Un-cropped film and manipulated borders are strong elements in the work of Moroccan photographer Lalla Essaydi. She incorporates the language of darkroom and alternative photography through her use of an analog large format camera and the manipulated borders framing the imagery that reference the distinct aesthetic look, and possibly appeal, of a large format Polaroid photograph. The use of both techniques allows for a specific aesthetic appeal and lends to each individual photograph a quality of being made by the hand. The process-driven choices made by the photographer extend contemporary and historic photographic references to the images and enhance the conceptual subject matter in a manner that may not be as successful, or possible, with other photographic processes.
In her work Essaydi utilizes large format photography to capture her created constructions of female figures and Arabic calligraphy. The large color photographs, ranging in size from approximately six feet by seven feet to five feet by three feet, have extensive detail, such as in Essaydi’s photograph
After the Bath, 2008, from her Les Femmes du Moroc series. In this piece one can easily decipher between several sizes of text in the background and foreground. The all-over focus of the image in combination with the image’s high level of detail is a photographically natural relationship that can be achieved using a large format camera. The detail within the composition reflects Essaydi’s significant time spent planning and creating every element of each photograph, but most importantly it is her use of a large format camera, which allows for the great detail, complete focus and large scale. This combination of the scale, focus and detail can be seen as one of the main reasons for Essaydi’s choice in using large format photography.
Though Essaydi seems hesitant in interviews to give detailed information about her process, one can garner further information from a careful visual analysis of her work. In several interviews the artist has offered a brief description of her photographic process, explaining that, “I work with large format. There is absolutely no manipulation whatsoever with my work. I shoot the film and we print in a darkroom the traditional way.”
While the use of large format photography is evident in the scale, focus and detail of her work (as above) it can also be found in the shape of the outer edges of the photographs. Clear indicators that Essaydi is using film in a large format camera are the two parallel places in each photograph where the edges push out from the sides or the top and bottom, depending on the orientation of the image. For example when looking at the photograph La Sultane, 2008, from the series Les Femmes du Maroc, the projection of the image into the black border surrounding the photograph is evident on the top and bottom of the image, at its right side. The projection is more noticeable at the top of this image because it extends deeper into the black border. The projection of the imagery into the black border can be found on all the photographs Essaydi displays on her website in the Les Femmes du Maroc and Converging Territories series except one, Les Femmes du Maroc: #23, which will be discussed later on in this essay.
These marks or changes of image shape are left on the film from the film holder when the photograph is exposed, creating an irregular rectangular shape. The film holder is a rectangular metal or plastic case that is approximately the same size as the film being used. The most common film size for large format photography is 4 x 5 film, which is named for it size (4 inches by 5 inches). Another common large format film size is 8 by 10 inches. The film holder holds two pieces of film that get loaded into it, one on each side, in complete darkness. The loaded film holder is then slid into the large format camera after the photograph is set on the ground glass in back of the camera and focused. Once the film holder is placed in the camera, and the slide removed, an exposure can be made. Since one film holder can only hold two negatives, photographers shooting with a large format camera often load multiple film holders and are more conservative with how many photographs they take, often spending a considerable amount of time selecting the composition of the imagery and focusing the camera. What then is the difference between a large format camera and any other camera?
 Maureen G. Shanahan, “A Conversation with Lalla Essaydi,” ed. Sarah T. Brooks, The Photography of Lalla Essaydi. Critiquing and Contextualizing Orientalism (Broadway, VA: Branner Printing) 2014, 23.