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Calumet C1–First Pictures–New Jersey January 1987

I’m selling two 8×10 cameras on Ebay right now, along with about a dozen lenses. Feels good, at least so far. I promised  my wife I would do this when I bought the Sony A7 RII last fall—it’s time to let the stuff go.  Hopefully some other photographers can make pictures with these great tools.

I think I was drawn to the 8×10 because of the photographers I admired who worked in that format–Eugene Atget (OK, his camera was slightly smaller), Edward Weston, and Walker Evens.  I knew a few photographers who tried to make the step up from 4×5, but found the format just too hard–but George Tice seemed to think that 8×10 was the only “real camera” out there.  But I must admit being a bit timid about making the jump–which is why I first bought the Calumet C1–a very affordable, but dependable, 8×10.

There are some photographers who fetishize their equipment—they keep it stored carefully most of the time, and only take it out to use on special occasions—and you get the feeling that they care more about the amount of money they paid for a camera or a lens than the pictures they make with it. I’ve always been the opposite kind of a photographer—I want the pictures, and am willing to use the equipment hard to get them. In Alaska, I had a term for it: the “bottom of the river” camera. If the camera wound up at the bottom of the river, I didn’t want to care. The other mantra I had was that the best camera for making any picture was the one you had with you. The sharpest lens in the world doesn’t make any pictures sitting on a shelf at home. For years, I carried a Rollei Twin Lens Reflex (the cheaper Tessar lens version) camera in my backpack every time I went to the field—into the rain and the snow and the mud. I wore out that camera in about 5 years, and bought another one just like it. After a few years, the second one started falling apart, thankfully in a different way, so I took both of them to my camera repairman and told him to take the two cameras and make one useable one out of them, and keep the rest for parts.

I bought my first 8×10 in early 1987, after seeing an exhibit by a somewhat famous photographer at a local college, who was selling 8×10 contact prints for $500. I had just started a job at a big corporation, and thought about buying a print, until I went to the lecture by the photographer. His arrogance convinced me I didn’t want to invest in his work—instead I went out looking for an 8×10 camera to buy. I found a camera (a Calumet C1), a lens (a 16 ½ inch Goerz Gotar) and a tripod (a Davis and Stamford) for slightly more than the cost of a single print. Within about 6 months of making that purchase, my wife and I moved to Alaska, for the summer, but we stayed on, for 26 years.

Calumet C1–Front Street, Kotzebue, February 1988

Working with an 8×10 camera is in many ways, a deliberate act of frustration. Since the camera is so big, you need to find a safe place to set it up—no pictures from the middle of the road. There is often only a small number of safe places to set the camera up—so you need to find a picture from that vantage point.

The camera is big and heavy, hard to carry. It takes a big tripod to support the camera. Then the camera needs to be set up—a process that takes a few minutes, to adjust the front and back standards and attach the lens. Then the fun begins—open the lens, go under the dark cloth, and go through the process of focusing the image. In landscape, this usually means finding a plane that goes from the foreground to the horizon, an action that requires a simple tilt of either the lens plane or the film plane. Then the real moment of pleasure—looking at the image on the ground glass—upside down, of course—but somehow that transformation turns the subject in front of the camera into a picture—a two dimensional representation of the subject.

Ice–2005. 8×10 image–can’t remember the camera.

Then comes the actual moment of making the exposure. The light is metered, an exposure calculated. The lens is closed, the f stop adjusted, the shutter cocked. The film holder is inserted into the back of the camera, the dark slide pulled and sometimes used to shield the lens from the sun. Then the shutter is tripped. That’s it. Dark slide back in place. Film holder pulled. Camera disassembled and put away.
But there are a host of issues that can happen to ruin a shot. Light leaks in the bellows, or the film holder. An unnoticed slip of any one of the movements on the camera. Wind vibrating the camera.  And then the process back in the darkroom—developing the film (I used open trays in total darkness), labeling the negatives, doing a contact proof print. And then reloading the film holders for the next shoot.

Before Walmart opens, Fairbanks, 2004. First shot with Deardorff 8×10

And then there is cost. B&H is currently selling 8×10 sheet film for $4 a sheet, and then there is chemistry and negative sleeves. My guess is $5 a shot. When I shot 500 negatives a year, that’s $2000 in just film—about the price I just paid for that Sony 42 MP digital camera body.

Fairbanks, March 2006. Deardorff 8×10

And time. I figure that every 8×10 shot I make is an hour out of my life, between the camera time in the field, the darkroom time, and the scanning time. The agreement I have with myself is that if I make the shot in the field, I will make at least one proof print—even if it’s a bad picture, I want to try to learn something from it.

Gulkana Glacier, Deardorff 8×10, Summer 2008

So what makes working with an 8×10 worth it? The obvious answer is that the big negative gives a richness to the print that is difficult to achieve with other formats—but there are excellent cameras and lenses in smaller formats that also make splendid photographs. My own reason for liking the format have to do with the directness of seeing a picture on the ground glass that translates into the final image. I once said that the reason I use an 8×10 is because it’s the fastest camera I’ve ever used—the fastest way to a finished print. When working with smaller cameras, I had to first do a contact sheet, spend time editing, go back to the darkroom, make work prints, edit again, and then make finished prints—three trips into the darkroom, and lots of wasted time in the process. With the 8×10, one trip to the darkroom and a little luck can get you a print you can look at for decades.
That moment of seeing the image on the ground glass is often burned in my brain, sometimes for decades. When shooting with the 8×10, the last thing I do before falling asleep in the evening is to try to recall every shot I made with the camera that day—I can usually do it. I’ve never been able to do that with a handheld camera—too many pictures to remember. I can still recall some images that do not exist because of technical difficulties–they are still framed and still in my mind.
I don’t know if I’m done with the 8×10 yet—I’m working on a couple projects now (grain elevators, crowds) that are well suited for hand held work–the 8×10 is just too slow—but I haven’t sold all my 8×10 equipment. I am holding on to the Phillips—a balsa wood and carbon fiber camera—light and easy to carry, by 8×10 standards—and three lenses.

Last shot with the Deardorff 8×10, Grand Coulee, December 2016

What I think I have learned from working with the 8×10 all these years is the importance of taking time to find and frame a picture. Working hand held with a tilt shift lens is much faster—but I still find myself thinking about the pictures in the same way—find the light, find a place to stand, look through the camera—how does the image fill the frame—is it level—is it focused—is it worth pressing the shutter? And then, where’s the next picture…

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One Comment

    • Marvin Falk
    • Posted September 22, 2019 at 1:25 pm
    • Permalink

    Almost every photographer that has been active for a number of decades experienced the same dilemma. How has the equipment informed the creation of images? I started with 35mm (the only practical format for photo-journalism when I worked for the Minnesota Daily in the early 1960s), had a twin-lens Rolli, experimented with 4×5. I eventually became a slave to Leica cameras and lenses. I no longer use film but have adapted Leica lenses to function on Canon DSLRs. Thinking about my images, I see that the format has had a profound influence on my photography. For example, I am just now starting to use shift-tilt lenses on my digital DSLRs.


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