My Journey with the View Camera - Part Two

My Journey with the View Camera

Part Two

by Peter Le Grand


The 20" x 24" Polaroid Camera

                In the summer of 1999, the Polaroid Company loaned a 20" x 24" camera to Columbia College-Chicago. The instructions for the faculty were to use the camera as a teaching tool at the earliest opportunity.  The camera came with two technicianswho turned out to be a godsend.  Steve Szoradi, a former grad student,  as well as the lead technician, did a great job changing my mind about how to approach the picture making process with this giant camera.  Let me describe the camera operation.

                The camera was an imposing instrument measuring almost four feet high plus the tripod, about three feet wide and four feet from front to back. Only the front stand on the camera had movements, and the most used one was rise and fall. Inside the camera were two rolls of film; a 20" wide roll of negative film and a roll of 20" wide receiving layer. Also part of the camera was a set of stainless steel rollers. These rollers would clamp the negative and the receiving layer together, and in between these two layers,  the specialPolaroid developer pod would be squeezed, and the developer would be evenly distributed. Ninety seconds later the negative would be peeled from the receiving layer, and the image would be there in all of its glory.

                The "normal" lens for the camera was a 800mm lens; if memory serves me correctly the camera came with  a 720mm Rodenstock.  But most of the time we worked with much shorter focal length lenses such as the 300mm or the 360 mm lens. The reason for selecting a shorter lens was the distance between the lens and the film plane, and the amount of bellows draw that is needed to focus on the subject of the photograph. A 720mm lens needs about 30 inches of bellows draw to focus at infinity, while a 360 mm lens requires a much shorter distance of 14 inches. The bellows draw with this camera became extremely important because of the exposure needed for the negative film.    With a camera of that size the bellows draw to do a "head 'n shoulders" portrait was considerable and caused a sizeable light loss at the film plane. The Polaroid technicians calculated the light loss in terms of film speed. The nominal speed of the negative film was ISO 400. But by the time the bellows draw was taken into account, the film speed could be as low as ISO 4.

                This called for a massive amount of strobe lighting and when I first came on the set there was about 20.000 watt/seconds in all of the power packs. Often we used all of that power for a single photograph!

                With a massive set up such as this, the work had to be divided. As a photographer, I had alwaysbeen in control of every aspect of the picture making process. In a situation such as this that became impractical if not impossible. SteveSzoradi convinced me to only concentrate on working with the sitter and when all was ready, to click the shutter.  Because of the length of time it took to make a single image, we always had a chair for the person whose portrait we were making. The lighting equipment had to be close inorder to have the least amount of light loss. That meant the building of a cocoon of lights around the sitter and the whole thing could be quite claustrophobic. I would often sit underneath the camera and keep a conversation going justto keep my sitter distracted.  It turned out to be a full-time job.

                With the new millennium  on the horizon, I thought about a portrait project that would involve the Polaroid camera. Columbia College at that time was an arts college with lots of innovators and idea generators, who also were teachers. The idea for this portrait series was to select those individuals who had an impact on the culture of the college. I took this idea to the Provost of the college and he endorsed it enthusiastically.   I completed 16 of the portraits when the camera had to be returned to Polaroid.  The college purchased a replacement camera from another vendor who shall remain nameless.  The camera was poorly constructed and never worked correctly. Thus ended my work with the 20" x 24" cameras. But that did not mean the end of large format work.


The 11" x14" Deardorff

                In September of 2003 I got a phone call that an 11" x 14" Deardorff, complete with a 16 foot bi-post stand, was about to be thrown on the trash heap.  The camera was located in the western suburbs of Chicago. I rented a truck, and with the help of a friend rode to the rescue. Some  years back I had met Jack Deardorff, one of the few remaining family members of the clan that built the now  famous cameras.  I contacted Jack and asked what I could do to make the bi-post stand fit into my home.  Another truck rental and the stand was at Jack's second story studio and workshop in Northern Indiana.  A year later I got a call that the stand was ready. It was restored to brand new condition and the posts had been reduced to six foot high. I had cleaned the camera, and with the new stand, it worked perfectly. It remained in my living room for the next seven years, where I made new pictures.  Often I used the skylight as the light source, but at other times strobes were used.

                As the end of the first decade approached,  I was thinking more and more about what retirement would look like. One of the aspects was downsizing. We live in a two flat in Chicago; lots of owners rent one floor out, while they live on another floor. It sure helps with the mortgage. We had been living on both floors, but now the reality of moving into and consolidating on one floor was looming large on the horizon.  And this brought up the question of what to do with the 11" x 14" Deardorff.  I will not bore you with the details, but we just could not make the camera part of our new lifestyle. There is just so much you can stuff into 1300 square feet.   So the decision was made to sell it and find a new home for it.

                One of the big used camera brokers came over one night and offered me a few hundred dollars for the camera and the film holders. They told me I could keep the stand . I almost accepted their offer, but I had some trepidations. Out of curiosity, I asked what was going to happen to this fine instrument. They said the camera and the holders would be sold to interior decorators, who would ravage the camera and make picture frames out of the whole thing! I politely declined the offer and asked them to leave. Picture Frames?

                A few days later I put a classified ad in one of the on-line groups and found a buyer almost instantly. After carefulvetting about the use of the camera, we concluded a sale. This camera now is in a new studio and to the best of my knowledge, still in use.

The Finale

This is almost the end of my large format story. I am still actively working with the camera I bought in 1979. I am using it with the 8" x 10" film from the Impossible Project . It is a slow process, but that is not unusual with a large camera and by now I am used to that. The alert readerwill notice that I am using the same camera model that Morley Baer owned and had me look into. And if Morley were alive today he would have a big smile on his face and say: "That's what happens when you get hooked".


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My Journey with the View Camera

A few days ago I was rummaging through old files and negatives and came across  a binder with my first negatives - it dates from the summer of 1952. I was 13 years old at that time. I remember  the first time my uncle took me in his darkroom (he was a pro) and showed me all the magic that was photography. I remember the smells -  the red and orange lights - all the different trays.   And  I know I was hooked.  I think that most of the readers of this magazine have a story from that moment that is probably quite similar.

                The second time was during a workshop in 1976 when Morley Baer was explaining how his 8"x10" Kodak D-2 worked, and showed me what the image looked like on the ground glass. I did not know exactly how the optics worked or what 'angle of view' was, but I was hooked again.

                This article is about my journey with the large format camera and in many ways it may parallel yours. I know I learned a lot of interesting things along the way. Because so many things happened, this article will be in two parts. The first part covers the twenty some years up to the millennium. It includes work with the largest folding camera ever built, the 40"x60" deGolden Busch, built by the legendary Douglas I. Busch. The second part starts with my work with the 20"x24" Polaroid camera and continues with other camera ventures that bring us up to this day.

My First 4"x5"

                I was in the process of switching careers when I bought my first view camera in June  1978. The reason I know is because I have negatives dating from that month in the 4" x 5" format. The camera was a cherry wood Japanese folding camera, elegant and light weight. In short, I was in love with this instrument. Never mind that it was not a practical camera to have for the kinds of work that I would be doing, namely commercial and architectural work. Love is blind. I adored this instrument and overlooked all the short comings. Any lens longer than 210 mm would not fit on it, nor would anything wider than 90 mm. The bellows were either too short or too long. The rear stand would move around when I inserted a film holder and there was little I could do to keep it in place, except for patience. After I proudly brought my Rodenstock 90mm f4.5 lens home,  I discovered that the front stand could not support the weight of that lens and it kept falling forward.  I was so blind to all of its shortcomings that I have forgotten the brand of the camera. It may have been a Nagioka or a Tachihara. I honestly do not remember, but I did make some lovely images with it. 

The Eastman 2D 8"x10" camera

                In May of 1979 I bought an 8" x 10" Eastman Kodak 2D view camera with a bunch of holders in a large case for the grand sum of $75.00 According to the lore that came with the camera, it had been used in the Boeing plant on Cicero Avenue in Chicago during WWII. The bellows were in great shape, but the camera showed signs of wear. The only lens in my limited  inventory that would fit it was a Fujinon 250 mm/ f 6.7. In fact, it was the perfect lens for almost all kinds of work. It is a slight wide angle, sort of like a 35mm lens on a 35 mm format. Currently, I use the camera/lens combination in making 8" x10" Polaroids with the film from The Impossible Project.  I have no intention to ever giving this camera up. It is a sweet instrument, easy to handle and  quite forgiving when I make mistakes, which is often. The controls are limited to front rise and fall; the rear has limited movement in the swing and tilt departments, but it is enough to make minor corrections.

                I actually have another lens for this camera - it is a lens in a brass barrel without shutter or apertures. It has a drop-in slot for Waterhouse stops and one of these days I will get a set made. The side of the barrel is inscribed " Darlot Opticien- Paris" with the serial number 35003. The other side of the barrel has the letters B.F.& C0 inscribed on it. I think that it dates from the 1850's. I showed it to my camera repair man and he told me it was free from fungi, although there is a little dust in it.  That lens will become  another  photo adventure at a future date.

The Sinar F 4"x5"

                In late 1982 I bought my second  4" x 5" view camera. By now I had a firm grasp of what I really needed in a view camera and I settled on a Sinar F, a used one in good shape. It has turned out to be a great camera for me with very few problems.  My commercial assignments almost always were "location" assignments. What that meant for me is that every piece of equipment had to fit in a transportation case of its own. All of it had to fit into a minivan and it should be rugged enough to survive trips on dirt roads.  The Sinar fit that requirement almost perfectly. The front and rear stands folded down onto the 12" round monorail, making it quite compact. In its folded configuration it also protected  the adjustment knobs and bubble levels. The camera also could be expanded with additional rails, stands and bellows to accommodate longer lenses. And the shorter focal length lenses would work on this camera as well by usingbag bellows.  This camera appealed to my sense of a well engineered product that also was rugged enough for most working conditions. Yes, it was heavier than my wooden Japanese camera, but I knew I could depend on the Sinar. With a heavy heart I sold my Japanese instrument; I thought I would miss it, but in hindsight  I never looked back!

                A brief word about packing cases. I settled on foam lined, aluminum cases in various dimensions. They are sturdy, can take a beating and they have one other great quality.  They are sturdy enough to hold a 200 lb photographer (me) I can't begin to tell the number times my camera cases have doubled as a ladder or a chair.

                My love for photography started in the early 1950's as a youngster, but by the mid 70's it had become something of epic proportions.  The magic in the darkroom was surpassed when I looked through the view finder of a Rolleiflex; so much better than my Pentax H1a. This was a BIG image, something you could stare at and the concept of composing in the frame  looked like a real possibility.  And then I saw the image on the back of a 4" x 5" camera - WOW. Now there was an "Image". The lesson that I learned quickly is that the larger the format, the more I studied what was going on in the image itself. The other lesson was to slow down and pay attention to the details.



The deGoldenBusch - 40"x60" camera

                In the summer of 1982 I drove up to Rockford, Illinois to meet Doug Busch at the suggestion of Al Weber.  It turned out to be the start of a long term friendship. Doug had started a company called deGoldenBusch, a manufacturer of view cameras and lenses. The smallest camera made by the company was an 8"x10", and the largest was a 40"x60". Now this was a BIG image. The front stand had its own tripod .  The "normal" lens for this camera was a 72 inch lens; and true to form  this camera came equipped with a 72 inch Rodenstock lens. Doug told me that the working aperture was f-256 in order to get decent sharpness and good  depth of field.  In 1987 Doug started to build the camera and all of the related darkroom equipment. Everything for that camera had to be designed from scratch. How do you handle a 40" x 60" negative? The solution for the processing aspect was to build two wooden frames with fiber glass screens. The negative was clamped in between these two frames so that it could not slide out, yet all of the chemicals could easily reach it. Everything had to be oversized and built by hand. The sinks, the print washer, the drying racks. The prints were contact prints. Doug thought about every aspect of this camera and his engineering and design skills were stretched to the limit. In August of 1990 he packed the camera in his minivan and drove it to Chicago on a sunny day. We set it up on Wacker Drive next to the Chicago River. I remember the strong winds putting fear into all of us; this camera was not built to withstand those kinds of elements. In order to do the rough focus with the camera, the front end of the camera was moved back and forth. The really fine focus was done with a geared drive similar to a conventional flat bed view camera. It always took two people, one at the front and another at the rear with a focus scope. Little did I know that ten years later I would go through the same process with the 20" x 24" Polaroid camera, but that is another story.


Deardorff 11"x14" Rescue

                During  the Winter break of 1988 one of my colleagues at Columbia College rescued an  11" x 14" Deardorff camera with a bi-post stand from  an alley in Joliet, Illinois. The camera and the stand were in horrible condition, and  three of us carefully took the entire thing apart.  Every wooden part was sanded followed by multiple coats of Tung oil. Brass parts were brought back to their luster  by generous applications  of steel wool and polish. Some parts were sent out to be re-plated. We did a total remake of the bellows, followed by new cables for the counter weights in the stand. In a four week time span, the entire camera was rejuvenated and I took my first pictures with it in March 1989.

                The camera became a great teaching tool in the studio program at Columbia College.  I taught a portraiture class for three years that used the camera extensively.  Students loved the image quality. Since we could only make contact prints, students quickly grasped the importance of good exposure and correct development. It also allowed me, as a teacher, to introduce the making of images in alternative processes such as platinum/palladium prints and VanDyke Browns. This camera is still part of the Studio equipment at Columbia College-Chicago.