Me with the Single Use Device, a Chamonix Whole Plate
view camera. Why the name? Read on. Photos by Jack MacDonough.
Remember Younger Bear, the Contrary warrior in Little Big Man who rides his horse backwards and washes himself with dirt and dries with water? I've always been an admirer of contrarians—people who go against the grain and do the opposite of what everybody else is doing. I've never quite pulled off being one myself. Still, contrarianism was the initial inspiration for the Single Use Device. What's all the rage in photography today? Exaggerated, saturated color; image manipulation, such that the final picture doesn't always respect the lens image; and oversized prints. So, what's directly contra that?
Shooting film is a niche activity in photography now. Within film, large format is a further niche. In large format, far and away the most popular and most-used format is 4x5 (inches, that is, in case you're not up on the subject)—the cameras are small and handy and the negatives are by far the easiest to enlarge (unless you count smaller formats like 2x3-inch as "large" format just because they can be shot with view cameras). So, larger-than-4x5 cameras are a further niche. And within larger-than-4x5 formats, the so-called whole-plate (WP) a.k.a. full-plate size (6.5 x 8.5 inches) is a tiny niche. How many whole plate shooters are there in the world? I have no idea, but I bet they could all fit in a living room.
A whole plate camera is possibly the most anti-popular camera you can buy. But it also only makes sense in relation to digital. For 20 years (1980–2000) I shot 35mm black-and-white. I wanted to be able to shoot a lot; I shot in available light (which according to the old cliché is better known as "available darkness"); and I used handy, light, portable cameras. With 35 exposures on a roll* and three rolls per tank, I could develop 105 pictures at a time. For me, it wasn't practical to do anything else. Digital changed all that. Digital is much more convenient even than 35mm. So, because digital does all the heavy lifting now, I figure I'm free to change my film shooting. (Philosophically, I've always preferred the answer to the question "film or digital?" to be "both." Your mileage, like Ctein's, may vary.) It no longer needs to be convenient or efficient, and I no longer need to do much of it. Being a secondary method of photography for me enables me to practice a different kind of film photography than I used to when film was all there was.
The "single-useness" of the Single Use Device is simple (although also not absolute. I'm explaining, not arguing). WP is such a specialty film size that there isn't any color film for it. You can cut down 8x10 sheets yourself in the dark, but you still have to find someone to process it for you. I haven't looked into it, but I doubt it would be easy to find such a thing. So that's one aspect: black-and-white only. At least for me. For all intents and purposes.
And then there's enlarging. Four-by-five enlargers are relatively common; 5x7 enlargers much less so; and 8x10 enlargers, especially now that most pros are no longer shooting 8x10, are less common still. Granted, it wouldn't be impossible to find a lab equipped to enlarge WP-size negatives. But, again, it wouldn't be easy. Or cheap. And it's absolutely not something I can do myself—even if someone gave me an 8x10 enlarger, I wouldn't accept it. It would take too much work to install it in my basement and keep it maintained. So, contact prints only.
Finally, for me, a 6.5 x 8.5 print isn't big enough to frame and put on a wall. It's more intimate than that. They're pictures to hold in your hands, pictures to be seen by one person at a time. That's not absolutely true, of course, but that's my intention.
So this isn't just a larger-than-4x5 view camera; it's a camera for black-and-white contact prints that you hold in your hands or put in a book to look at. Or, to put it another way, the exact opposite of what's most popular in the world of art photography right now.
What's the point?
Of course, if I decide it's not for me, then it's going to look like a very stupid purchase indeed. Remember my argument about how cheap it is to try a film Leica? This is the opposite. It's not a camera that will turn around easily—even to large-format buffs, who are a niche withing a niche within a niche. It'll be a walnut, carbon fiber, and anodized aluminum white elephant.
Then why bother? Well, there's absolutely no practical reason—I just thought it might be fun, and a nice counterpart to a DSLR. It's a direct connection to photography's history, and to the way many photographers worked in the ever-more-rapidly-receding past.
Anyway, that's my New Year's resolution this year: 50 sheets of WP film in '11. It's either going to be fun, or not. And if it's not, then there is, indeed, no reason to bother. But it might be. I aim to see.
Photos by Jack MacDonough. More about that tomorrow.
*Sic. A Printfile 35-7B sheet holds seven strips of five frame each, so that's what I shoot.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Jim Galli: "I had our friends at Chamonix build me a 5x14" camera. Does that make me in the running for most contrarian? The idea was to use 5" Aerial Recon Panatomic X stored in my freezer for 30 years into the long film winter."