Sunday, 7 September 2014

Large Format Photography: A Journey into the Unknown.

Just a quick break from Owl, to talk about something new and exciting because right now I'm a happy chappy! 

When I started taking pictures two pictures ago, I often wondered how famous photographs like the ones from Ansel Adams or Edward Weston were so clear and so detailed. Before I did any proper research I just assumed they were all just using 35mm film with some super-duper amazing lens and camera system way beyond any budget I could afford in my lifetime. This was before I learned that fine-art photographers to this day, even ones considered the best of their time like Ansel Adams, had absolutely no money to speak of in their working career, and photographers with limitless pots of gold to buy the best and newest equipment is totally false. Anyway, for a long time I pretty much just assumed 35mm was the only film format in existence and that all the great photographers throughout the 20th century used it exclusively. While all this stuff is elementary for most people, being entirely self-taught, it took me a year to realise this is a completely wrong assumption. At least it was only a year and not say, 10 or 20 years.

After some more digging around and I discovered that nearly all the fine-art photographers I really like used or continue to use something called sheet film which is very large photographic film. It's still all the same base film like Tri-X, T-Max, Velvia etc but it comes in a variety of sizes such as 4x5 inches and 8x10 inches. Which compared to 35mm or even medium format in it's various sizes is absolutely humongous. This is called large format photography.

Large format offers a number of advantages, the most beneficial being the gigantic piece of film for a single image. This offers detail, superior tonality and resolution far beyond anything 35mm, 120 or even the best modern digital camera are capable of. LF film is still the medium of choice for any serious photographer in the world today. Why oh why did no one tell me sooner!? The downsides? It's slow, a bit cumbersome and the cameras are heavy. Strangely, many of these downsides can be considered a plus points, and this is ultimately the reason I really want to get into large format work.

It's rare I take a good picture (relative to my own ability) without realising it. This is mostly because I'm not really someone who goes looking to capture a single moment, among a sea of many moments (I don't want to say 'decisive moment' but I just have). I'm fairly studious when it comes to taking a photographs. When I'm out and about I'm actually shooting a whole roll of film, just so I can develop the one or two pictures I really want. When I use my medium format camera, because of the reduced shots of film per roll, I actually take far less pictures but end up with more I like because as the cliche goes, I'm forced to think about each shot more. LF is the ultimate expression of this idea. Yes, the amount of the photos you can take is essentially limitless, but each of those images is a tangible amount of money being spent everytime you click the shutter button. In theory, this improves your photography because every single shot counts, so they better be damn good otherwise you're going to be broke very quickly. Many will tell you that LF is much cheaper in the long term because of this. In the end it's not really about how much the film itself costs, but how much it's costing you each time to get one good image.

To cut a long story short, I've acquired a large format camera; a Graflex Pacemaker Crown Graphic, a picture of which is below:

A bit of history about this brand of camera. The Crown Graphic is not a typical 4x5 field camera, it's a press camera, meaning it's original use was intended for newspaper photographers who attached big flash bulbs to the side of the camera and prowled the streets and crimes scenes looking for that elusive front-page image. I suppose they wanted the larger format over 35mm or 120 because it allowed them to do quick contact prints for newspaper without the need for enlargement. What's interesting is that any of the famous press photographs you see from the 1940's to the 1960's were almost certainly taken on a Graflex Speed Graphic or Crown Graphic like the one I own. The most famous examples being Weegee's photographs of crimes scenes in New York or Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. It was a very pervasive camera as the Graphic's design never really changed throughout it's entire history. For many it's considered the highest point in American camera design, partly because of how good it is and partly because of how much an icon of American design it as well. These days, there isn't any use for these as press cameras so they've found their way into the hands of people like me looking for an inexpensive but high quality route into large format.

The serial number dates it to roughly 1957 I believe. Unsurprisingly like all good cameras from this era it still works very well but I'd predict unlikely to come without a few quirks considering it's age. I've yet to discover what these might be other than a small mark on the inside of the lens. I love the Deco-style typography and layout.

The camera has an optional rangefinder on the side for focusing but embarrassingly, I don't really understand how it's supposed to work. Instead, you can focus through the lovely ground glass in which the image appears upside down. I like the idea of this, because it reduces a scene down to it's simplest form of shape and colour. If the rangefinder worked you could actually handhold this camera like a dapper news reporter from the 1940s and 50s!

At some point, I will of course upload some photographs, but there's still a few bits I need to buy to be able to develop the film at home. There's also the small matter of an animation to finish!


tutorphil said...

yes, you sound like a very happy choppy indeed. Very much looking forward to seeing the images you take with this big, retro beauty!