The following article is scheduled to appear in the November 2018 – January 2019 Autumn print and e-edition of Global Geneva.
The earliest cameras were bulky and awkward to handle. They demanded dedication and expertise to produce a perfect image. But while these cameras were often basic in design, they were beautifully built. Each, in its own way, was a jewel. The lenses, encased in polished brass, were frequently stunning. If you look, today, at images that were made in the mid-19th century, it is hard to believe that a glass lens, designed without a computer, and ground by hand, could be capable of delivering such breathtaking sharpness and contrast.
I have spent 55 years as a professional photographer and yet I still marvel at the technical wizardry which our photographic forefathers exhibited in those early years. My own personal journey in collecting photographic equipment began with a Pentax 35mm camera and slowly transitioned, when I could afford it, to Nikons, and then about 40 years ago to Canons, and this year to the latest, mirrorless Sony gear.
Never without a Leica
Along the way, I always had a Leica slung around my neck with a 35mm lens, and black-and-white film. I was never without it. The Leica was my emergency, go-to camera. It was the camera I grabbed when technique counted less than time. I lived in that 35mm world for decades. It afforded the combination of getting the job done and a reasonable price. There were also 36 pictures to a roll of film, which meant that I had another chance to get the picture if I had missed an earlier shot. The fact that the Leica did not weigh much and didn’t take up much space, meant that I could carry three or four cameras.
It meant, too, that I was always ready for what might happen next. Anticipation is the name of the game, just as it was 150 years ago. Photojournalism, in particular, requires thinking ahead about all the possible scenarios, and being ready when the unexpected happens.
Does a camera feel right?
When I was on R&R in Hong Kong from Vietnam, in 1972, I bought a Hasselblad kit. By the time I finally traded it for a Pentax 67, I’d probably shot no more than 20 rolls of film. I loved the Hasselblad idea, and I loved its famous history, but I hated how it felt in my hands.
The relationship that photographers have with their cameras is mostly about how the camera feels when you hold it. Does it seem just right? Does it flow without any hiccups? That is what attracts photographers to their favorite cameras. There are so many different brands and camera formats, and so many different hands to hold them that it’s no surprise that today there are so many options. I bounced around with a lot of Medium Format (120 roll film size) cameras before ending up with the Mamiya 645. It is essentially a 35mm camera on growth hormones, and one which I found was particularly good at shooting sports.
A book (Angels at the Arno by Eric Lindbloom) convinced me that perhaps less was more. Lindbloom had taken the book’s photographs with a plastic Diana camera, which resembled a child’s toy. Most of the photographs were of sculptures in Florence – he had taken them on a Guggenheim grant, no less. Inspired by the book, I began a long courtship with the HOLGA camera, a $24 plastic “everyman” camera made in China and exported around the world. It was mainly sold to photography schools in order to start students shooting photos with something very basic. The simplicity of the HOLGA appealed to me, and it often became the 5th strap around my neck, accompanying a set of Canon reflex gear.
The essence of photography began to be revealed again, this time by using this most basic of cameras, and essentially refining my vision to “seeing, aiming, and shooting.” The HOLGA turned out to be a wonderful tool. At times, it produced photographs that were better than what I’d thought I’d actually seen.
New technology: it was possible for a camera to do everything
With the advent of digital cameras in the late 90s, the technology of photography started to take leaps, bounds, and then even more leaps. All of a sudden it became possible for a camera to do everything but decide which picture to take. Auto exposure, Auto Focus, Auto Advance — it was all there. All you had to do was aim the camera (OK, that’s not as easy as it sounds, if you want to get everything just right….) and the camera could do the rest.
As auto-focus technology improved, a lot of people were able to become sports photographers who might never have succeeded in the era when they had to follow the subject while manually focusing a lens. ‘Follow focus,’ a cool descriptive term, is incredibly hard to do well when you are chasing a running back who has the ball. It is especially hard when your view is blocked by other players.
There are nevertheless a few photographers in the world of sport, in particular, who are masters. In the early days of digital, most of the photographers in my world (magazine and newspaper photographers) relied heavily on two lenses: the 17-35mm wide angle zoom, and the 70-200 telephoto zoom. I had already begun to be bothered by the uniformity imposed by an over reliance on these two lenses. If you looked at a picture, you could easily guess which of the lenses the photographer had used regardless of the photographer’s personal style.
At a hearing in 2003, early on in the (ill-fated) Iraq war, I went to the Senate with my decades old 4×5” Speed Graphic, a camera. I had bought it in the 1970s when my hometown paper, The Salt Lake Tribune, was paring down its equipment closet. I paid $200– probably, a little too much for a beat-up old box, but it was my first large format camera, and the one which I used to learn the basic techniques.
The camera was designed in the early 20th century. It had earned an honest reputation as “the press camera.” In fact, it was THE camera that newspaper photographers used from the 1920s onwards. The 4×5 sheet film was handy in the days when a picture might need to be cropped without losing quality in the event that not everything had worked exactly right.
I shot a few pictures with the camera of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld standing with some senior military leaders. When I was at the lab, a day later, and saw the results, I realized that this camera was definitely something to keep in my bag of tricks. It offered a different way of looking at a Senate hearing. I had covered these hearings for years, but there is something special about the way large format pictures look. The lenses have a longer focal length than the ones on 35mm cameras, and that the longer focal length immediately results in a narrower depth of field. It becomes easier to separate the subject from the background, and it makes it possible to place the emphasis, as I like to say “on that part of the picture I want YOU to look at.”
As the 2003-04 US presidential campaign started to heat up (there were a half dozen Democrats vying for the nomination to defeat George W. Bush in ’04) dozens of opportunities arose to make pictures that not only looked different, but that presented a different sensibility. I found nevertheless that the camera required a constant learning curve.
The Speed Graphic is the exact opposite of the modern digital camera. Using it meant that you had to frame the image despite the fact that the camera was bulky and hard to balance. Then you had to cock the shutter manually, focus an image that was upside down and backwards on the ground glass viewfinder at the rear of the camera and set the lens’ aperture, load the film holder (which traditionally carries two sheets, one on each side) and finally, you had to pull out the darkslide from the film holder, enabling the film to “see” the incoming light when the shutter was opened.
Then, assuming your subject is still about where they were when you started, you fire the shutter, and congratulate yourself, hoping you actually have an image. There are so many things which can go wrong. So many things which you could either do in the wrong order, or simply forget. And don’t even ASK about accidental double exposures. They happen. Nothing is more disheartening than to see your work ruined by your own hand.
But, when it works, it is magic. Working with a big camera is a victory when a good image emerges. It reminds you of all the work that went into it, what you saw, or hoped to see. The mere weight and mass of the camera reminds you that you’re never going to go unnoticed. It is a statement: “I am here, and I am a photographer!”
Years ago, when Lady Bird Johnson came to Salt Lake City, she was accompanied by a grizzled, silver-haired LIFE Magazine photographer named Nig Miller. Nig walked with a discernible limp, from a motorcycle accident years before when he worked in a circus. He was a character of the first order, and I, a 17 -year-old aspiring photographer, spent every minute I could following him around like a little puppy, trying to pick up a tip or two.
Nig was festooned with at least five Nikon cameras, around his neck, both shoulders, and probably more of them stuffed into a camera bag the size of a small car. But at one point, I distinctly remember him grousing about something, and having made myself his newest friend (and acolyte) I asked: “What’s the problem, Nig?”
“Ahhh,” he grunted, “these Nikons aren’t worth a damn.” And for a moment I think he was back in the 1950s. “Nah,” he said. “You hit somebody with it, they go down, they get right back up.” Then followed a pregnant pause. “You hit’em with a Speed Graphic, they’re gonna stay down.” That must have been a hallelujah moment for me. I remember it as if it were this morning. And while I have yet to actually whack someone so hard that they go down, and stay down, it’s nice to know that when I’m carrying my big camera, I’m in a very safe place.
David Burnett is a photojournalist with more than five decades of work covering news, people, and the visual tempo of our age. He is co-founder of Contact Press Images,the New York based photojournalism agency, now entering its 42nd year. In a recent issue of American Photo magazine Burnett was named one of the “100 Most Important People in Photography.” In the spring of 2018, David was awarded the Sprague Award for Lifetime Achievement from the National Press Photographers Association. Burnett is also founder of Photographers for Hope. (See Global Geneva article by Anna Wang).
Other photographic essays in Global Geneva