Just curious, does anyone within the sound of my voice still use a view camera on a regular basis?
TOP reader Richard Man has a beautiful new camera and has just reviewed it. Plus, I have an update about JG's Frankencamera.
I've been at least low-level obsessed with view cameras since I started in photography. I used to go by Ferrante-Dege in Cambridge, Mass., to "visit" a resplendent Deardorff 5x7 they had on semi-permanent display (it was for sale, but didn't sell, so it was there for a long time). It was profoundly beautiful (well, to my photogeeky young self) and also profoundly unaffordable, which only made me covet it more. My second major purchase (after my first Contax of sainted memory, and 50mm Zeiss lens) was a rosewood Wista 45DXII that I bought from a guy in Upstate* New York who ran a small business called "Fields and Views."
I only really used my Wista for two projects—for one, I shot color film in the "Tip of the Mitt" region in Michigan, around home; and for the other, a different summer (on a faculty grant, woo-hoo), I shot Polaroid Type 55 P/N (positive/negative) film in the same area, everywhere but home. My conceit was that I was going to drive over every single road in Charlevoix, Emmet, Cheboygan and Presque Isle counties. I came pretty close. I loved that camera and I wish I still had it (current Wistas are not nearly as well made as they were then).
My two projects were enough to demonstrate to me, richly, that I am not a view camera photographer. It didn't suit my temperament and personality**. Also, I got an early reputation as a view-camera hater that dogged me for years and years. The story, which I'm sure a few of you have heard before, is that I was told by my editor at Camera & Darkroom magazine that they were planning a "pro and con" article about view cameras, and they wanted me to write the "con" piece. The "pro" article was supposed to be written by Ron Wisner, of Wisner Classic Mfg. Co., now out of business but at the time a bespoke maker of opulent Edwardian-style view cameras. Unfortunately, however, Ron never submitted his "pro" piece (I later learned this was typical behavior for him). Against my protests, the editor decided to run my "con" piece anyway, by itself, as a stand-alone article. So, without even meaning to, I authored a long, well-debated article about view cameras that was—yikes!—entirely one-sided, taking the negative position. (As I recall, Ron did write a short counterpoint, which might have been published as a Letter to the Editor? I should get my assistant to look that up.) The fallout has died down now, but I'm sure with my luck there are still LF people out there with elephant memories who still think I'm anti-LF.
And of course then digital came along, and large format moved down one thick layer deeper in the strata of niches.
So, view cameras: I'm not good with them, don't use them, have a reputation as someone who dislikes and disapproves of them, and they're obsolescent.
...None of which has dimmed my love for view cameras or view camera photography one bit. I still think they're lovely, fascinating devices, and I love work done with them. A circa 1903 Rochester Optical Pony Premo No. 6, a beautiful old "self-casing" whole-plate camera, in a splendidly preserved state, is the first thing that greets visitors when they come into my house from the porch.
In the hills near Modena
View cameras have always tempted craftspeople of a certain bent. Something about a view camera leads the independent-minded craftsperson to think, "I can do better." They're simple enough mechanical devices, yet require and reward precision. Within the basic form, the range of variation is nearly infinite. There are many basic styles, each of which has its adherents. I'm partial to "self-casing" styles myself, such as the old Crown Graphic, which I have a particular soft spot for even though the design would need some basic tweaks to get it to serve well as a field camera. The Linhof Technika, another self-casing design, might be that camera, although it's heavier than the Crown and arguably overbuilt. There have been thousands of view camera designs over the centuries, and a great many small bespoke and "atelier" (French for "studio") manufacturers.
One such maker very new on the scene is Gibellini. Alessandro Gibellini was born in 1990 and got his first camera, a Pentax K1000, only in 2012. Now (the company started up in 2014) he's designing view cameras and having them made in the same shops in Italy "which normally work for sports and luxury car industries, thus supplying products manufactured with great skill and care." The website stops short of saying that the cameras are made in some of the same shops that make parts for a certain very famous sports car marque—doubtless they'd be sued blind—but Gibellini is based in Sassuolo, which is virtually right next door to Maranello where Ferrari is based. You can believe what you want; Richard says the camera "...exudes quality. The mechanical construction is superb; the finish and even the screws and knobs announce that this is a quality instrument."
Recently, I gather by "liquidating" lots of other equipment, Richard Man took delivery of a Gibellini and a Cooke PS945 lens. He's written a nice account of his adventure that incorporates a review of the Gibellini.
The world didn't need another view camera. And yet, somehow, each new marque that comes along is as hopeful and bright as a newborn babe, and seems to give witness to an eternal optimism about all the wonderful photographs yet to be made.
Meanwhile, you probably remember JG's Frankencamera, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. JG has since completed some extensive modifications for it, which include a new front standard. (The "back," as you probably recall, is a Sony A7R.) Here's what it looks like currently:
And here's a beautiful night shot he took with it:
Remember, fun in photography is where you find it!
(Thanks to Richard and JG)
*"Upstate" refers to any part of New York State except the New York City metropolitan area and Long Island.
(The exact border represented by the red line is not distinct or agreed upon.)
**My illustration of this in the article was a picture I called "Horses Standing in Field." It was a picture of a field. My point was that in the 90 seconds it took to set the camera up, the horses wandered out of the picture.
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Jim Becia: "I have been using my Ebony 8x10 for close to ten years now. I use Fuji Velvia 50 and Provia almost exclusively. Viewing a well composed and well exposed 8x10 on a light table can be breathtaking. I prefer this to any digital camera, but that is just my preference. There are subjects and times where an 8x10 is impractical, so in those moments I sit back and enjoy. I wouldn't have it any other way."
SWolfe2000: "I have a 4x5 Graflex Crown Graphic that I occasionally use to shoot both black and white film and wet-plate collodion. Since she doesn't read TOP, as far as I know, I'll also respond for my wife: she has a 4x5 Wisner that she occasionally uses to shoot black and white film. Unfortunately she won't let me use it for wet-plate. Bummer. :-) "
Mike replies: You have a wife who has a Wisner and shoots B&W and she doesn't read TOP?! I'm missing my target, clearly.
AlanH: "At 63 years young, I still pack my 8x10 Deardorff and three lenses all over the countryside. It's pretty much my primary use camera. Also use my 4x5 Crown Graphic and Toho, on occasion. For me, miniature format is my Pentax 67!"
Tim Bradshaw: "I still use a view camera: I seem to have gone to two extremes in that I either use 35mm or 5x4". I considered larger formats but I think I've now realised that a light 5x4 and ancillary stuff is the heaviest weight I can walk with for any length of time without it being unpleasant. I fully realise that both of these formats are obsolete in many senses (practicality and image quality being just the most obvious), but I make photographs because I enjoy taking pictures and then making prints in a darkroom, and I really have now spent enough of my life mucking around with a computer. Of course this means no-one will ever see them...."
Johnny k: "Very good article, well written and fun to read. I interviewed Alessandro at his home in 2014 for Art en Suisse magazine. We photographed together in Lugano, Switzerland (both before and after some fantastic pizzas). His journey from making drawings during class time at the university to where he stands today is a story worth reading (sorry, it's only in Italian and German). Thank you for sharing your thoughts ;-) ."
Dave Karp: "I love view cameras. I have a Walker Titan, ARCA Swiss Discovery, and a Crown Graphic. All 4x5. I have a 5x7 format frame from an old ARCA that works with the Discovery. My big camera is a Whole Plate Improved Seneca.
"View cameras are not for everyone, or every purpose. However, for me they are the cure for having too many digital photos to edit. I find that if I have been using my view camera a fair amount, I take far fewer photos when out using my Olympus E-M1. I think using the view camera sharpens my 'photo brain.' and makes me far pickier when deciding where to point my camera. In other words, using a view camera forces me to think about the photos I am taking before using the camera to make them. This helps me see better so that I don't waste time on digital photos I am going to ignore anyway."