Thoughtfactory: large format

a minor blog about the trials, tribulations and explorations of large format, analogue photography in Australia

finding my feet

The CitiCentre picture below  is one of my early large format elevated photos of Adelaide's CBD. It is rough and I have never shown  it publicly.  It was made at a time when I was living Sturt St  in the CBD,   and  I'd just started to explore  making  urban large format photographs of   Adelaide.  At the time   I didn't know of any working Australian large format  photographers who was making urban images  of the CBD of the capital cities. Though I knew of  the early black and white  photos that  Grant Mudford made in the 1970s I didn't realise at the time that they were made with 35mm film and not with his Sinar  5x4.  

I distinctly remember the process of making the CitiCentre photo: it was in the late afternoon that  I carried the 5x7 gear to a tram stop,  caught  the tram to Rundle Mall, walked through the crowds of shoppers in Rundle Mall, then  going up the lift to access the top floor of the ugly car park on the corner Rundle and Pulteney Sts. The location had been scoped beforehand -- it has to be prior to making a decision  to make a picture. 

The location  was the  U carpark  that replaced the Foy and Gibson building that was demolished in the 1970s. The car park  had  iron bars or railings that allowed you to put the  lens of a handheld camera through.   Most of the new car parks in Adelaide's CBD are now covered in mesh and it is impossible to photograph through the mesh.  However,  I wasn't really sure that I would be able to  get the camera lens of the 5x7 Cambo momorail through the iron bars/railings of the car park in order to  make the photo. To my relief I could. 

This  was a decade ago and  I had just started thinking about  a project of photographing Adelaide -- a project that would m eventually evolve into  Walking Adelaide several years latter. At the time  I was just making photos and still  thinking in terms of the purity of the image  the modernist  idea of uniqueness and  medium specificity and the white cube.  A photograph of a building in the city is a photograph. It's not the building anymore.   

The process dominated at that early stage.I just counted myself lucky if I could get the 5x7 monorail camera to a chosen location and made a photo. I did know that what I was trying to do was not architectural photography of the latter Grant Mudford.  

an experiment gone wrong

How can you photograph the landscape in the era of the Anthropocene in a way that addresses the future that is already  coming? 

The photo below was an attempt in 2022 to try and  represent the movement of hanging  bark caused by the wind within the context of  the strangeness of the local bush in Waitpinga  in the Fleurieu Peninsula of South Australia.  It was in the early morning during early autumn, when there was a light  breeze  gently moving the bark. The blur was designed to step away from the picturesque or the tourist style. 

The method chosen was a  double exposure of one 5x7 sheet of film  and 2  long exposures of around 40 seconds each. The composition  had been pre-determined with some earlier scoping with a digital camera.  

Alas, the experiment did not work at all.  Failure. 

The tonality of the photo  turned out to be utterly different to what I'd pre-visualized and planned for.  I couldn't believe  what I was seeing when I scanned the negative. "What the hell" was my immediate response. I was dumbfounded.   Then, when I realised the scan was okay, a wave of embarrassment surged through me.  This was such a long way from the quality standards of the large format culture. 

Japanese Zen aesthetics: Mono No Aware

This post on Mono No Aware in traditional Japanese Zen aesthetics picks up on this previous  post about wabi sabi and my  large format photography.   This bushland photography in  Waitpinga bushland on the southern Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia was a little project during 2002 that was done on  the early morning poodlewalks with Kayla. 

That earlier post  highlighted how Wabi and sabi emphasise contentment and the acceptance of imperfection as a result of the ravages of time. Mono No Aware,  in contrast,  refers  to awareness and acceptance of the ephemeral of life. The “pathos” (aware) of “things” (mono), derives from their transience. The underlying idea is transience and impermanence in life. It is an acceptance of  perishability as opposed to the traditional preference for permanence. 

The most frequently cited example of mono no aware in contemporary Japan is the traditional love of cherry blossoms of the Japanese cherry trees. These  are intrinsically no more beautiful than those of, say, the pear or the apple tree: they are more highly valued because of their transience, since they usually begin to fall within a week of their first appearing.

The fleeting moment in the bushland was the  early morning light:

The light was ephemeral: it  lasted on this branch of the pink gum for a minute or so before disappearing.  I knew the time it happened in the early morning during the early winter months and I would have the 5x4 Linhof Technika IV set  up on its tripod waiting.  Often I would have the camera set up but the clouds would drift at the crucial moment and there was no light on the branch. 

Xmas/New Year: at Petrel Cove

During the Xmas/New Year holiday period  I was able  to do some large format (5x4) photography  in and around Petrel Cove at Victor Harbor on the southern Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia.  As this is my local area  it is easy for me to get to the location and set up the camera before sunrise, which is just after 6am. 

The conditions in this area changed over the holiday period.  The River Murray's flood waters have reached the southern ocean and, as a result,  the seawater around the coast of Victor Harbor has become quite brown and full of weed. The gusty, gale force,  south westerly winds in the first week of January  created a lot of foam along both the foreshore in  Petrel  Petrel Cove and along the western coast rocks to  Dep's Beach and beyond.   

at  Petrel Cove:  Sinar f1,  black and white film:

On a couple of  mornings  it was impossible to  walk along the coast rocks around  from Petrel Cove as the waist high foam covered the littoral zone  up to the base of the cliffs. The foam was very sandy.

cross processed 5x4 negatives

This  archival coastal image of  tree roots on the edge of the lagoon at American River on Kangaroo Island in South Australia was  part of a bunch of 5x4 colour negatives (Portra 160 ASA) that Atkins Lab -- a  commercial photo lab in Adelaide -- cross processed  in   E6 processing by mistake.  

I was pretty upset  at the time and I wrote about the episode  here.  The cross processed files remained in the archives and were ignored.  What has changed since then is that I've  been seeing a variety of the hand crafted alternative processing images  in the online exhibitions hosted by View Camera Australia.  I found these images fascinating as they opened up a different way of doing photography  to the perfection path  I'd been engaged in.   

Though I admired the work I was seeing in the online exhibitions I judged that the alternative processing pathway wasn't for me. I have  enough problems with large format photography per se without taking a portable darkroom into the field as well and taking 3 years or more  to become proficient in the process.  The slow process of  large format film photography has  enough  imperfection and unpredictability  to act as  counter balance to the computational digital for me. 

What I did  was  to take another  look at the ignored  archival  cross processed files but tI did  so  from the perspective of alternative processing. They actually looked ok. 

at Mt Arapiles

On a recent road trip to Melbourne  I stayed overnight at Mt Arapiles. We had been walking for  a week or so in  Wilson's Promontory in early 2022,  and  we were making  our way back  to Encounter Bay in South Australia, after staying a few days in Melbourne. The reason for the overnight stay at Mt Arapiles was that I wanted to  make a few  b+w 8x10 photos of some trees in the flat land in  front of the imposing cliff-face. 

I  had initially visited and explored Mt Arapiles a few years earlier with the now defunct Melbourne-based Friends of the Photography Group that was run by David Tatnall.    I was impressed by Mt Arapiles then and I promised myself that if I had any spare  time on any subsequent road trips to Melbourne I would try to arrange things so that I could tarry a while at Mt Arapiles and wander around the state park. I had several trees in mind that I wanted to photograph.  

 I was intrigued by the area even though it was completely surrounded by agricultural land.  The rock face was the centre of attention of the climbers and the trees and bushes in the open space at the foot of the cliffs were largely ignored. On the  initial visit with the  Friends of the Photography Group I would often walk along and around the straggly trees in the open ground. This terrain could not be considered beautiful. My  experience of being in this landscape was not one of experiencing natural beauty and my sensations were not ones of pleasure.  

I was saddened by the poor condition of this remnant bush but intrigued:   how could I photograph this messy, uncared for landscape? How would I  interpret this kind of landscape? 

a significant moment

This photo of an old  pink gum log  lying on the roadside next to the local Waitpinga bushland represented a significant  moment for  me as a photographer. It was a turning point in the practice of my large format photography, when  I really was on the point  of giving the 5x7 format away. 

It was a a significant  moment for several reasons. Firstly, this  was  when I started to consciously see nature (ie., the  bush) in terms of change and  transience.  Nature was not  unchanging or  timeless (what has always been); nor was it purely a social or cultural construct.  It has its own dynamical processes (eg., decay) even if I couldn't see the processes of things passing away and then them not being there any more.

Secondly,  the image is significant because it was with the negative of this  image  that  I finally figured out how to scan  5x7 colour negatives on a flatbed Epson scanner;  and then to post process them in Lightroom  to obtain a reasonable looking image. One  that was other than  beauty,  and which avoided the problematic mystification of nature in environmental philosophy. 

Thirdly, I connected to the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi, whose  emphasis  on the acceptance of transience and imperfection, provided a counter to postmodernism in Australia. The characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, and modesty. History is a big part of wabi-sabi and the wearing  needs to come with actual age and the influence of time. The presence of cracks, splintering  and decay in things are considered to signify the passing of time and the weather.  

photography in high summer

The  two photographs below are an experiment. 

At the time I was trying to obtain a washed-out or bleached, high summer look. The photographs are of nothing much, the technique I used was overexposure, and the camera  was a 1960's heavy metal Super Cambo 8x10 monorail,  a Schneider-Kreuznach 240mm  lens and  a Pronto shutter.  

The photo below is of the mouth of the Hindmarsh River  at Victor Harbor on the Fleurieu Peninsula of South Australia: 

South Australia has long periods of  little to no rain -- 5-6 months after the winter rains and during the high summer everything looks dried and withered. It looks as if things are just hanging on until the rains arrive in late autumn. The  plants usually  look as if they are  in bare survival mode. Dead almost. 

on location: seascapes + time

A behind the camera photo whilst I was on location for a large format photo session earlier this year. 

The camera, for those interested,  is an old  5x7 Super Cambo monorail from the early 1960s.  The location is  the eastern side of Rosetta Head, Victor Harbor, in  South Australia. The time was around  late February 2022 -- which is the cusp of  summer/autumn in South Australia.  

I was photographing light, clouds and sea  at Encounter Bay that morning.   I was fortunate  that there was no north or south-easterly wind blowing. The coastal winds had been particularly strong and persistent in the late summer,  and they continued throughout the autumn and winter months.  Rosetta Head can be, and usually is  buffeted,  by the coastal winds which makes large format photography difficult.  

in desperation

The picture below of roadside vegetation in Waitpinga on the southern Fleurieu Peninsula was an attempt to ensure that  the process of making a photos with  the 8x10 Cambo  monorail was successful. I wanted to nail it down in light of all the issues I'd been having -- with the shutter,  the  limited  lens coverage,  vignetting from bellows yaw,  poor development of the film and  Newton rings  when scanning. 

 My experience was one of  a continual series of flaws that got in the way of trying to do something with the 8x10 style of photography.   Since nothing was working properly I wanted to sort out  the dam  problems I was experiencing by  getting the technique  under control.  In desperation  I simplified everything down so  that I could make  a picture that wasn't deeply flawed. It's a bit like being in a workshop or  a construction site with being a mechanic. 

Hence this representation of a tree in the roadside vegetation in my local neighbourhood: 

I wanted to get things working right so  that I could start to shift my photography away from a reflection of what exists towards a photography  that would start to stimulate us to reconfigure our interaction with the world; to try and develop a photography that  leads to  new sensations and stimulates new ways of seeing and being.