A Portfolio by John Brownlow
When Michael asked me along toSandbanksI was pleased and a little nervous. Pleased because I secretly enjoy landscape work. Nervous because I don’t do enough of it to be confident of the results. I took along a 4×5 camera partly for the quality but mostly to change my gestalt. I shoot hundreds of rolls a year on the streets with a Leica in my hand. Using a 4×5 forces a complete change of pace and attitude.
My 4×5 equipment is ancient, inexpensive, and relatively portable, if occasionally unreliable. The whole kit cost me less than a single Leica lens. It allows for a few movements, though the lenses don’t have great coverage in any event. The shutter speeds aren’t really accurate enough to allow shooting reversal film with any great confidence, so I tend to shoot color neg (Kodak Portra 160 VCin this case). This also absolves me from having to lug around red, green, yellow and blue filters since I can mimic their effects in Photoshop using the channel mixer. I did press one of Michael’s polarizers into service at one point though.
I like the 4×5 camera because it makes me think, and because it has taught me more about photography than any other camera I own. Nothing brings you face to face with the mechanics of your craft (or your own ignorance) more swiftly than a view camera.
Rather than conventional cut film holders I use the legendaryGrafmaticback, a staggeringly cunning contraption which holds six sheets of film and riffles through them automatically with an action satisfyingly reminiscent of a pump action shotgun. They make a great noise. I have seven of these things, trawled from bargain bins in camera stores, and I love them.
One great thing about 4×5 equipment is that the size of the negative makes up for a lot of equipment-related sins. My 40-year old lenses aren’t sharp, certainly not in the corners, anyway. But the camera still turns out the highest technical quality of any of my equipment.
Graflex Super Graphic camera, Wollensak Optar 90mm f/6.8 lens, Portra VC 160 film, exposure 6 minutes @ f/32
The beach shot is an interesting one as both the camera and I were operating at our limits. It was about 30 minutes after sunset and we had driven to an east-facing beach to watch the moon rise. The light was almost gone, leaving an eerie blue sheen on the water. I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants, and walked a couple of feet out into the lake. I got the camera as low as the tripod would allow. I knew I wanted everything in focus, but by now it was too dark to see anything but very vague shapes in the ground glass, even kneeling in the water with the darkcloth over my head.
So I tried to guess at a composition, tilted the lens forward to throw the plane of focus parallel to the lake surface, and focused on a highlight on the rock. I knew to have any chance of getting everything in focus I would have to stop down all the way. My incident meter said the exposure was 2 minutes at f/32. I knew that I would have to at least double that for reciprocity, and even then it wouldn’t be enough, so I guessed at six minutes. By the time I’d made the exposure, the light had fallen another two stops, and it was almost totally dark. Luckily, despite the fact that I could hardly see a thing, the focus turned out to be dead on, the exposure was right, and the eerie blue light I’d seen was beautifully rendered by the film".
Graflex Super Graphic camera, Wollensak Optar 90mm f/6.8 lens, Portra VC 160 film, exposure 1s @ f/32. Image converted to BW in Photoshop from green and red channels using the Channel Mixer
To view photographs taken on this same trip by Michael Reichmann, clickhere.
Street photography by John Brownlow can be seenhere.
This subject will be featured in a forthcoming issue of The Luminous Landscape Video Journal