In this age of digital wizardry, why use film? Why use really big film? 8×10 cameras are heavy, they take a long time to set up, each sheet costs as much as a roll of 120 film. There is nothing practical about working in this format. I am on a fool’s errand and the world has passed me by.
I use this camera because I see better with it. Everything that is wrong with this format is what makes it right for me. I can’t make a “quick” portrait with this camera. It demands focus and time. When I use my 8×10 camera, I’m seeing things. The difference between “looking” and “seeing” is my level of engagement. I need a calm mind to see things as they are, or; how they can be. I’m always looking at things but not seeing much. Communication specialists always talk about the difference between listening and hearing.
“How does it work?”
The thing about the 8×10 camera is it takes time to set up the shot. What would take someone with a standard digital camera seconds to compose and expose, takes longer for me. Instead of considering this a weakness of the format, it is one of the greatest strengths. During this slow process of composition, I get to consider what is important in the image I’m trying to make. I focus on what matters to me. This demands commitment. That can be uncomfortable. There is plenty of time to ask “Is this image worth making?”
As my friend and colleague Keith Carter says “Forget how you’re feeling and make the damn picture.”
When it comes to making portraits, the camera creates a different relationship between myself and the sitter. People are a little more themselves in spite of themselves when they sit for me. It isn’t that the large format camera digs into the soul and pulls it out for all to see; but it is a less surprising process.
I give some directions on posing, check my focus, ask that they hold still while I load the camera, make the exposure, and repeat.
When I photographed Ori Gersht,at the opening reception of his exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, I had three minutes. I set up the camera and light beforehand. At the end of the public event, but before the private dinner, I made four exposures. There were people swirling around, music was playing and everyone still wanted to talk to him.
The first two images, with his suit unbuttoned, he was a little standoffish. The second two, he was more himself. The last frame, the one where he is looking down, it the portrait of the artist as an artist. He is lost in a thought. I like the secret smile he has like he knows something no one else does. It is my favorite image and the one I consider the most successful. I imagine him looking this way in his studio.
When I use an 8×10 camera, things get quiet between the subject and me. I give them permission, because the process requires, to remain still. That makes a huge difference. I love the stillness and the energy contained in my portraits made with this camera. The results speak for themselves.