My Journey with the View Camera
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.
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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