Now Verses Then
I drove out to the tip of Bodega Bay yesterday, about an hour from where I am staying in Santa Rosa. This is classic California coastline: rocky, with cliffs, crashing waves below, dramatic sunbeams sending light down on the ocean spread out in a display that is always dramatic and beautiful.
From the parking lot I could see a man photographing with a view camera, pointing not out at the horizon but back in at the eroded sand at the top of a cliff above the ocean. Standard operating procedure: dark cloth over your head (his was red for some reason), long moments making adjustments, getting the camera set to frame the picture the way you want, out from under the cloth, take light meter reading from meter hanging around neck, stand to side of camera and set lens, close it down so no light is coming through it, cock the shutter, insert film holder, pull slide out, turn to look at thing being photographed, sometimes wait for light to be right or to change, sometimes wait for something to get out of the frame or to come into the frame, trip the shutter, return the slide, but flip it so black side side faces out so you know it has been exposed, pull out film holder and move on to next photograph.
This guy was taking all those steps, so it looked like he knew what he was doing. This isn't something you just pick up, by the way, it takes years to get fluid and to work intuitively with a big camera like this. I couldn't be sure but I think he was hauling around an 8 x 10, just as I did for over twenty years. This isn't the biggest as there are wooden Deardorff 11 x 14 cameras and even a 12 x 20, but they are excptionally rare. For anyone somewhat sane 8 x 10 is about the limit.
This above from the Deardorff website.
As I stood there, leaning up against my rented car in the parking lot, watching him work, I felt both a sense of kinship with him, as I'd done what he was doing for so very long and a feeling of complete relief that I was not working this way any longer.
When I started working in 8 x 10 in the early eighties, if you wanted the highest quality there was really no other choice. It was a view camera, perhaps 4 x 5 but preferably 8 x 10. Some people (this included me in the early years) just made 8 x 10 inch contact prints. Now, of course, we have many options. You can see what this guy on the cliff in Bodega Bay chose. I am sure, had we spoken, he would reference the beauty of the silver gelatin print, how digital intercedes, gets in the way of the image, imposes its own look to the final picture. I've heard all that before.
I don't buy it, however, and believe most of the negative reactions people have to digitally sourced photographs comes from looking at bad ones, of which there are a huge number.
Was I making these photographs of this view camera photographer on the cliff at Bodega Bay in California yesterday afternoon with a film camera? Did I have to process the film, set up my darkroom with trays of chemicals, place these negatives in the enlarger and make the prints and dry the prints to see these as positives on a contact sheet or as enlargements? I did not.