Bigger, Slower, Harder

8x10 view camera

During the end-of-the-year holidays I pulled my Burke & James 8×10 Commercial View camera out of storage, with the idea of putting it back into service. I originally purchased this camera back in the 1970s and exposed a few sheets of film with it in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I haven’t used it since December, 1981 when I attempted to photograph our wedding with it. That was a big mistake.

I don’t know exactly when my camera was made, but I found a 1967 Burke & James catalog which shows it as a current product at that time. Since these things don’t change much and it’s a classic design, I suspect my camera is a bit older than that but there’s no way to know for sure.

Why would I want to use such a big, heavy, slow camera in the digital age?

That’s exactly the point. We live in a time of instant gratification. We seem to have forgotten the value of putting time and effort into something. Everyone has a cellphone camera. We make more photos every hour than we once did in a year (I just made those numbers up, but it’s clear we’re snap happy). So deliberately working slower has a certain appeal.

I’m also fascinated by older and mature technologies. I recently finished reading a book about the history of the photography manufacturers up through 1925. It’s called Images and Enterprise: Technology and the American Photographic Industry 1839 to 1925 and was written by Reese V. Jenkins. I also have a variety of books about the history of photography, and photo books with images dating back 100 or more years. Further, I’ve been looking through some boxes of family photos, many of them studio portraits, from the early 20th century.

One of the things that’s always appealed to me about photography is the marriage of art and science. Working with light and composition, with a variety of subjects, is definitely an art form. But there is much more science and technology involved with photography than most other two-dimensional art forms. Today, it’s computer code interacting with the output of high-tech digital sensors that just keep getting better.

In the earliest days of photography the photographer had to mix his (and it was almost always men) own chemicals, coat the sensitive material onto a metal or glass plate before exposure, then immediately process the plate — often with very nasty and poisonous chemicals. It got a lot easier after roll and sheet film was invented, but there’s still quite a bit of chemical magic that happens in the darkroom.

A view camera gives the photographer tremendous control over the image. You can choose the plane of focus, correct distortion, and frame the image just right. By controlling exposure and processing you control the density and contrast of the negative. It takes time and effort to learn these skills and put them into practice. I’m looking forward to spending that time.

What will I photograph with this beast? I expect there will be some studio portraits, some landscapes, and some architecture. I’ll probably work in black & white, partly because I like the medium and partly because it’s less expensive than color.

It’s going to be a while before I make my first exposure with this camera. The lens that is on it now is mediocre at best and the shutter is unreliable. I’ve ordered a new-to-me 300mm f/5.6 lens (“normal” focal length for an 8×10) which could arrive as early as next week. When it arrives I need to see whether the lens board fits this camera or whether I need to manufacture a new one in the wood shop. I need to check for pinholes in the bellows and patch any I find. I need to give it a thorough cleaning and apply some leather conditioner to the bellows. I need an appropriate tripod head. I need to make a room into a part-time darkroom, resurrect my darkroom stuff from storage, and purchase film and chemicals.

One of my first steps after getting the lens mounted and the camera on a tripod will be some studio exercises to refamiliarize myself with how the swings and tilts work to control image shape and sharpness. I’ll work through the appropriate chapter in my copy of Leslie Stroebel’s View Camera Technique, one of my textbooks for freshman photo at RIT in 1972-73. I’ve owned and used 3 different 4×5 view cameras over the years so this isn’t something new to me, but I’m definitely out of practice.

I’m looking forward to this adventure in the old. With a bit of luck I might even come up with some worthwhile photos with this thing. I’ll definitely be improving my skillset in ways that will also serve me well when working with my modern digital cameras.

Oh yea, I made the photo of the camera at the top of the post with my iPhone. Old, meet new.

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