It’s mid-December 2020 and a bearded, touqued figure stands silently on the side of a frozen lake looking off towards the rising peak of a distant mountain as the sun begins to rise. A wooden camera stands atop a carbon fiber tripod waiting for the film holder to be slid home and its shutter to be fired.
This quiet patience represents my abbreviated journey through 2020, and represents the change in perspective I’ve undergone having transitioned to somewhat of a mostly 4×5 large format photographer. I slid the film holder into the camera’s Graflock back and test-fired the shutter two more times to make sure things hadn’t frozen up in the wind and sub-zero temperatures.
I pulled out my phone to take a photo for memory’s sake, as well as for a mental snapshot for the lighting conditions. Before arriving at the location, I’d obviously forgotten the feeling of standing in the wind during a Canadian winter and missed the relative luxury of just jumping out of a nice warm car to take a photo of a barn.
I meter once more and calculate reciprocity. Pull the darkslide, and…
I slide the darkslide back in and pull the film holder out.
I begin packing up my camera; I remove the lens and put it back into my bag, and while collapsing the camera body like some kind of wooden Transformer, I hear the raised voices of people walking on the lake looking for the ideal position to drill a hole for a day’s worth of ice fishing. I think back on what this year was supposed to look like as I take a sip of coffee. 2020 was definitely an interesting year and I can’t say I really expected to be here at this point when it started, but I’m more confident with my craft because of the path that I took over the year in the end.
Hop into the way-back machine
Coming out of 2019, I had some great expectations for 2020 photographically. I had spent the year trying to shift entirely to analogue capture, finally weaning off of carrying a backup digital kit on my trips in the late fall. I was confident I had found a distinctive style with my Fuji GX617 Professional and was working to develop a nicely paired vision for my Pentax 67, giving myself two distinct formats that I was able to work with depending on the environment I found myself in.
Over the past three years, I had gotten into a groove focusing on the Alberta Prairies, and had amassed a fairly large volume of work that I was finally ready to try and curate into a cohesive project. And like other years, I had begun planning a few longer-form photography trips, one for the summer (work travel permitting) to Montana to visit Glacier National Park again, and a fall trip to Vancouver Island for a week of coastal rainforests. This balance between localized prairie weekend trips and longer landscape trips had proven mostly successful over the last few years, providing me with a great way to balance both areas of focus.
Then the world skipped a beat, and things started changing as far as accessibility was concerned.
COVID-19’s influence threw much of the world into a mess, with lockdowns starting en masse. My last business trip happened 2 weeks before Alberta kicked off its first lockdown and suddenly photography was a deep second place. Work hours (as I am sure happened with a lot of us who were fortunate to still be employed) became a bit more loosely defined. I noticed my weekly hours were creeping higher and higher with no defined start and stop times and that was beginning to impact me.
When I was able to get out and do the type of photography I had become accustomed to over the past while, it didn’t feel as fulfilling as before. I think it was mostly the fact it wasn’t providing the mental reset as easily as it had done until then, and I was getting more and more frustrated with the outcomes. So I did the thing that would obviously turn the whole world right again… I went onto social media. But to paraphrase Lord of the Rings a bit “and then something happened that I did not intend”.
I started a conversation about partially being interested in picking up a view camera (sorta tongue in cheek) to change things up a bit. And I got into a conversation with a photographer who happened to be thinking about getting out of large format for his style of work… and things sorta fell into place.
By mid-April I found myself the proud (and slightly overwhelmed) new owner of a Chamonix 45f-2. Soooo, now what?
Time for a new adventure
With this new tool to explore, I sat down trying to figure out just how this darned thing works. I will say that I was familiar enough with the Scheimpflug principle from my digital days working with the delightful line of Canon tilt/shift lenses, so how hard could this really be? I set the camera up, opened up the lens, and got down to trying to focus the darned thing on items in my den. A book here, computer screen there, tree out the window, etc. The camera use was foreign but familiar enough that I became more and more comfortable with how things would be used when I got out to the field. But…. don’t I need to load some film?
I am comfortable in saying, I was freaked out about this. I had no idea what sheet film was like. No idea how to tell if it was pointing one way or the other. No idea how fragile or sturdy the sheet actually was and the film holder was some sort of alien creation as far as I was concerned (originally). I didn’t have a dark bag, didn’t really have a dark room either.
I figured it was a limited risk to try, so stuffed a towel under the door of my bathroom, opened up a box of film, and attempted to feel my way around what the film “looked” like, where the notches were and how they felt. I and subsequently loaded my first two sheets of ILFORD HP5 PLUS into a film holder, successfully I might add! I hopped into the Mazdadon and drove off down the road off into the quiet lonely prairies of southern Alberta in search of a decent barn to test out my new camera.
That was May 15 2020, the weather was sunny and bluebird skies, and the light was harsh. Not exactly the type of conditions I had hoped to be using the new camera in, but it was what it was. I went through the steps I had worked on at home. Leveling the camera base, rear standard, setting up the front standard, and mounting the lens. I composed the image, metered once…and metered again. I slid the film holder into the camera and metered a third time. I pulled the darkslide and tripped the shutter.
My first ever 4×5 frame was done…
…and I wanted more. It was both a delight and a letdown. All the steps for the most anti-climactic leaf shutter ping haha. Where was that thwack of a mirror or the mechanical whirr of the film advance? I continued driving around that night and I ended up making four frames on the 4×5, and of course, they were all singles. No safety shots, no brackets for the metering. But what to do with them? I haven’t developed film since I was in Jr. High (a long time ago). So, I guessed there was something else to learn.
Later that week after some research on the old interwebs I put in an order for some chemicals and the Steerman Press development tank. I chose to start off with ILFORD ID-11, primarily because of the cost but also because from the samples I had seen on the web with the film stocks I had — ILFORD FP4 PLUS, ILFORD HP5 PLUS, and Fomapan 400 Action — the look really fit what I liked aesthetically. It felt like a classic developer, it fit the older film stocks well enough, providing a decent amount of contrast and a healthy amount of grain.
For anyone who has been following my work you know that I don’t have too much of an issue with editing my photos after scanning to get the contrast and levels where I want them, but I thought that perhaps ID-11 might do a decent job up front getting me to where I wanted it to be.
After mixing up the developer and finding some time one evening I set off to try and do my first developing. It turned out pretty good, and as those of you who have done film development before, you know that feeling when you slide the negative out of the tank after fixing to see an actual image was amazing.
Why oh why haven’t I done this before??
Tumbling down the rabbit hole
So that was June 2020. I had taken a handful of photos during the year to that point, and although there was no probable reprieve from the pandemic in sight, there was hope. I decided at that point that the newfound joy from film development was a worthy kick in the butt for me, and the ability to load and shoot 1 or 2 shots only in an afternoon or morning was easy for me to manage. It allowed me to be a bit more creative, there was no risk of starting a roll and getting sidetracked.
If I only found one subject, then I found one subject. If I found more, then even better! Still, with the world firmly put on hold, maybe instead of looking to locations outside of my province and city I could recapture the love I had for my local environments. I mean I do live on the foothills of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, so I am not hard up for beautiful locations (even if the entirety of Alberta seemed to be taking this opportunity to descend on the same location.
It was one summer Friday that I decided to pivot a bit, dust off the list of hikes and areas I had always wanted to visit, and head to the backcountry. Longer distance hiking (after many years of sedentary photography) was an interesting challenge, but it only seemed logical that I would pack up my new large-format kit, with all of the film holders, multiple lenses, water, and cold weather gear into an undersized backpack and head off on a 15km hike for sunset. Right?!
But entering the valley I had hoped to photograph and seeing the specific mountain appear down the pass, I really didn’t care. It’s funny how a single decision can influence the rest of your decisions from that point on (it’s still debatable if the influence was for better or worse if I’m honest).
Routine, routine, routine
From that point on, I made it a habit of getting out every second Friday night, and planned a very demanding hiking trip in September for early fall colours in the elevated meadows in Southern Alberta. Between that one Friday evening and December 2020 I’ve managed to hike over 100 kilometers with the 4×5 kit.
I’ve photographed these areas completely alone, with no people anywhere near the locations I have found my subjects. And it has re-invigorated my love of photography. The mantra goes, gear doesn’t matter. And I firmly believe as far as creating amazing pieces of art goes that is absolutely correct. It really doesn’t matter (from my perspective) if the photo was created on an 8×10 or a point and shoot 35mm disposable.
But if a change of gear helps pivot your vision and provides a passive motivation to create, whatever that creation looks like, then that specific piece of gear was a required change. And for me, in 2020 that piece of gear was my Chamonix!
Round and round and round we go
And so that’s how we end up here, on this ridge atop a frozen lake. It hasn’t all been successful but it has been thoroughly enjoyable. I have experimented more with my photography than ever before and some came out fabulous, while others not so much. But it didn’t matter. I feel more like I did when I first picked up a camera, or when I first created an image that I had visualized before heading into the field.
From that first trip back in May down the dusty country road in central Alberta, 2020 represented my most productive year of photography. I took 53 sheets of images through the 4×5 (including a smattering of panoramic images with a homemade half-cut dark slide), and hiked over 100km with the Chamonix in tow the entire way. I have also started seeing things differently based on the tools I have with me, from my Ondu 612 Multiformat pinhole to the panoramic Fuji GX617 body. Each has become a different means to an end that I had forgotten in the earlier portion of the year.
So what does that mean as we enter 2021? Well after the year we’ve had, 2021 has some lofty expectations already placed upon it. But I haven’t really thought of it that way. I see 2021 as the door at the bottom of the rabbit hole that Alice found. She sees the white rabbit scrambling away through the keyhole and she wants to chase after him. She doesn’t know what strange adventures she might have when she gets through the door, and that’s the exciting part! I’ve started thinking about the areas I want to take the Chamonix into, the memories I want to make doing that, and potentially the introduction to some of these areas with my daughter.
I mean it’s never too early to get someone interested in the natural world around you, and if I can be perfectly honest here, the best dinners I have ever had came in 2020 by way of a peanut butter sandwich in the middle of nowhere sitting alone in an alpine meadow!
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