s, the operation results in a single image on a sheet of metal — aluminum, in this case. There is no negative: You can think of it as a more work-intensive Polaroid.

Robert Kalman, center, shows East Villager Johnny Rozsa the finished product, to which Rozsa comments, “F—ing divine.” Rozsa’s companion and dog are at right.
The finished photo portrait. The subject, Johnny Rozsa, was born in Nairobi and educated in England. He was introduced to Buddhism by Tina Turner in 1982 and is a longtime practicing Buddhist. Photo by Robert Kalman

Briefly, the technique involves coating the metal with collodion, immersing it in silver nitrate and inserting it, while still wet, into a film holder, in the dark. The photo must then be shot in the next few minutes, before the plate dries. Fifteen seconds later, the image is developed but still needs to be fixed, washed and dried, usually by his intern, Siri. (Yes, he has an assistant named Siri).

Setting up shop by the park’s Ninth St. entrance on Avenue A, Kalman and his wife, Linda, keep an eye out for possible subjects, who will receive both a digital scan of the original and a print.


Robert Kalman with his wife, Linda Kalman, right, and his assistant, Siri Burt.

Eventually, the images will probably be shown at the Soho Photo Gallery, at 15 White St., where he is a member, and may possibly end up in a self-published book, as he has done previously.

A New York City native, Kalman now lives Upstate. What is he looking for in a subject?

“I want locals rather than tourists,” he said. “I want people with a certain presence. I can’t explain it, but I know it when I see it.”

For more information about Kalman, visit his Web site at www.robertkalmanweb.com