Sunday, October 2, 2011

"The Big Picture", Large-Format Photography @ Davidson Fine Arts

William Renick with his 4x5 View Camera

Large format photography goes back to the early days of the medium. In the beginning, a treated metal plate known as a daguerreotype, named after Louis Daguerre, who funded the development of the invention of photography in France (it was also "invented" in other places at about the same time) was used instead of film. The camera was basically a camara obscura [Link], later the front and back joined by  a bellows, which allowed for focusing. That is the basic design for a view camera, which is what large format photography uses. It is a design with many variations tailored for certain kinds of use, and many practitioners in fact use very old cameras, though they continue to be made today, with many improvements, some in lightweight, exotic materials etc. [Link] The film, which can be from 6x9 cm. to 11x14", is cut in sheets, and inserted (in darkness) into film holders, which can then be put in the camera, a dark slide pulled out, the exposure made, the slide replaced, and then the other side (where another sheet of film lies) can be used for a 2nd exposure. The camera shown in the picture at left has special custom bellows for use with wide-angle lenses. Normal bellows have pleats, like an accordion.

George Goodroe, "Conner Preserve"
This is not an easy way to work, but it has its advantages, and perhaps most important, its pleasures. One of them is the ability to make really big prints with excellent detail. With 4x5 or larger, it's very difficult to match or come close to in digital, and largely undoable (except for composites)  via semi-affordable means. It's hard to amortize a $35,000 40 megapixel digital back for your Hasselblad.  A high resolution scan of a 4x5 can yield a 200+ mp file. If you look at print sales from the AIPAD show, the majority of big sellers were made with LF film. This is not saying that they were all chemical prints. Many were hybrids, large format film scanned and processed via Photoshop into giclee prints.

A lot of the quality of LF is lost when rephotographed by a point-and-shoot and reduced for blog use, but in George Goodroe's "Conner Preserve", some of the tonal characteristics can be appreciated. Besides the fine composition & descriptive nature of the print, note the extreme attention to the play of light and shadow in this landscape, the way the light emanates from right to left, and spills from the darkest section out onto the grass.

Many of the advantages of LF cameras are simulated in digital, like controlling keystoning via perspective control, but not all, and not en situ. During the Age of Film, LF could do several things that roll-film cameras could not, specially the convenient use of the Zone System. Now, in the post-film era, when Walgreen's doesn't have 1 hr development for 35mm film any more at many locations,  and has to send film out with a  two to four day turn-around. Film sales have dwindled to a tiny % of what they once were, and Large Format film was always a tiny fraction of that. They face many problems of a technology that is largely disappearing, including the number and types of film being made in those sizes, although black and white film can (and used to) be made in a cottage industry mode of production, so it will probably be around for a very long time, as long as some demand persists.LF black and white film can be processed in simple trays and inexpensively scanned on a flatbed scanner.

Suzanne Camp Crosby, "Hole in the wall"

Suzanne Camp Crosby had three works in the show. On the left is "Hole in the wall", a self-referential work that questions itself and the nature of the medium.  This is a 2nd generation landscape, made from a landscape mural. The emphasis on the corner as the painting wraps around it eliminates any mistaking of the referent for a credible illusion and challenges the picture plane. It is telling us "this is not a landscape". The title could be an allusion to the illusion. 

Working with a View camera & LF film is not like using a DSLR in "spray and pray" mode, or "fixing it later in PS" . It takes time,  the use of a sturdy tripod, external light meter, and can, but does not have to be, be quite expensive. Although one can work that way in some regards using a digital camera, the LF forces it upon the user. The result is that most off its practitioners pay a lot of attention to the light, the foundation of the medium. The slow, deliberate way of work, composing on a big glass screen with the image upside down and backwards, the weight of tradition, control and the fact that it is not an appliance but a tool that is only as good as its user are all big attractions.

Here's links to LF photographers:






The show "The Big Picture" at Davidson Fine Arts consists of the work of six photographers, four of which showed landscape work, one does fine art conceptual work, and one portraits. The show was juried by MK Foltz, with whom I had the pleasure of speaking for a bit. She's a professor of Photography and Digital Imaging at Ringling, and an accomplished photographer of international stature and with a golden mentor list. [Link] . The other juror was Arthur Skinner, Photography Professor at Eckerd College, in St. Pete. [Link]

Work by Jose Suro
 I asked most of the photographers in the show why they used LF, and with one exception got the same exact answer: The Realism afforded by the detail the format renders, which is an integral part of their work. Some of which looks like one is in front of  a large picture window looking at what the photographer saw. Apparent veracity, realism and linkage to the referent is quite literal in many of these works. The other uses it for portraits and loves the low DOF available (although these cameras are also capable of great DOF)  and the control over it that LF offers.

Jose Suro had three large prints, two of water's edge type work like the one on the left. To see more of his work: [Link]

There was work by John Pendygraft, beautiful, detailed portraits more in the documentary style than journalistic. You can see some of his work here: [Link]. Also two beautiful prints from Richard Leng, of the swamp near Dade City. He explores remote wilderness areas with his daughter/assistant. [Link]

Mark Moberg, "Untitiled"

On the left is a LF portrait of a boy by the photographer  Mark Moberg. He emphasized that for him the ability of LF to do shallow depth of field (note how the boy is sharp, and the plants & flowers behind him are pleasantly soft/out of focus.

 Congratulations to the Jurors, all the artists and Rob Davidson Fine Arts for an unusual and wonderful show. It will be up into Mid-October at Davidson Fine Arts, 1101 First Avenue N. St. Petersburg.

--- Luis

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