Assigned to photograph our headquarters, the B&H SuperStore at the corner of 34th Street and Ninth Avenue, in Manhattan, I was asked to make an image that was timeless and a unique portrayal of the building I encounter each day. While it may seem like an advantage to photograph a subject with which you are quite familiar, it also brings its own set of challenges, especially when attempting to show a new, interesting take on it.
With this prompt in mind, I planned my approach: technically, how would I do it? And conceptually, what would I be trying to achieve? Both of these considerations also had to take into account the practical hurdles one faces when working in the dense and bustling environment of Midtown Manhattan. On one hand, I could try for a casual, lifestyle type of image that would include the surrounding neighborhood. On the other hand, I could try for a more formal, static architectural image. Melding these two ideas, I decided to make an image that would be formal and rigid in a sense, but would still incorporate a bit of spontaneity and a fresh perspective on a subject I pass by nearly every day. The tool I felt would give me the best options: a 4 x 5" large format view camera.
The large format view camera, or often simply referred to as a 4 x 5" (or 5 x 7", 8 x 10", etc., depending on the specific format), is a unique and somewhat rare tool to be using nowadays. It is a type of camera whose silhouette is somehow still instantly recognizable by most photographers, even though fewer people than ever work with one. Seeing their heyday in the early and mid-20th Century, view cameras were phased out of popularity over the years and replaced with more compact, lightweight, and hand-holdable 35mm and medium format SLRs and rangefinder models.
“...view cameras have a range of inherent benefits that are still not fully equaled by even the most technically adept digital camera of today.”
Even with their drawbacks, view cameras have a range of inherent benefits that are still not fully equaled by even the most technically adept digital camera of today. First, and most importantly, the view camera does not have fixed lens and film planes. Unlike SLRs, mirrorless cameras, point-and-shoots—and pretty much any other camera you can think of—a view camera is distinct in that you can shift and tilt these two planes to correct for perspective distortions, keystoning, and to affect the plane of focus in unique ways. Some of these results can be achieved with specialized tilt-shift lenses, but not to the degree nor magnitude of a view camera. Second, with large format cameras, the medium on which you are shooting—in my case, 4 x 5" sheet film—is immensely large, which provides you with an incredible amount of image quality and detail that is still unmatched in the digital realm, in most practical cases.
Putting all of these pieces together, here is the equipment I brought on the shoot.
• Linhof Super Technika V 4 x 5" Camera, the second 4 x 5" camera that I’ve owned, and likely the last. For me, this is the ultimate large format camera, for my needs. Technikas are known for their incredibly robust construction (and weight) and, being a “field camera,” they are also relatively portable. This camera provides me with all the movements I need, is well suited to my preferred focal length lenses, and it’s hard to dislike the distinct leatherette wrap.
• Schneider Kreuznach Super-Symmar HM 150mm f/5.6 Lens For 4 x 5", this lens is overkill—but I love it. It is really best suited for 5 x 7" cameras, where it acts like a nice, slight wide-angle, but on 4 x 5" it is a handy, but very large, normal lens. Since it is intended for 5 x 7" format, it offers a rather large image circle (around 250mm at f/22) that permits a significant range of movements before vignetting when used with 4 x 5" film. In practical terms, this lens can cover virtually the full range of movements with the Technika. The downside is, however, that it weighs more than 1.5 pounds and measures 3.2 x 4 inches without the lens board.
• Kodak Tri-X Pan 320 My personal favorite black-and-white film of all time, Tri-X Pan 320, or TXP, is unfortunately now limited only to sheet film sizes and, as such, is one of the reasons I prefer to shoot 4 x 5" much of the time. Compared to its similarly named roll-film sibling, Tri-X 400, TXP differs in that it is not a very flexible film in terms of exposure (compared to Tri-X 400, which is known as one of the most flexible films of all time), but when you get the exposure right, I feel like it controls highlights a bit better and has a more pleasing tonal and contrast range. It is a smoother film that was originally intended for the studio, and is not as gritty a film as Tri-X 400.
With my camera bag packed, my next concern was the shot itself. I did some scouting a few days prior to the shoot date, and tried to take into account when and where I needed to be to make everything go as smoothly as possible. Because B&H is, unfortunately for my specialized concerns, conveniently located very close to Penn Station, foot and car traffic was going to be an issue throughout the day. Setting up a tripod in Manhattan can be a chore at any time of the day, but setting one up on 34th Street during the workday was certainly asking for trouble. So, to limit the amount of traffic around me, I chose to work in the early morning, around 7:30 a.m.
Even with strategic planning to lessen the burden of traffic, you still cannot completely avoid cars and people at any time in Manhattan, which ruled out my chances of making a grand, all-inclusive photo of the store from across the street, but in some ways forced me to consider a more creative alternative and pursue a fresher take on photographing a building. Confined to photographing the store from the east side of 9th Avenue, I chose the famous front entrance canopy of the building as my main subject, along with the characteristic branded awnings that surround the entire facade. Photographed in close proximity, my image staggers these elements in a collaged manner. The image functions the way I envisioned it, although a few extra steps along the way forced me into making a tighter image than I expected initially. However, even with some difficulties, the tools and planning enabled me to make a unique image of a familiar location.
Great thought process of making the photo. A 4x5 view camera is on my "bucket list" of cameras to buy.You mentioned that the Schneider Kreuznach Super-Symmar HM 150mm f/5.6 Lens was overkill. Could B&H in a later Explora article talk about 4x5 photography?