I’d like to spend a few blog posts on thinking about how moving from one format to another, from 35mm to 8X10, for example, can significantly transform the way a photographer works and the kinds of images he or she produces. There’s nothing mysterious in this and I’m not offering a new idea, but I usually gain something whenever I start reflecting on my own camera work and because Kathy and I received a camera collection as one man relieved his own burden onto another, I often feel almost plagued by too many options.
In reality though, my-go to cameras are much more confined than the collection. For this first reflection, I want to think about shooting large format, which for me includes 8X10, 5X7 and 4X5. For the past couple of days I have been contact printing older 8X10 negatives on Fomalux contact printing paper. For these sessions I have been mixing Ansco 120 developer, a soft working formula that has only Metol and a lot of sodium carbonate. The Fomalux paper is available only in grade 2 but it is a pretty harsh and contrasty grade 2, much more so than the Lodima grade 2. It is also much more affordable. The Ansco 120 did its job and really tamed the contrast without sacrificing the rich blacks that mark this Foma paper. We are able to enlarge up to 5X7 negatives so for the 8X10s scanning or contact printing are our present options.
I have had an 8X10 camera for over 20 years. The first was an Eastman 2D with no back rail extension nor sliding block. Then I bought a C-1, B&J version with 3 backs very cheaply on eBay and after installing a new bellows I have a very useable and versatile camera, and very heavy. My last acquisition is an Eastman Commercial 8X10 with block and extension rail and is made of magnesium! This is my big field camera. I don’t own any large format lens later than the 1960s, nothing multicoated, mostly Ilex Acme shutters and my older lenses include my favorite Protar VIIa in a Compound shutter. It dates from the early 1920’s while I have a brass lens with the faceplate missing that I suspect is an 10 inch Goertz Dagor in an Ilex Acme no 4. I mention the lenses because as a large format shooter, I can successfully use a lot of old glass and be very happy with the results. This is, I think, a prime positive characteristic of making large format negatives.
This first illustration is a scan of a platinum/palladium print from an 8X10 negative shot with the 7 inch component of the Protar VIIa. None of the big equipment is really light and the 8X10 and 5X7 cameras require a tripod. These college girl models were dancers and were very good about holding their poses. All of us knew that the big wooden camera required something more than flashy moves, and their facial expression, very relaxed and focused, was at least in part the result of being before the 8X10. So besides that truism that large format takes more time, there is this truth, that often it has a positive effect on those who stand before its studied gaze. Using a tripod leads to a second characteristic possibility of large format: one can do long, long exposures.
The second illustration is from a 4X5 negative taken with a Crown Graphic and a typical Optar 135mm lens. I was deep in a cavern looking down at an unnamed creek with a small waterfall behind my back. The creek and its bed were not spectacular, kinda of tangly and disordered, but there were some interesting rock outcrops. Around here there is a lot of basalt leftover from slow flow lava from long, long ago. My meter groaned at the darkness and I stopped down to f-22 and held the shutter open for a clean 60 seconds. My tiltall tripod did the trick and I made two negatives. Now the disorder and messiness of the little creek became something else, all mystery and light, things that my eye could not see were revealed. It was the possibility on the groundglass that pushed me to the image. If I could have used a 35mm on a tripod I might have got something similar but the 4X5 glass is much more revealing and the large negative evoked much more of the presence of the wet rocks, now luxuriously there!
The third illustration is of a chair sitting by the fireplace. There is a high window behind it, a typical multi-pane Craftsman house window. This is also a scan of a PT/PD print. With an 8X10 negative, it is a natural thing to make a contact print and doing that invites the photographer to explore some of the 19th century printing processes. This image was shot with Ektascan xray film, a very inexpensive option for 8X10 shooters which I have also found hard to process to its full advantage. It is exceedingly sharp, and scratches if you breathe a little too heavy in its direction! (that is an exaggeration). Here the convenience of being in the house makes a heavy 8X10 camera seem very manageable and so it lends itself to such intimate shooting.
Finally, this last illustration represents yet another characteristic of the big cameras. With 34 inches of bellows, some of my lenses can get really, really close. This photo, made on a 5X7 negative is the result of an hour or so of playing with things at hand on the shelf below that same multi-pane window. I had a theme in mind, working in the context of a series of images and this makes a vague reference to the “Devil and his Wife” which in addition refers to a song I wrote and recorded, “The Devil is Beating his Wife”, which also, in turn, refers back to an old Southern saying which my young and Southern wife introduced me to. The Zuni Bear is apparently, their pet. Here the big 5X7 glass lit up with the bright daylight flooding through and behind the widow glass and with painstaking balancing and fiddling and lots of experimentation I finally saw this image, and shot it. The closest object to the lens was about one foot away, thanks to that long, long bellows. At this point, measuring the bellows extension is required and reciprocity factors in as well. I love looking at the big ground glass. It’s beauty is infinite because we can continue to look at new things and see how the glass transforms them.
So that’s a little reflection on using large format film and cameras. The next reflection will be on using medium format film and cameras.