As I fumbled with setting up my 4×5 camera in the 20 degree cold I realized how long it had been since I had last done any serious landscape work with large format film photography. I was rusty and I knew in that instant that nothing about the photograph I was about to make was going to turn out well.
The problem wasn’t that I didn’t remember how to operate the camera or that I had forgotten something I needed at home. The problem was timing. As I drove into Turnbull Wildlife Refuge just south of Cheney Washington I had a sinking feeling that I had arrived too late. Even though I had left before daylight I had underestimated how long it would take me to get to the spot I had wanted to photograph.
As I set up my tripod for the shot I had scouted earlier in the week I realized that I had miscalculated the position of the sun and that this shot wasn’t going to match the one I had visualized in my mind. I lamented to myself the simple fact that landscape photography is extremely hard work. It is a labor of love that requires a photographer to get up before dawn and lug heavy equipment up a trail in what seems to always be either extreme cold or extreme heat. It is a solitary pursuit that requires extended periods of time away from family and friends.
A large format photograph isn’t something that you can snap in an instant. It requires patience and perseverance and a large dose of humble pie. Once the camera was set up I pulled out my field journal from my shooting vest to make some notes. I couldn’t believe that my last journal entry was from July of 2017! No wonder I was struggling with this work. I think the pursuit of natural beauty is perhaps the holy grail of photography.
The scene I had organized my life around for the past few days was not going to turn out. I had spent a day cleaning out my darkroom and getting it set up again and I had spent a day reviewing technical notes about the film I was using and packing up my gear so that I could leave before sunrise. All that effort had brought me to this moment when I knew it was not going to result in beautiful image. I decided I needed to make the photograph anyway.
I needed to take this time to practice my craft and to learn from these mistakes and I needed to practice the problem solving skills necessary for creating something.
As I wrestled with the composition I made note of the moon rising and told myself that I will need to plan to return at the next full moon. The sun I had planned on skimming the grasses along the pond from the side to accentuate their texture was behind me instead, leaving the image flat and dull.
I made the photograph anyway. I went through the problem solving exercise of pulling out a graduated neutral density filter to tone down the now bright pale sky and the yellow filter that would darken the blue sky further and help create some visual contrast between the early green foliage and the yellow grasses that had died back over the winter.
My mind enjoyed the exercise of remembering all the knowledge I had accumulated since childhood. I had watched my father repair cameras and make prints in his darkroom above his shop in LA. In my teens I had him for a high school photography teacher where I learned about the technical aspects of film exposure and photo chemistry and read the Zone system books of Ansel Adams.
As I stood in the cold I reminded myself that I had made a choice to be here just as I had made the decisive choice to study photography in college instead of chemistry. I remembered preparing for that first PHOTO 101 class by purchasing the required 4×5 view camera.
My career has taken me to a lot of places and I have adopted so many new technologies but returning back to a 4×5 camera has brought me back to the origins of my love of photography. After making that first exposure I decided to punt and move on to a different vantage point where I again wrestled with the composition and made more notes about what I would do differently the next time.
I got home about 3 hours later with only three exposed film holders. Two would be nothing more than physical exercise but by the third image I started to feel I might have something worthwhile.
I spent the next couple of hours mixing chemistry and processing the film in a dark meditation. I thought about how a photograph is really made over a four stage process. It was first made in my minds eye when I imagined the image and packed the gear. It was made a second time when I set up the camera and made an exposure. It was made a third time in the darkroom as the film is processed. And finally it is made a fourth time as I crop and finalize the composition and translate the negative into a positive image to share with you.
Now that I am back in my darkroom I think I am finally ready to do this work. I think I have finally found the patience to commit to this passion and to live with the mistakes along the way.
Camera: Wisner 4×5 Technical Field Camera
Lens: 150mm Snyder APO SYMAR
Film: Ilford HP5+
Developer: HC 110 dilution B
Scanner: Epson Perfection V700