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Richmond photographer uses 1800s camera to capture modern urban environments

Photographer Em White stands in front of a white wall with historic photography equipment
Photographer Em White, featured in Capturing the Moment: Democracy, stands with her historic photography equipment. Photo by Bill Reifenberger.

Take a diverse group of talented photographers and ask them to explore the theme of democracy in America. Then film their photoshoots on location. The result is Capturing The Moment: Democracy, a series of unique and multifaceted stories that depict the concept of democracy in our world today.

One of those photographers is Em White, who specializes in historic photographic processes and large format work. She uses a camera from the 1800s to highlight the beauty of urban environments. The fully mechanical camera allows her to manipulate every element when creating an image: “I want people’s eyes to go where my eyes are going.”

Growing up around the James River influenced her relationship with photography. She thinks people often forget about urban spaces when thinking about environmental stewardship or conservation work. White wants to “recontextualize these urban environments” with her work.

“I want to create an image of a public space here in Richmond, a space that people enjoy, a space that as a community if we invest in, everybody benefits,” she said. “And I also wanted to document a space that is in need of protection and need of care.”

To White, democracy means people have the power and are part of a greater whole, sharing responsibility with everyone as equals.

“…so in terms of my work I think that is part of the democracy angle because it represents an area of the city that is a space of community, a space that everybody is responsible for, a space that everybody benefits from, a space that to me represents kind of this collective role that we all share,” White said.

To learn more about White and other photographers, watch Capturing the Moment: Democracy. Capturing the Moment airs on VPM PBS and streams on PBS.org on Thursday, January 6.