The Mystique

I don't know if I can adequately describe the mystique of the 8 x 10 view camera and the photographs it produced  in an earlier time when digital didn't yet existt. First of all many masters worked with it: Weston, Adams, Bullock, Avedon, Penn, Sommers, Callahan, Siskind, Abbot,Newman, Atget, Evans, Strand. Some still do: Linda Connor, Emmet Gowin, Jim Dow, Nick Nixon, Stephen Shore, Sally Mann, Stephen DiRado, Frank Armstrong, Bruce Myren, among others.

Deardorff 8 x 10

Most photographers working today have no idea. To them it was just an old style big camera. But the sheer difficulty of using it and the quality it was capable of raised it in my estimation to the top tier of all that was photography, an essential and fundamental tool that could be paired with legendary and extraordinary lenses to make photographs that were unsurpassed.

The camera itself was big and bulky, always needing a tripod, was almost impossible in the wind, prone to light leaks, needed to be well protected due to its fragile bellows and needed to be kept clean and as dust free as possible.

The format had the potential for unbelievable levels of technical quality; huge amounts of information rendered on a large negative that could convey things with such fidelity there was more there than what you saw when you were there. Prints made from it were to be studied, savored for their richness, tonal range, luminosity, clarity and sharpness. In short, there was nothing like it.

If you were an 8 x 10 photographer you were something quite different than others. You had a studied, more contemplative way of making pictures, you were working with a device that was not only a camera but a discipline that required you to work more precisely, analyzing and keenly observing the world with a vision that was acute and concise, attributing large importance to things small and subtle.

The Toyo 8 x 10 Field Camera

While the potential to get quality was always there, the actuality is that it was exceedingly difficult to master the format. Real study was required. Discipline and heavy duty working habits were also needed. Things like cleanliness, a dust free environment, procedure, an anal retentiveness to taking notes and recording conditions, working to establish and refine methodology to get the best exposures, the best developed negatives, the best prints, researching emulsions and papers, chemistry and toners, trying different processes and researching what others in positions of authority were doing. All of this was required to tap the format's potential. Add to this countless hours in the darkroom to massage fine prints from recalcitrant negatives, to realize the negative to its fullest potential, to work intuitively and intellectually to make prints that were expressive and also as close to perfection as possible. You could not just dabble or play in the format, plunge in and work with it as you would with a Leica or a Nikon, pick it up, take a few pictures and put it down again. This was serious stuff, and those that made real commitments to 8 x10 would spend years perfecting their methods.

I worked in 8 x 10 for over twenty years. Many of the pictures I made during that time lie at the foundation of the work I've made over my career. But there is no way I can show you any of those photographs unless I scan them and then work those files to bring them to you here on my site. In present day practice, I make prints with an inkjet printer to exhibit or for purchase.  The prints are then made into a portfolio or framed for exhibition. This is what I've been doing, hiring an assistant last year who I trained who does most of the scans and "cleans" the negatives, using the cloning tool in Photoshop to eliminate dust and small scratches. I then work the files to make the images into prints that are as good as or better than what I could make in the old days in the darkroom. Simply stated, the image rendering tools we have now, the ability we have to do things to the image in precise ways is far more and better than in darkroom analog days. I can make better prints now from scanned negatives than I could using an enlarger and light sensitive papers developed in chemistry then. 

As time marches on and the medium of photography has advanced into astounding levels of digital quality with cameras that are small and hand held, fast, smart and reliable, and that are attached to newer lenses of exceptional speed and versatility, photography's past of the view camera is slipping away into relative obscurity.   A few practitioners hang on, using the materials and tools from another century and they have my respect, for there is no dispute that the results are beautiful. 

My career began in the early 70's when there was no such thing as "digital" and analog technology was fairly mature in terms of having tools that were highly evolved within a longstanding tradition of emulsion based output.. Now we have a medium effectively transformed and revolutionized into something vastly more complex while capable of truly astounding levels of fidelity and quality.

Over twenty years of working in 8 x 10 now serve as the foundation of my aesthetic and qualitative perspective in the present day.  It is through that lens that I work and look at others' work today.  I remember in early digital days when I was still shooting in 8 x 10. I had this dream. The dream was that someday there might be a camera, small and hand held, that could render my photographs with as good quality as the 8 x 10, that would allow big prints with fine detail, no noise and great sharpness, great color gamut, excellent color rendition,  a wide dynamic range, a deep D Max and even archival qualities and excellent permanence. That there would be all this from a camera I could hold in my hand seemed like some science fiction, just a dream.

Where do you think we are today?

Permalink | Posted August 17, 2016