It’s January on the Isle of Skye, cold and misty. Keith Moss lobbed me some expired Fuji 160 colour film a while ago, 4×5 sheet format, made in ’88. I decide to start packing for a trip to Lanzarote and contemplate which cameras and film to take. After packing the RB67 with b&w film with the intention of taking it everywhere — mainly shooting street and perhaps a couple of multiple exposures — I take another glance at the expired Fuji film.
Then, a look over to the RB ends in a big sigh… I’m only taking carry-on luggage and I’ve already chucked out most clothes and I’m only going with a skeleton diabetes pack of cannulas and all the rest of it, I’m certainly not going to waste space on underwear…
I want to shoot the expired film so I start unpacking the RB and looking through my 4×5 cameras… the Toyo? Heavy, but awesome, I want more movement though. The Graflex? I only have one lens for that. The Camerdactyl? I realise I’ve lent it to a friend. So. I look out the Intrepid and start making a lens board for the 90mm lens to accompany the 310mm.
We drive through the narrow turns up to the top of Timanfaya in Lanzarote, it’s overcast and quite windy with rain forecast (it only rains 20 days a year here.) There’s some park rangers demonstrating the geothermal properties of the active Volcan. One guy pours water down a 10 metre pipe, stands back and smiles as there’s an eruption of boiling water and steam propelled upwards a few metres. I know I don’t have enough time to set up here as we’re on a super tight schedule. Damn it.
We move onto the next demonstration. There’s a guy with a pitch-fork tossing some local dried-out vegetation into a pit that’s emitting powerful radiated heat, the vegetation starts to pyrolise and bursts into flames, the onlookers stand back a few paces, whilst I’m already placing to 4×5 onto the Manfrotto.
Sonya lets me know I have about three minutes before the bus leaves. Oh maaaaaan. I chuck the camera together and place the lens in. Darkcloth given to me by Ryan at Wanderer goes over quickly and I try to get a focus as more vegetation is tossed into the pit. It’s a great backdrop of the volcanic landscape, red and rich, but I’ve no time to light meter, or consider what adjustments I’ll need to make to the exposure when the flames shoot up.
I load the double dark-slide into the 4×5 and set to a 60th of a second at f16 if I remember rightly (which could be completely wrong.) Smoke, then flames and I hit the cable release. The feckin bus is starting up, everyone’s already on and so I have to leg it back with everything assembled still. I try to avoid giving people contusions on their heads as I pass through the bus to my seat. I can feel people looking at me thinking WTF. Or are they simply looking at the camera and thinking WTF?
It’s market day in Fuerteventura and super busy. The pavements are rammed with bloody tourists. I see this guy shaping spoons, his eyes meet mine and I shout ‘Hola Amigo, what’s the craic?!’ He returns with ‘Hola’ and a big smile. His name is Sergio and he has long silver hair, tanned wrinkled skin and a lot of presence, I ask to take a photograph of him and he looks about me to identify a camera, I unpack the Intrepid and his eyes light up, ‘Brilliant!’ I said.
I immediately forget about the bustle around me and get under the hood. It’s like a safe place for me, behind the lens is good anywhere but under the hood is awesome. Whilst Sergio is talking to some dude who’s standing right in-front of my 90mm I picture the shot I want in my head, moving pretty much all of the controls on the Intrepid, I figure why bother shooting large format if you’re not gonna go mental, right?!
Dude finally gets his ass out of the way and I finish my focus on Sergio’s eyes. I count Sergio down and release the shutter… Boom! I already took an ambient light reading earlier in the day, having learned a lot from Keith about preparation on the street.
I take a shot of another character at a different stall and when I’m done a lady approaches me, she say’s ‘Wow! I grew up with this type of camera.’ She asks to take a look and I hand here the lupe, I can tell she’s in love with it all over again as she lifts the darkcloth.
Becoming the Subject
I’m still on the market street and I get talking to Emiliyan, a resident photographer who’s selling some of his prints, they’re beautiful seascapes and landscapes. He looks at the 4×5 and I ask him if he’s ever shot the format. ‘Unfortunately no,’ he replies. As we’re talking about the camera and its ability to enable the photographer to be creative, I’m aware that there’s a guy at my 10 O’clock taking snaps of us. When I think back, I saw him doing the same in my peripherals when I was shooting Sergio.
I suck my belly in and try to look okay as this guy snaps away in the background, wondering if he’s shooting us and the camera, or just the camera?! I look over to see what lens he has on and as I do so the guy looks the other way and moves off before I get a chance to engage with him.
It’s weird shooting large format cameras, I find people are naturally drawn in and more relaxed as they’re curious about the gear, this can be really useful to you as a photographer because you’re well on your way to shooting them without causing them too much stress.
I get back to our apartment and start unpacking the gear. I need to load out the shot sheets into darkbags and load more into the three holders I took with me. As I lift out one holder from my bag I look in horror at it to see a couple of millimetres of film exposed… the securing pins must have gotten moved in my bag (or I forgot to turn them into place.) Either way it’s the same on both sides… when this happens you have to not get pissed off, what’s the point, right?! Pissed off, I sat down to enjoy a red wine and continued to change film in the darkbag, aka Grannies Pants, (they ain’t actually my Grannies Pants… they’re someone else’s Grannies pants, probably.)
So we’re on our way to the Zoo. I have six sheets loaded (and locked.) It’s a beautiful day and things are good.
I’m looking forward to deving the sheets when I get back to Scotland. Initially, I was going to post them over to Dave in France, as I sent him a Jobo developer not so long back. Thinking about it though, Dave will be super mathematical and professional about the dev, so who can I blame if my shots come out lame?! I guess I’ll have to just dev them myself in my usual cowboy way and blame that!
If you’re reading this and you don’t have a large format camera, go get one. It’s simply the best format you can ever wish for. I’d also recommend shooting paper negatives; this massively reduces cost of shooting 8×10 for example.
Have fun and enjoy it. PEACE.