Fairchild K-20: the making of a meaningful portrait

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A friend of mine gave me some 4×5 film a while back. It was originally purchased by her dad in 1979, who at the time was a professional photographer. He used mainly 120 medium format and 4×5 film for his work in that era, but did a ton of aerial work on a Fairchild K-20. Her dad is currently in a long term care facility, but she still has that K-20 on display in her shop.

Aside: For those that don’t know, the K-20 was the camera used to capture the mushroom cloud of Hiroshima from the tailgunner’s position in the Enola Gay.

I had an idea for what I thought would be a cool concept; create a portrait of Tanya holding her dad’s K-20, but I’d shoot it on the 4×5 film that she gave me… One of his leftover boxes of Kodak Plus-X from 1979. I had shot a few sheets of the film already and knew that it was fairly predictable. I even chose to shoot it at box speed (GASP!) and then develop in the ever trusty Rodinal. 

I loaded 2 sheets of the Plus-X into a holder and we drove out to a stretch of farmland in rural Alberta. I didn’t want to overcomplicate the setup or the experience, so I just used a single strobe with a brolly box and fired off some test shots with the ol’ Fujifilm X-Pro1.

Once I had the lighting and exposure dialled in, we took the two frames I had loaded.

I also brought a couple holders with some Arista EDU ULTRA 100 (Fomapan 100 Classic) as a backup/safety, but a massive storm moved in and cut the shoot short. It blew so hard that it knocked the light down and destroyed one of the modifiers I brought along with me.

I drove the 2hrs back to where I was staying and immediately began the developing process. I was super nervous about having only shot the two frames, but hopefully it would all go smoothly.

I’ve developed hundreds of rolls and sheets over the years and yet, I still get that nervous feeling when you pop the negs out of the tank for a first look… That 41-year-old Plus-X was perfect. No fogging, no weird developing or exposure issues. I was so stoked to see them come out the way they did.

Tanya’s going to get a print from one of the negs and hang it where her dad’s camera is on display. 

A really cool memorial to a great man.

~ Ryan

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I'm a full-time portrait/commercial photographer. In the last 2 years, I've slowly migrated almost my entire workflow to film. I'm currently living on a sailboat on the Pacific Ocean, shooting and developing aboard.

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