Evolving Ideas and Honing Quality {Philadelphia Landscape Photography}

I was forced to part with a good friend today. It wasn’t that the relationship was long…it’s just that this friend taught me an awful lot in a very short time. Yes, I had to return my 4×5 view camera today.

Working with a view camera is different. It is slow. It is deliberate. It is expensive. It is painstaking in its technicalities and demands. But the results are superb. For better or for worse, the digital age of smaller, lighter, faster-to-post-to-the-web cameras, more so than the era of film point-and-shoot cameras, has changed what people think of as high-quality photography. The 35mm camera used to be the light, fast, traveling person’s camera. Now, a full-frame DSLR is not only at the high end of the price scale, it is also at the high end of the perceived quality scale as well. Medium format or larger photography, not to mention film in general, is increasingly seen as a choice of eccentricity, rather than as a choice of quality. I’d like to submit that the quality of a 4×5 negative can only be believed once it is seen. Digital has no answer.

At $85 for a 50-sheet box of film, one has to be careful how and what is shot. Each mistake, each careless exposure, each half-baked idea, comes with a tangible price. A full day’s shooting might only result in ten or twelve frames. And depending on how strictly you edit down your shots, that means that, every day, you might get one usable shot, even when you are thinking clearly and working well. Some days, there won’t be anything usable.

For the large format photography class that I’ve been taking, we had the assignment to develop and shoot a project over a six-week span. Not long by any account, but long enough to spend some serious time thinking about how, what, and why we each were indulging ourselves in this form of photography. Such a project has to start out with an idea, and I, in my fashion, had a few awful ideas that I tried to play around with at first, the kind of ideas that would have worked out well if I had had six years and an unlimited travel budget, and maybe a helicopter, to work with. I finally realized, after much crappy photography, that what I was shooting when no one was watching me were intimate, detail-driven landscapes. So that is what I decided to focus on.

The only thing is, that is kind of a wishy-washy idea, and wishy-washy ideas lead to wishy-washy photography. Cartier-Bresson said that he would rather see a fuzzy picture of a clear idea than a clear picture of a fuzzy idea, and I’m not one to disagree. My project started out with textural shots of erosion and roots, and they were…mneh. Boring pictures of interesting things, at best.

But I found that using the camera in its slow, methodical way was a sort of meditation. The surface actions of finding an interesting subject and making a technically sound capture became, in their familiarity, somewhat invisible, and I could then think and look and see at a deeper level. And being the kind of person that I am, thinking in images soon led to thinking in words, and I found myself ruminating not about intimate landscapes, but about the mutability of natural forms, and the timescales that change happens across. It’s a much more specific idea, and even if that idea is not explicitly investigated in the resulting images, it was a much clearer idea that was motivating me to shoot. I found more interesting things, framed them better, and printed them better. Over the course of the second half of my shooting, each image became a little more compelling than the previous. I started getting that sense that things were well in the universe. I kept the idea in mind, I talked to myself about it so that the idea of mutability of forms became, in its familiarity, somewhat invisible, and a clearer, calmer, more productive space opened up for me. These later shots ended up comprising 75% of my final portfolio.

There was even a moment when I started knowing that what I was intending to capture was what was going to come out in the final print. There, under the dark cloth, I could imagine, even, where I’d have to dodge or burn, how I’d have to play with contrast, what the final thing would look like. And at some point, I actually started to be right, too.

I don’t often have the time to spend twenty minutes searching for just the right thing to photograph. As a wedding photographer, things come and go so quickly that it is exhausting merely to keep up, in the moment. It’s a different type of shooting, a different mindset that demands that I be open to seeing (Mssr Cartier-Bresson also said that photography has to be like the last few words of Ulysses: yes, yes, yes) and consuming images and moment en masse. With large format photography, I have to be more careful, saying not yet, not yet, not yet, and making more choices in the moment, not in the dark room. That time to slow down, to look, to think, to decide on something else, to not have to settle for anything that is not exactly what I want, has made me a better photographer by broadening the experience of shooting, and by putting a literal price tag on the value of each shutter click. It has taught me when it is best to say yes.

The last frame I shot for the class. Also, the best. A result of process, not coincidence.