A TASTE FOR CERTAINTY
8x10 Tintype Portrait - Copyright Quinton Gordon & Diana Millar
In a 2004 interview with View Camera magazine, photographer Stephen Shore comments on how the high cost and the physical demands of working with large format develop in the photographer "a taste for certainty."
His comments resonate, and perhaps all the more so in wet plate, since the time and labour involved in the making of each plate further reduces any desirability for indecision or uncertainty.
In my career I quickly became selective and have tended not to make many images, choosing to edit before I push the button. As a result, I would frequently come back from assignments with far fewer images then my editors would have expected or probably liked. This led to some rather uncomfortable production meetings as art directors hovered over light-tables scanning through my transparencies and wondering aloud if "this is all there is?"
Trying to mask my annoyance with their comment I would be left to point out that I had made the photographs that I felt told the story. Fortunately, a few months later I would almost as frequently be rewarded by seeing layouts very similar to those that I had envisioned while making the photographs, with significant real estate on the pages dedicated to my images, and the same art directors would call me to say how easily the story and the layout had come together, that it was a real pleasure to work with my photographs.
I’m not saying this to glorify my work, or have my ego stroked, but rather I am attempting to relate the value of knowing what you want as an image maker and that having the determination to make it without fear will pay great personal and professional dividends.
I had a similar experience while watching the excellent documentary on veteran conflict photographer, James Nachtwey. In the film War Photographer, there is a memorable scene where he and several other photographers are at the scene of a mass murder in Bosnia I believe, and it is quite noteworthy how different Nachtwey’s approach to the situation is. He quietly greets the local people and seems to gain their approval with a simple gesture. He then proceeds to make a few, seemingly very select images, while by contrast the other photographers run around shooting everything insight as if they won’t know what it was they were looking for until the edit their work.
It’s important to note that I’m not suggesting that large format is the key to good photography or that a single approach to photography needs to be adopted, far from it. However, as photographer Sam Abell noted about his work, “I have a view camera mentality, but I really like this small (35mm) camera”, and the point here is that as photographers we are seeing, and thinking about the translation of the situation and our subject as a photograph before we even place the frame around the scene.
The more we understand what we want, the more ready we are to recognize it when the scene unfolds, or the more able we are to create it in the moment.
Diana and I have come to working very deliberately as we approach images within a project, and I can safely say that with my best photographs I have frequently seen the entirety of what I want right down to how the finished print feels at the time of exposure, regardless of the format I am working with.
The portrait pictured above is of a family that is dear to our hearts, and this plate is one of only two that we made, the first one fogged slightly in the dark-box, so we made a second plate, quite certain that this was the image we all wanted.
To see behind the scenes photos of the making of this portrait click here.