The Graflex Speed Graphic, to the touch, is boxy, with a leather side strap for a sturdy on-the-go grip, denoted for its press-style aesthetic. Only those considered truly serious photojournalists from the 1900s-1950s used the Graflex. The camera’s most renowned debut was when Weegee, the newspaper photographer, decided to pick up the camera to capture the seedy underbelly of Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the 1930s and ’40s.
I originally became familiar with the Graflex Speed Graphic when I was a graduate student in San Francisco. My background as an undergraduate was in oil painting. For my Master’s degree, I decided to try my hand at a more portable means of portrayal—that of photography. The most appealing attribute to my aesthetic sensibilities was the antiquarian processes and cameras, utilizing film and chemistry. My original experimentation breached into plate film, particularly wet plate collodion, aka tintypes. I found a mentor in Allan Barnes, based in the warehouse district of Downtown Los Angeles.
Barnes's studio was located in an area of old factories—misused, dusty, and abandoned. There was a community of artists who had begun to occupy the spaces in the area, mostly muralists like Banksy, JR, and ROA. Banksy’s renowned exhibition, “Barely Legal,” with the legendary pink elephant, was held across from the industrial warehouse Barnes occupied, in 2006. Barnes’s studio itself was set among the work spaces and makeshift galleries, in a community garden, where the local artists would sit in the evening and watch us photograph people from the local circus—fire eaters, stilts walkers, and ringmaster alike. This set the stage for the sort of get-your-hands-dirty, alchemy-like chemical compounds, which tintypes require in the darkroom. The process itself was unpredictable and impeccably beautiful. No two images were ever alike.
Learning to use wet plate gave me a great respect and love for the process. If you mixed the wrong chemical compounds, you could be in a lot of trouble, by the mere fact that you could go blind from the silver nitrate or blow yourself up with the ether. One practically had to become a certified chemist to even legally own many of the compounds. Wet plate will always be my first photography love, but it is and can be a complicated and impractical process on the go. I had a desire for a camera that could give me the same medium-format feel, but with more portability.
I voiced my eagerness to expand my horizons, and the university set me up with Petaluma-based photographer Michael Garlington. An independent study arrangement was made, and it was in that moment that I first encountered the Graflex Super Speed Graphic (Garlington’s camera of choice).
My Initial Experience
Wet-plate cameras, old and new, have the same boxy feel that the Graflex has, with the ground glass and plate fitting. Despite some of the active differences between the two cameras, such as plate versus film, the transition felt natural. With plate photography, the first copy is the original, and that is that. With film, despite the obvious negative copy element, you are working with a greater depth perception, the chemicals are more controlled, and the camera itself is conveniently more portable.
The first Speed Graphic was developed in 1912, by Graflex, in Rochester, New York. The camera was specifically meant for commercial photography, denoted as a press-style camera. Despite being a photojournalism camera, the operation of a Speed Graphic is a slow process and takes practice. The utilization of a film holder, within each singular negative piece of film, creates a causation effect of pause, pull, and change, when wanting to take the next shot. You do not have the snap capabilities that came later with an SLR. The operation of manually changing out each film holder, opening the shutter, cocking the focal plane, removing the dark slide, focusing the camera and releasing the focal plane can be very time consuming. If the photographer skips a step, or loses focus, it is easy to double-expose a negative or miss a shot completely.
Press photographer Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee, made the Graflex Speed Graphic very popular in the public eye in the 1930s and ’40s. Based in Manhattan, Weegee was most renowned as an ambulance chaser. His ability to be the first to arrive at crime scenes earned him the nickname “Weegee,” referring to the supernatural Ouija boards. Weegee was exclusive in his use of the Super Speed Graphic as his camera of choice. On scene, his exposures were made using a synchronized flash, with presets of 1/200 of a second at f/16, at approximately ten feet from the subject. Thus, most of his photographic representations create a stark, black-and-white escalation through urban crime depictions in the Lower East Side. Currently, the International Center of Photography, in New York, holds the majority archive of his photographic works, many of which can be seen in the Center’s online archive.
My Personal Connection to the Graflex Super Speed Graphic
I found my Super Speed Graphic on eBay, for $250. The connection for the synchronized flash was disabled, as was the built-in automatic flash-exposure calculator, but the bellows and the lens were in perfect working condition. In conjunction with using the camera, I used a Luna Pro Light Meter and Ilford HP5 Plus 4x5 Black-and-White Print Film, which I purchased at B&H Photo.
The Graflex Super Graphic comes with a sports finder, which helps you compose your images before tripping the shutter. The camera is easy to use and lightweight to carry. For precision focus using the ground glass, I purchased a Carson LL-10 10x LumiLoupe Craft Loupe from B&H Photo. The loupe functions as a pre-focused dual lens and magnifier, allowing the user to get crisp edges on their focus.
I met Garlington at his studio in Petaluma, with my new-found Graflex, ready to begin. He had this special way of training, always jokingly stating, “City mouse visits the country mouse,” in what he labeled, “photography boot camp.” Early mornings, as the sun broke across the sky, we would light the coal fire to heat the studio. After breakfast, we would scavenge the coastline for driftwood, and junkyards for props. All of Garlington’s frames are handmade so, naturally, we spent some days working on the frames, while other days driving around in his van, Graflex in tow, looking for subjects to capture.
I learned with great professionalism how to handle and use the Graflex from Garlington. He had a creative drive that moved mountains and inspired a work ethic in me as a photographer, that to this day I try to translate into my own manufactured projects. It is with hopes that I imagine myself to be as quick-witted and natural with the Graflex as Weegee was in the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
You never mentioned a tripod. But to use a loupe you must have a tripod…right? Your seem to have found great teachers! Last night a friend gifted me the mintiest of minty Super Graphlexes. I was going to pass it on to a student, but this press cameras rangefinder is perfect and I’m going to shoot a box of film handholding it. I like to hear what your experience shooting handheld. Tom
Yes, a tripod is a must when using the ground glass and a loupe (or for any real critical focus applications). We love that the Speed Graphic can handle both methods of shooting- handheld is certainly a bit more difficult due to the weight of the camera, the speed of available films, and needing to stop down a bit more than when shooting on smaller formats. It's a fun shooting method in bright conditions; the sports finder helps quite a bit with framing and the rangefinder is relatively reliable for focus when the subject is bright enough, but things can be very difficult in the dark. A powerful flash and a good sense of distance can help quite a bit, too.