by Mike Johnston
Take this cum grano salis* if you like, but I think that most view cameras do their jobs pretty well, and that there isn't much call for, well, extremism.
So that you know where I'm coming from, my two favorite 4x5 view cameras are the Wista 45DX or DXII, and the Arca-Swiss F-line. The latter is like a Honda Accord. I say this as a compliment—I drove a succession of Honda Accords in the '80s and early '90s, and found them to be very close to "transparent" (when that quality wasn't as common as it is becoming today): they get you around expeditiously and efficiently, with a minimum of fuss (if not much excitement), and they are highly reliable and undemanding in terms of maintenance. I find the same quality in the Saunders 4x5 enlarger, where it's a great achievement. The Arca-Swiss is just wonderful as well: it's efficient, utterly dependable, and has a form-follows-function beauty I find pleasing. What I mean by "transparent" is that it works so well that it just doesn't call attention to itself, and you find yourself forgetting about it, able to take it for granted. A nice thing.
A cherrywood Wista
A different kettle of fish altogether, the Wista is a current, Japanese-built field view camera. It is also transparent to a significant degree—to me, anyway—and, especially in Japanese rosewood, it is exceptionally lovely to look at.
This is one of my all-time favorite cameras, probably because I used one all summer once on a faculty grant, and practiced with it, and got so I could set it up and knock it down in the dark. It makes a great recommendation for anyone wanting an excellent folding flatbed field camera for large-format fine art work. Wista has several versions (see www.wista.co.jp), but my favorite is the cheapest—the cherrywood DX II, without the back shifts (seldom if ever needed in fieldwork). The cherry version is more than 500 grams lighter than the rosewood version, and will look nice after it ages some, because the wood will darken with continued exposure to light.. The camera is very close to an ideal distillation of a basic design that's been around for more than a century, having been constantly refined to a very high degree of excellence. I find the Wista to be better made than many more expensive 4x5 field cameras, and I love the way it operates—smoothly and sensibly. It's a delight to use. Very pretty, too—virtually everyone I know who has one feels considerable pride of ownership.
A Wista will do virtually all of what I want a view camera to do, including playing the part of conversation piece. Diehard view camera aficionados evidently approve of it only with reservations, because it's not the last word in stability, and because it has "limited bellows draw" of about 12 inches. The latter may be true if you're a lens collector or like to do extreme closeups, but I did many tabletop jobs and copy photographs with my Wista and was never left wanting more bellows draw; the camera might be best suited to lenses between 90mm and 210mm. In any event, warmly (even sentimentally) recommended!
Hot diggety (and a dog)
The current "hot" view camera brands are the Ebonys and the Toho-not-Toyo. Ebonys are atelier-made of rare and deluxe materials, namely ebony wood, titanium fittings, and very thin real leather bellows. It seems like the more models Ebony makes, the more popular they become. Because of the materials and the high level of craftsmanship, they're very expensive, which is generally a selling point as well, but they're also very intelligently designed and capable. The Toho, which is reviewed in depth and with great competence by Kerry Thalmann on his site, is evidently (I've never seen one) a minimalist camera designed for light weight, taking up the baton in that regard from Dick Phillips' cameras. (Dick has been winding down his production of late, Oren tells me.)
Regarding the weight of view cameras, a brief story. Many years ago I visited Sally Mann on the Maury River, where she made many of her most famous photographs, and I got to watch her work. She was using a giant Toyo 8x10, fitted with a Schneider 300mm lens the size of a softball and the weight of a brick (which she generally used wide open), mounted on an enormous Majestic tripod with a geared center column. Sally's a fairly small, slender, almost slight woman, and I'm approximately the size of the average NFL linebacker, but, watching her heft her rig around, I was moved to tell her that I'd shoot 8x10 too, if only I were strong enough. She didn't think the joke was all that funny either, but anyway, the point is, view cameras are heavy—you just have to deal with it.
Probably the most utilitarian cameras are folding technical cameras, which are similar to field views except they're made of metal and, generally, they're not very pretty. Wista makes a nice one, and Toyo makes several. The Rolls-Royce of technical cameras is the Linhof, which, although awesomely overbuilt, are not significantly more functional than the much more pedestrian Toyos. All of these technical cameras are more rigid than virtually any wooden field camera (including the Ebonys I've seen). Linhofs are used by a number of the most famous landscape photographers, including (when last I heard) John Sexton.
Another very popular outdoor view camera right now is the all-metal Canham DLC. I know Keith Canham personally, and he's just one of the nicest guys in the entire world, and he's been extremely kind to me—in fact, he even gave me an original Nicholas Nixon print when he traded Nick a couple of cameras for a bunch of Nick's prints. However, with my reviewer's hat on I cannot tell a lie, and I just can't find a thing nice to say about the DLC—except that it can be used to hold a lens and film. Keith's a great designer and a superb craftsman, but I'd look at his wooden cameras.
In the small world of atelier-built view cameras, however, the DLC is a best-seller, while Arca-Swiss remains one of those companies that seems determined to hide its light under a bushel. It seems to have a thing against marketing. It doesn't even have a web site, one of the six remaining companies in the world of which this can be said.** If I could gather every reader of this column into a room and ask for a show of hands of those who have even seen an Arca-Swiss, I'll bet we'd see precious few hands. So the DLC is much discussed, and the Arca-Swiss is hardly known. A strange and remarkable state of affairs, as the wise man said.
Cameras don't kill people...
Despite all this, as I said at the outset, many view cameras can be used to good effect, even, strange to say, if they're not made of exotic hardwoods and precious metals, even if they're not gleaming showpieces worthy of display, and even if they don't cost an arm and a leg and a tooth and a toddy of rum.
On an old Graflex Crown Graphic, for instance, you can reverse the front standard holder to get forward front tilt, and "voilá," you've got most of what you need to take pictures in the field. (The Crown's Achilles' heel is its non-reversible back, making verticals inconvenient or impossible). Berenice Abbot used a Graphic View (Graflex's monorail), and the funky and rather delightful old Cambo with the skinny monorail can take perfectly nice pictures. I used an inexpensive (no, not cheap) Omega 45D in school for hundreds of sheets of film and was never aware of missing anything that any other camera might have provided. And, these days, you can buy a Sinar Norma for not much more than a thousand bucks, which is like being able to buy a Bugatti for the price of a Buick. Not for nothing is the Norma ensconced in the Museum of Modern Art's Modern Design Collection. Even the old Kodak-Korona-B&J type folding bed cameras will serve you okay if you've got gumption, moxie, verve, good old Yankee ingenuity, or some combination thereof.
There's an old NRA bumper-sticker that says, "Guns don't kill people, people with guns do." Er, maybe that's not quite it. Anyway, if the old saw "Cameras don't take pictures, photographers do" is true of anything, it's true of view cameras. It always helps if you find your camera to be a fine thing to admire and a fun thing to use, but as far as pictures are concerned it doesn't really matter all that much which camera you have—it's all up to the lens and you.
The Linhof Master Technika 2000, heir to a long tradition
*With a grain of salt.
**Disclaimer: I'm using a rhetorical device called "exaggeration." In plain English, what I've said here is that many companies do have web sites.
Originally published on The Luminous Landscape, November 2003
Copyright 2003, 2007 by Michael C. Johnston—All Rights Reserved
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