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.