As we continue our never-ending slog through the tide of technological advancements, photos become less and less the domain of the "photographer." After all, what is a photographer in 2014? The concept loses more relevance every day. As evidenced by my Facebook feed, any knucklehead can pick up a DSLR, start hammering out auto-mode pictures of newborns, and call himself a professional photographer. In the meantime, the democratizing effects of technology mean money and training are no longer obstacles to the creation of art. Some of the best photos I saw last year were on Instagram, of all places.
But is it possible that, in our endless march toward progress, we've lost some of that magic that made photography special in the first place? I think so. Like vinyl albums or a well-read novel. there is something to be said for a photograph's presence. Its tactility. As we drown in a river of rapid-fire images, we lose the experience of creating an honest to God object, and I think that's a little bit disheartening.
So, in the interest of being a difficult, Luddite asshole, I resolved to take up the most arduous, finicky, and time-consuming form of photography in existence: Large Format. I browsed ebay for weeks, hesitant to pull the trigger until one night, emboldened with a six pack of Anderson Valley Summer Solstice, I placed a single drunk bid on a Graflex Crown Graphic press camera, and I won. The thing cost $150, smelled like my grandpa's house, and came coated in 60 years of cigarette smoke and dust. The nice lady who sold it to me told me it was in great shape, and that she'd included a set of three "photographic cartridges." Turns out the cartridges in question were film holders, and that the camera was actually in pretty good shape, outside a few dings and dents, and a scratched up lens that stuck on any exposure longer than 1/30 of a second. I took the thing apart, scrubbed the ground glass clean, and ventured out with a box of Ektar 100, ready to create mind-blowing images.
And I failed. And failed. And failed some more. To start with, I began metering with a cell phone app. Let me tell you from personal experience that a cell phone is a light meter in the same sense that a ipod is a watermelon. My first box of film came back hideously overexposed, and all but unusable. Any and all attempts to fix it in Photoshop were met with failure. So I stole my dad's 1970s era light meter, and tried again.
This time, the images were a little more successful. I had read online that Ektar - a notoriously demanding color negative film - should be metered at ASA 50 or 64, and had taken that (pretty bad) advice to heart, so my images were still coming out pretty overexposed. But at least this time, I finally felt like I was on the right track.
Large format is slow. Like, glacial slow. Sloths mainlining opium slow. A single shot takes me at least a half hour to set up, and my journey towards usable images has resulted in twice as many fried sheets of film as finished photos. Still, there's something undeniable about it. It's the very slowness of the process that I find so addicting. With large format, you're forced to really see what you're shooting. The ritual that accompanies every shot is intoxicating. Landscape photography is not my career. I do it because I enjoy being outside and creating beautiful images. The process of large format photography forces you to immerse yourself in the scene. To really sit back and see the world around you. It's wonderful.
Now would be a good time to point out that large format actually has some advantages. To begin with, the image quality is outrageous. A 4x5 negative is about 14 times bigger than a 35mm negative (or full frame sensor.) This results in images equaling something over 100 megapixels. If you want to create really large prints, that's a big deal. Most large format cameras (though not my POS) also offer a large number of movements. With movements you can adjust for perspective, change the focus plain, and achieve any number of other effects in camera, all without touching Photoshop.
It goes without saying that I'd never shoot a wedding in Large Format. In fact, I only feel confident working with landscapes, as they aren't likely to move very far, and won't complain if I screw things up. But there are times when I don't miss the ruthless efficiency of digital. I enjoy the way the film holder snaps into place, the feel of the cable release, the anticipation of my negatives in the mail.
I have yet to take a really great large format photo. Honestly, who knows if I ever will. But who cares? Maybe soon I'll be back in Photoshop, exposure stacking and layer adjusting to my little heart's content, chasing a form of perfection that only exists in a world of ones and zeros. For now, I'm happy sitting by a frozen beach, sipping a beer and waiting for the light to get just right. If you can't appreciate that, you and I don't take pictures for the same reason.