Saturday, October 31, 2009

FSA cameras

Walker Evans made sense when he said that the skill of a photographer is shown not so much in technical knowledge as in artistic vision. He knew how to use his equipment but guarded himself against becoming either a journalistic shot-grabber or a within-four-walls studio professional. As he said: "I've always been interested in cameras. I'm even interested — well, I was interested a little bit too much even in the technique of photography. It's a fascinating thing. But it hasn't much to do with art and an artist had better stay away from it, not get absorbed in it. It's too absorbing... You can do all kinds of tricks. It's just better not to. I am after mastery of what I want to do; that is, I want to be able to do what I want to do, and do it well" (quote source is here).

Another FSA photographer, Ben Shahn, did not even attempt to gain technical competence. He took up a camera out of dissatisfaction with the quick sketches he would make of street scenes. He talked his way into a contract to do some photography for FSA and got his first and only lesson in camera work from Walker Evans. Here's how he described the instruction:
One day when he was going off to the South Seas and I was helping him into his taxi, I said, "Walker, remember your promise to show me how to photograph?" He says, "Well, it's very easy, Ben. F9 on the sunny side of the street, F4.5 on the shady side of the street. For a twentieth of a second hold your camera steady," and that was all.
-- (quote source is here)
The two — Evans and Shahn — marked the extremes of technical knowledge and ignorance among FSA photographers. Most were skillful without having Evans' extensive experience. Most had enough versatility to work with more than one type of camera, but no others had his ability to develop, print, and enlarge photos as well as take them.

They all doubtless agreed with him that the quality of their finished work was less dependent on their equipment than on their ability to work well with human subjects, to select and frame the scenes they shot, to visualize in two dimensions what lay before them in three dimensions, to see the patterns of light and dark, and other matters having less to do with photographic technology than with artistic insight.

It's interesting, all the same, to see what cameras the FSA photographers used and to think about the ways their equipment affected the images they took.

Favorite Cameras of Walker Evans

Evans and Shahn show extremes in their camera preferences. Shahn used a small 35mm one with a retracting lens while Evans, who used a variety of cameras, preferred an enormous 8 x 10 view camera like this:


These cameras were bulky, heavy, slow to set up and use. They couldn't be used without the support of a large tripod. The photographer loaded film into them one sheet at a time and needed to keep handy big boxes of light-tight film holders for unexposed and exposed negatives.

These cameras were also extremely flexible. Both the camera itself and the lens plate could be moved independently.1 The photographer could view the full size image on cut glass screen before taking a shot, permitting extreme accuracy in both composition and focus.2

The huge size of the negative allowed the photographer to make large prints of extremely high quality.3

Outside the studio, the bulkiness of the 8 x 10 view camera made it impractical for any but static subjects (such as buildings and landscapes). It was not well suited for street scenes and wholly unsuited for candid and action shots. In using this camera to make images of human subjects in urban environments, Evans showed an extraordinary photographic skill.

{Walker Evans using his 8 x 10 view camera; source:}4

Walker Evans sometimes used smaller cameras than the 8 x 10 view camera. This photo shows him with what looks like a Plaubel Makina which could be used with 3¼ x5½ inch (6cm x 9cm) film sheets or 120 roll film.


Here is a Plaubel Makina:
{Plaubel Makina; source:}

Favorite Cameras of Arthur Rothstein and Jack Delano

Other FSA photographers liked to use a 4 x 5 press type camera. This photo shows Arthur Rothstein with one of these; it does not look like the standard press Graflex.

{source: Library of Congress}

Jack Delano used a standard press Speed Graphic Graflex like this one from the early 1930s:


Favorite Cameras of Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange also liked the 4 x 5. She used the press Graflex and the Graflex Series D reflex model. Here she is with the press model:


This shot shows her with the reflex:

{source: Library of Congress}

{Here is a crop detail showing the reflex camera}

This is the Graflex Series D 4 x 5 reflex:

{source: luminous-landscape}

Favorite Cameras of Esther Bubley

Esther Bubley used smaller cameras than the previous three of her FSA peers. Her camera of choice was usually a Rolleiflex 2¼ x 2¼ (or 6cm. x 6cm.). These photos show her with this double-lens reflex camera:


{source: Library of Congress}

{Detail of Bubley with Rolleiflex; source: Library of Congress}

This is a camera model close to the one she used:


The cameras used by the men encouraged eye-level use and most of their photos are taken at this level. In contrast the reflex cameras used by Lange and Bubley made it easier for them to make waist-level shots. For this reason you see quite a few low-level photos from them. Notice that the photo of Bubley on the car roof shows two other cameras, both of them 35mm compact models. Virtually all the FSA photographers carried at least one 35mm camera along with them whatever their format preference. Bubley's pair look like they might be the Contax model favored by Lee and Mydans and shown below.5

Favorite Cameras of Russell Lee and Carl Mydans

Most of the FSA photographers carried 35mm cameras with them and used them for action shots, candids, and the like. These handy, fast, easy to operate cameras were also the camera of choice for Russell Lee and Carl Mydans as well as Ben Shahn. Lee and Mydans used Contax cameras like this one:

{source: Contax I;}

The others tended to carry Leicas like this one:

{Leica IIIc; source:}

Shahn would take surreptitious candid shots using a reflex attachment to his viewfinder. Here's a Leica with this set-up:

{Leica II with WINKO right angle finder; source: pacificrimcamera}


Additional sources:

View camera article on wikipedia

How to get started in large format photography article on

Large Format Camera Technique, explains some aspects of operation of the view camera



1 This image shows the ways in which the lens plane and the film plane can be shifted in using a view camera.


2 This image shows a ground glass focusing screen at the back of a view camera.


3 See Film Size Comparison to see how much larger is an 8 x 10 sheet of film than are the 35mm and intermediate size images.

4 The shot he is taking:

{Bethlehem graveyard and steel mill. Pennsylvania, Nov. 1935. By Walker Evans; source: Library of Congress}

5 Although it looks like she's got the Contax II model, like this one:

{Contax II; source: ldtomei.googlepages}

1 comment:

jessica said...
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