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Stockroom Projects


b. 1946, Singapore

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NOOKMAG, 18 July 2012

Artisan Handcrafted Cameras

A closer look revealed that the peculiar object was actually a pinhole camera. There was a few of them actually, each differ in shape and size. Next to it was another camera on a pedestal, really majestic looking, gleaming in all its splendor. This mammoth of a camera was a 4×5 large format field camera. Analogue cameras in an art gallery? I must find answers!

So I had a chat with Sunar Sugiyou, Maya’s resident artist/curator regarding these interesting pieces and he told me that all of it was hand made by a photographer named Khamis Ariffin better known as Karto. All this information is driving me nuts! I have got to meet this man in person. I went home, did a little research, sent out a few emails and voila ! Arrangements was made for me to get to know Karto better at Maya Gallery.

Khamis Arrifin fondly known as Karto is a self taught photographer who came from the humblest of beginnings. He started out to be an artist in his early days but soon switched path to pursue his interest in photography. The very first camera he owned was a Ricoh rangefinder. It was given to him by an english colleague who was leaving for home after serving in the British Army during the colonial days in Singapore.

He began learning the skills, shooting around the kampung where he lived. Money was scarce during those days and developing rolls of films can cost quite a bit. He was forced to learn how to process, develop and print all by himself. In 1975 Karto bought his first Nikon FM SLR at a cost of approximately $400 which he paid by installments. Five years after he had the opportunity to go to the states for his first proper training in photography. Throughout the one year duration, he still had to make ends meet working as a dishwasher at night after classes to support his wife and kid back home.

After he came back, Karto started freelancing for small advertising firms and the rest I would say is history. So how did Karto started making his own cameras? A challenge. Proposed by close friends whom are photographers too. Putting thoughts to task, Karto began to collect bits and pieces of camera parts. Parts that he didn’t have, he’d make it by hand. It took him three years to make his first camera which was a 4×5 large format camera.

Now it would just take Karto three months to make the 4×5 and approximately two to three weeks for a pinhole camera. All the materials used are recycled. Even the tools that he uses does not use electricity. Yes, that would meant using a hand drill powered by hand. Karto firmly believes that in order for his cameras to be authentic, the process should be authentic as well.

As Karto shares his stories, I can’t help but to have this great admiration for this man whose passion still burns till today. A man with little resources and yet still manage to learn and develop the skills that can still put young cocky ‘professionals’ to shame. I am truly humbled by this experience. Not anybody can be a great photographer but a great photographer can be anybody.

Karto’s handcrafted cameras are available at Maya Gallery. Prices range from $300 onwards.

Photos courtesy of Maya Gallery and Karto.