This is one of the very first medium format images I ever shot.
It was shot with a Yashica Mat 124G which was the desirable cheapy MF camera of the 1970's. I shot this in late 1979 at my place on Longview, near the UT campus. It was done on Kodak Panatomic X film (ISO 32) using a Novatron 150 watt second pack with one head aimed thru a shoot thru umbrella. I only owned one head at the time so that's how I shot it. (Was Zack Arias even born back then???).
I hand developed the film at the Ark Cooperative darkroom and eventually printed it on Ilford Ilfobrom double weight paper. This was before the Bass brothers tried to corner the silver market so a box of 8x10 double weight fiber paper, 100 sheets was about $6.95. I scrimped and saved to buy it. Texas was a poor state back then and my finances were precarious. I was so in love with Belinda that any photograph I took seemed incredible to me then. We dated for five years, spent lots of time enjoying Austin and places like the Armadillo World Headquarters (saw the Talking Heads open their for Devo one night.....) and eventually decided to get married. But that's a whole other story. This photo represents our first year together. She abandoned teaching for studio arts and I abandoned electrical engineering to be a writer.....
Cindy in my first studio at the California Hotel.
When I bought the Yashica 124G I was not shooting for money. That came later and when I first got a little artist's studio in the California Hotel (an arts cooperative on 7th street in Austin) I decided I needed a camera with interchangeable lenses. I bought a Mamiya 220C because it was the cheapest (used) interchangeable lens camera I could find. I bought it with the 80mm lens and the 135mm lens and did a number of wonderful portraits with the combination. The above was done for some goofy advertising project and I can't remember the details but I do remember that it was photographed on Ilford Pan F film. I developed the film in my little one room studio and washed the film down the hall in the communal bathroom.
While I always owned 35mm cameras the bulk of my commercial work, in the pre-digital days, was always done with medium format cameras. For me there is always something magical about the way a portrait or a still life works in the square. And there was always some tingly magic in the process of creating black and white images. The transformation, first from three dimensions, and then from color to luscious tones of gray, has always seemed surreal and wonderful to me....
Renae in my current studio.
When, in the late 1980's, I had finally hit my stride...done my 20,000 hours....logged more time in the darkroom than most people do driving...I bought my ultimate camera. It was a Hasselblad 500 CM and it was the first medium format camera that I bought brand new. And I didn't buy just one, I bought two because real professionals always have an identical backup. If something goes awry in the middle of a shoot a real professional tosses the offending piece of gear aside and reaches for his back-up. I bought the "holy trinity" of lenses: The 50mm Distagon, the 80mm Planar and the 150mm Planar, and these optics were to eventually enable me to make more money taking photographs than I thought imaginable. Those were heady years of daily assignments. Of evenings processing roll after roll of film and nights spent printing luxurious 11x14 inch prints for clients. We'd deliver in the morning via a delivery service and hit the studio again in the early hours. Of weekends shooting our art.
I hit a rhythm with my Hasselblads that I've never been able to recapture in the same way with other cameras. I've shot with Bronicas and Rolleis and Pentax 6X7's and Pentax 645's but never with the same feeling of magic and wonderful confidence that I had with the Hasselblads. Even today half my portfolio and at least a third of my website is populated with images I fought hard to create and have rarely been able to equal, using the Swedish cameras. Something about the feel of the body, the clarity of the finder and the inimitable drawing of the lenses that made these images different......better.
Like a junky I embraced the change represented by digital but I've always been reticent about the change. Nervous and unsettled. I'd make the images and process them but in the back of my mind I'd always wondered if they were even remotely as good as they could be if the clients had more time, more patience and more tolerance and respect for the process.
This pushed me to look for the holy grail of digital cameras. I've bought all comers and the magic never came along with the package. I've read a thousand times in the forums and in people's blogs that the tools don't matter, only the vision. And I bought into the truisms like everyone else. But something in the back of my brain kept nagging at me and teasing at my ego....
The voice kept saying, "Why do people gush over the prints you did fifteen years ago but barely look at the work you did last week?" What's been gained besides a lack of film and processing expense and a shortening of the process cycle? What indeed?
And you know, sometimes these thoughts sneak up on you from nowhere. Here's what happened to my thought process today: I needed to log some hours walking in the heat to prepare for a big, outside job that's coming up in the next few weeks. We'll be shooting outside for hours a day and the best way to prepare is to live it in advance and build up your endurance to heat and heat stress. I left the house with an Olympus EPL-1 and a kit lens. I thought I'd walk through downtown and take some random shots (another problem with the "ease" of digital is the promiscuity of it...). I parked my car near the Power Plant on First St. and got out and ready to flex what's left of my creative muscle when I realized I'd forgotten to re-load a memory card in the camera. A bit frustrated I decided to toss the camera in the car and go for a walk anyway.
While I was walking I went through a strange process of analyzing my thirty three years as a photographer. Every high water mark, every award winning ad or photo or campaign I can remember was a direct result of the work I'd done with a square, medium format camera. Every single one. My greatest hits, my most personal portraits, the most cherished photos of my son and my family.....all from square format film cameras. From Rome to St. Petersburg to Paris. From Corpus Christi to my in-laws house in San Antonio....the images with the big resonance all came from my Hasselblads. My epiphany today was, that for some people, the tool is inseparable from the artist, from the process, from the outcome. I can shoot competently with just about anything. I can only shoot passionately with a square format.
As the capricious and impulsive person you've come to know me as I got back in my car and drove over to Precision Camera where I parked myself in front of the case of used medium format cameras and started the process of selecting one. I found a perfect 501 CM and I pulled it from the case (they might as well give me my own key...). It had a new style 80mm Planar on the front. I held it in my hands and had the feeling that a heroin addict must have just before shooting up his fix. I was at peace as a photographer. I felt like I'd come home again.
I'd avoided handling Hasselblads for over a decade. Tried to convince myself that the Rolleis were every bit as good. But I didn't feel a moment's hesitation when I got rid of the Rollei system. Tried to convince myself that the Pentax 67 and 645 had the magic but I was happy to see the elongated aspect ratios leave my studio....
I bought the 501cm and the 80mm and an old, black "C" style 150mm and I have an amazing feeling of happiness. Discount it as "placebo effect" and I won't care because the happiness feels so real and so right.
I'm looking forward to an amazing year of black and white portraits in the studio and out on the street.
Am I suggesting that you rush out and buy the same camera? Am I making the point that one can't do good work without this specific tool? Not for a second. I think the point that became clear to me was this: If you started with a camera and you love it you might want to resist the temptation to continually "upgrade" and experiment. And for God's sake, don't sell a camera that gives you images you love. Even if you have to pony up real money to feed it. You may have found a synergistic tool with the haptics and the ergonomic that work as a physically induced trigger to your own creativity.
A great camera creates a safe space within which to create and thrive. A chancy camera creates uncertainty and irregular compensation. Work with your highest and best tool for your highest and best work and you'll find that greatest sense of calmness and relief.
Does this mean I'm going to abandon all my Canon cameras and my Olympus Pens? No. Pandora's box no longer has a latch or even a lid. The genie has escaped and clients will never willingly go back to having to pay for film and processing (unless you can convince them that the magic is real and important). The work cycle is shortening and shortening. The expectation of immediacy is pervasive. Digital is a "must have" tool. But in our own work, where it matters most, we can still make the rules and we can still juggle exuberance and happiness and work with deep contentment.
And so begins a reversion to the photographer I once was. Capturing the sensuality of tone and resolution and lens drawing I've missed so much over the last twelve years. Next I'll want the darkroom back. But I guess we'll work on one thing at a time....
Thanks for reading all the way through. Kirk