Big Camera Bad Photographs

This is a post where I should take as many hits as many others for I am as guilty of using a big camera to make bad photographs as anyone else I know.

This is the phenomenon of making the faulty assumption that even the most banal and boring of subjects is somehow elevated to a higher plane by being made with a large format camera. 

When I was a student one of the most fascinating and eccentric of my teachers at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) was Paul Krot.

Paul is now gone but for awhile Paul was a very good friend to me. He was hired by Harry Callahan in early days to be the guy that kept the lab going, ordering and mixing chemistry and as an overall technical person. Paul later founded Sprint Systems, the 5 gallon cubes of photo chemistry that schools use across the country in their labs. Harry decided Paul should be a teacher too so he started teaching. Paul taught a killer sophomore level tech class that dealt with chemistry, physics, optics and mechanics. I remember these words he said to me one day when I was still an undergraduate student, "Working in 8 x 10, everything is a photograph". By this he meant that the way the camera rendered the photographs made with it was so superior that you could shoot anything with it and it would be a great photograph. To some extent, it's true. He also said it was the most difficult of formats to master. I am sure lights went off in this brain of mine. Of course, I was a sucker for this. So many have fallen into this trap. I know I did.

This isn't to say that many magnificent photographs haven't been made with large format view cameras over the years, from Adams, to Weston, to Gowin, to Sommer to Walker Evans, to Jim Dow, the list goes on and on. I think I've made some good ones too. It is simply not true, however, that the picture is good because of the tool used. On the other hand, imagine Ansel Adams making his half dome picture in Yosemite with a 35mm camera up to his eye. Not so good. Many students (a lot of them male) over the years fell into the trap of the large format's supposed superiority. It is just different tools for different jobs. The thinking went like this: if it is really hard to make the picture and there is a lot of skill involved in using the camera, and it is big, heavy and intricate, along with expensive, and processing the film and making the print demands skill and care, then that validates the ensuing photograph and we all must be totally impressed with it.  Well, actually, it does not. Boring, banal and undistinguished are characteristics that span all formats. 

Me? Oh yes, I thought I was hot stuff, with my 8 x 10 camera, my dark cloth. To be kind, for many years this was simply what I used as a photographer. One lens, one film, black and white, that was it. So, if I was making pictures (mostly bad, some good), it was with that tool. I used the 8 x 10 while I was in my strongest years; , hiking down to the bottom of marble quarries in Italy in late afternoon July heat, trekking up to the top of a cliff in Southern France, shooting at midnight with the Mistral blowing under a full moon in Les Baux, hovering out and over Grand Coulee Dam in Washington.

Now big cameras don't have so much clout anymore, I don't think. The best DSLR's are doing an amazing job of mimicking the quality from large format cameras. I have friends that use 4 x 5 and 8 x 10 and some are making really good work. Different tools for different jobs.

In many ways I am a view camera person at heart. And, although I now use a DSLR, for much of the work I do the camera is used much like a view camera would be used. This means I am mounting it on a tripod and being very careful with exposure and aperture settings, focusing carefully, often for hyperfocal distance, and of course, I make mostly really terrible pictures with it, just as I did with the  8 x 10. And a few good ones from time to time.

I also use the same camera to make pictures hand held, something I couldn't do with the 8 x 10. About 60% of the work done over the past year or so was shot hand held. Love that! Imagine trying to do aerials when 8 x 10 was the only camera I used?

Topics: Commentary

Permalink | Posted March 9, 2013