I recently added a new series to my website, Dinuba Sentinel Portraits. It’s a series of portraits of the employees of the Dinuba Sentinel, a small town newspaper in California that was owned by my aunt & uncle. The portraits were taken with a reproduction camera with 12×20″ negatives and contact printed. Using a camera the size of a truck presented some technical challenges, which I’d like to write a about here.
First a bit of background. Dinuba is a town of about 20,000 people in the San Joaquin Valley, near Fresno. My mom grew up there and while I had never spent a long period of time there, I remembered the place well from childhood visits to my grandmother. My aunt & uncle ran the town’s newspaper. They had inherited it from my grandfather who in turn had inherited it from my great grandfather who had purchased it in 1914. Although this wasn’t public at the time, they wanted to sell the paper. They were both 80 and working full-time. The economic difficulties of the newspaper business weighed on them. I came to Dinuba with the idea to record some of this family history before it disappeared.
I started out just photographing the interior of the Sentinel’s offices and printing areas. One of the first things I noticed was this massively huge copy camera that made my 8×10 look like a toy. I wasn’t familiar with these machines. Prior to digital technology they were used to photograph page layouts for the preparation of the offset plates used to print the newspaper. Since it’s a contact printing process, the camera had to be as large as the page.
The camera has a rail in front of it upon which rests a large copy stand for shooting layouts. The camera was focused to shoot 100% reproductions. A wall bisected the camera and the rear of the camera sat in its own dark room. Sheets of lithographic film would be loaded onto a vacuum plate and exposed and developed right there in the room by Henry, the printer.
The most amazing thing was that the camera was still being used to shoot the layouts. “It’s bought and paid for,” my uncle said. Of course I was dying to use the camera. I thought it would be interesting to make portraits of the employees of the newspaper. The idea seemed to contain a reflexive elegance, that is, to use the tools of the production process to make portraits of those who produce the paper itself. I was also just excited to use a really, really big camera. Given that it was still in use, my uncle was reluctant to let me use it for my little project. He finally relented on two conditions: 1) that I didn’t break the camera and 2) nobody got hurt.
My first thought was to use the same lithographic film used to shoot the layouts. It was cheap and available right there. I cut up some sheets to fit inside the holders of my 8×10 camera and did a few tests. Here’s one:
The film is very slow. This was rated about ISO 3. The other problem is that the film is binary. There are no gray tones. I think the portrait of Kathy works because the pattern of her sweater approximates the dots of a half-tone screen. The latitude is extremely narrow. Here is a test I did of two 4×5 sheets of John, the sales guy. The difference in exposure is just a single stop.
Notice that white spot behind the subjects head in the photo on the left? It turns totally black in the second photo. Let me repeat this, there is just one stop difference in the exposure of these two pictures. Because of the lack of speed and the narrow latitude I decided to try to shoot these portraits with regular black & white film.
Now the challenge was finding ultra-large format sheet film. Ilford makes all kinds of odd, ultra-large format sizes but you usually have to order 6 months in advance. My flight back to Buenos Aires was just over a month away when I got the idea to do this. I lucked out in that Glazers Camera in Seattle had leftover box of 12×20″ sheets of FP4 in stock. $300 got me a box of 25 sheets. I chose that size because it’s just slightly smaller than the pages of the newspaper itself. Eventually I would like to run a set of these portraits on newsprint.
I figured I needed to do some testing first so one of my trips to LA I stopped by Freestyle and bought cheap 4×5″ film, a developing tank and chemicals. The closest professional lab was 3 hours away by car so I wanted to be able to shoot and develop the tests myself to save time. Plus, the newspaper had its own darkroom which had been sitting unused for nearly ten years. I had never developed my own film before. The slightly exasperated sales clerk helpfully answered all my stupid questions. Here’s an early 4×5 picture which I made just to test the developing tank.
The photo shows all these old developing guides pasted on the walls of the darkroom. For this negative I didn’t fill up the tank all the way. It’s good to practice.
Next up was to do an actual test with the copy camera using the black and white film. I went to a thrift store and bought a teddy bear and a scarf, looking for something that had a lot of texture and a range of tones. I set-up him up on a tripod in front of the camera, lit by a couple of halogen work lamps and did a 20 second exposure with a fairly small aperture.
Oh yeah, and the bellows on the camera were full of holes. It was easier to just cover the whole thing with some trash bags instead of trying to fix each one. I slid the copy stand all the way back and put up a white sheet as a background. Here’s the result:
This photo above is a grid of twelve 4×5″ sheets of film. Using regular black and white film meant I had to work in total darkness. The film is held in place by a vacuum powered back. I laid down gaffer tape on the plate to guide me in the darkness. Still, the vacuum was old and didn’t work well over the entire surface so it was hard to lay down the sheets in an even grid. But this was just a test. It wouldn’t be a problem once I was using the full sized 12×20″ sheets. Once I had these all developed, I laid them out on a light table and shot it with my dSLR, which is how I got the image above. Now it was time to experiment with live models.
Nothing better than being a guinea pig for your own experiments. Notice that I hung string on both sides. This was the plane of focus. Rather than individually focus the camera for each portrait, I left the focus fixed at the 100% reproduction ratio and “focused” my subjects, having them move forwards or backwards so that their eyes lined up with the dangling strings. In a couple of the final photos, static electricity in the subjects’ hair caused the string to enter the frame. It’s hard to anticipate all the things that might go wrong.
I also decided to use strobe lights. I didn’t want to force people to hold still for the time it would take to use hot lights. I didn’t want these to look like 19th century portraits. Here’s what this test looked like:
The fractured effect of using multiple sheets of film is interesting but I’m not Chuck Close. I’m happy I scored a box of the big film. You’ll also notice that I messed up the focus on this shot. The depth of field on this lens is razor thin. The camera uses a 19″ lens which is about 500mm. Additionally, the focus is set to do 1-to-1 reproductions so it’s twice its focal length or almost a full meter from the film plane. This makes the depth of field even thinner. I think I shot the above photo at f22 and it looks like the depth of field is only about a centimeter. I decided I needed to shoot these portraits at f64 which meant I needed to rent some really powerful strobe lights.
Actually, I’m leaving something out. With a view camera like this, the closer you focus, the farther away the lens is the from the film and the more you need to adjust the exposure. This is called bellows factor. [Embarrassing personal disclosure: I shot closely focused, large format portraits for nearly a year in total ignorance of bellows factor]. In this case I had to add two stops which meant that, effectively, I needed enough light to shoot at f128. I wasn’t even sure if this was possible with commercially available lights.
I drove to San Francisco and rented a 2400 watt-second system from Pro Camera Rental. They assured me it would be enough light for whatever my needs might be. The must have wondered what I was smoking when I said I needed to shoot at f128. The girl who gave me the equipment seemed annoyed and answered my newbie questions with a slight air of condescension, impatient at having to deal with this hobbyist.
I returned to Dinuba, set up the lights, set-up a jerry-rigged bench and a background. Here’s a behind the scenes video I made of the whole set-up
As you can see in the video, it’s two flash heads with nothing more than a sheet of tissue for diffusion, placed just a couple of feet from where the people were sitting. I did a test shot on my uncle. The flash was so bright that he became concerned the light would cause permanent eye damage. We ended up consulting the town’s ophthalmologist at the weekly Rotary Club lunch. He assured us that there was no danger. I found it helped to leave the modeling lights on full power. It constricted the models’ pupils prior to the flash and thus blinded them less.
Now it was time to take the photos for real. I took just one shot of each person. I got lucky in that nobody blinked. The shutter of the camera was connected to the lights on the copy-stand so I actually had to manually open the shutter, pop the flash and then close the shutter in discrete steps. Actually, all the steps for taking the photo were a little complex, so I wrote down a list. It read:
- Seat the model and explain process [esp. vacuum noise]
- Practice “focusing” model [ie. aligning them with focus strings]
- Enter darkroom, close door, turn off lights
- Open box of film
- Place sheet of film on camera vacuum plate
- Close box of film
- Turn on vacuum engine
- Close camera back
- Leave darkroom
- Align subject with focus points
- Tell them to hold still
- Open shutter
- Pop flash
- Close shutter
- Help subject recover from momentary blindness
- Enter darkroom again, close door, make sure lights are off
- Open camera back
- Turn off vacuum engine
- Store exposed film in box, below envelop containing unexposed film
- Close box
- Double-check that box is closed
- Turn on lights, take a breath, relax
This sounds like a lot but the whole process didn’t take more than 5 minutes. I took all the portraits over the course of just two days as various employees came and went and had free time to sit. I didn’t give too much direction to people in terms of what to wear. Some employees were very casual, while others clearly dressed up for the occasion. I let them decide for themselves how to appear.
Now I had to develop the negatives. Did I mention that prior to this project I had never developed film? Actually, I had everything I needed right there in the darkroom; big trays and chemicals. I stayed late that first night and developed one negative in the darkness. It came out fine. Still, I didn’t have any place for it to dry properly. I figured this wasn’t a step to be cheap on. I posted on the Large Format Photography Forum [a great resource] and someone recommended Gamma, a specialized black & white lab in San Francisco. Their home page features a big picture of Ansel Adams, so I figured it must be the right place.
The following Monday I drove back to SF, returned the strobe lights and went to Gamma. I spent a full day with Javier Manrique, their lab technician [and artist], in the darkroom, developing the negatives.The next day I rented a private darkroom at RayKo and made two sets of prints, one for the employees and one for myself. Making nearly 40 contact prints took all day and I was there until closing time, hurriedly drying the last drops with a hair dryer.
And that’s pretty much it.
I had another week in Dinuba and I did do some more experimentation. Eventually I would like to run an edition of the portraits on newsprint, in the same size as the Dinuba Sentinel, perhaps with their masthead. I would like to exhibit the portraits as well as the offset plates with the ink still on them. I played around with photographing the finished portraits with the copy-camera, using some of the long-unused half-tone screens at the paper. Unfortunately none were big enough to cover the full size of the image. The largest one was 14×17″ and I did a test run of the portrait of my aunt Diane.
The screen was rough, with only 80 or 100 dots per inch. The plates, warped from being on the printer’s cylinder and heavy with black ink, have a physical presence that compliments the smooth tonality and crazy detail of the photographic prints. I think they could go well together hung in a gallery. Such, anyway, is my hope.
The paper was sold in June to a local business group that owns the newspapers in nearby towns like Sanger, Reedley and Selma. They have their own presses and print their offset plates directly from digital files, as all newspapers do these days, so the camera now sits unused.
Ironically small local papers have suffered less than the big metro dailies. There is no Craigslist for Dinuba (yet) and the newspaper is still pretty much the only game in town for local businesses that want to advertise. The San Joaquin Valley saw one of the biggest booms and biggest busts in the mortgage crisis and Dinuba, like it’s larger neighbors of Fresno, Bakersfield and Stockton, sits ringed by unfinished suburban developments. The legal notices that banks are required by law to publish prior to foreclosing on a property have been an important counter-cyclical source of revenue for small papers up and down the valley. The same was true in the 1930s when my grandfather scraped by on barter deals with local businesses to stay afloat.
I’m grateful to all the employees who sat for the portraits and to my aunt & uncle to let me spend two months poking around their business. I’m proud of these portraits and see them as a way of honoring my mom’s family, the town she grew up in and the business that sustained three generations of the family. In the end I wish I had had more time. I could have done a second iteration and refined the process. But, like the newspaper itself, I had a deadline to meet.