TERRA INCOGNITA: Photographs of America's Third Coast
An Ebony 45SU view camera plays a vital role in a newly published book project
In September 2007, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, published a monograph devoted to a major body of my work -- a series of black/white landscape photographs taken over a fifteen-year period from 1991 to 2006. The title of the work is Terra Incognita: Photographs of America's Third Coast. Because of the long time frame of the project and many refinements to my working methods and equipment along the way, a wide range of cameras were employed in the creation of the 83 images published in the book. From the year 2000 forward, a key camera in the project was an Ebony 45SU, which was used for landscapes and was the exclusive camera for a series of still life photographs of found objects.
One of my best selling images in print form and one that is quite prominent in the book and related exhibit is titled "Etienne de Boré Oak". It was taken in 2000, originally for a calendar for Bayou Tree Service. I used an Ebony 45SU with a Schneider 90mm Super Angulon lens and a Horseman 6x12cm panoramic roll film back to create the image. It was taken on an overcast day with indirect sunlight backlighting the huge live oak. This tree is a rare indigenous live oak that is now several hundred years old. It was a mature tree when European explorers first arrived in Louisiana. It's commonly referred to as the Etienne de Boré Oak because it sits on land that was once part of de Boré's sugar plantation, and which is now adjacent to Audubon Park in uptown New Orleans.
Another panoramic image taken with the same equipment is "Languid Melody". This image was taken in New Orleans' City Park, also for the Bayou Tree Service calendar project. The stand of old live oaks in this image is near the headwaters of Bayou Metairie, a small stream that was filled in as the city of New Orleans grew up around it. The headwaters nearby (off to the left and out of the frame) are today the lagoons of City Park, which are used recreationally by park visitors.
The photographs in Terra Incognita that I'll focus on predominantly in this essay are the still life images, all of which were made with the Ebony 45SU. Throughout the project when I was out photographing I would notice things -- small objects that would generally never be seen within the broader landscape compositions. These ordinary objects included everything from a bird's nest to a pinecone to a discarded cigarette lighter. Anything that intrigued me at the time, I would save to be photographed in my studio. The still life set-up was quite austere. All the compositions were vertically framed against a plain white background. I used a sheet of foam core for the background and would suspend the object to be photographed about 6 inches or so in front of the foam core. The lighting was basic as well. I used ambient window light in the front room of my studio that came in through a pair of French doors behind the table top set-up and from a second pair of French doors to the left of the set-up. From late morning to mid-afternoon only ambient window light was present in the room. This light was quite soft and shadowless with a slight gradation from left to right -- perfect for the desired effect.
The still life images were made on Polaroid type 55 P/N film. The Polaroid print was used as a proof for refinement of the final image and the negative was saved in a sodium sulfite bath, which clears the chemical residue from the film. The negative from the final version of each shot was subsequently hardened, washed, and dried. Once it had been saved the p/n negative would be scanned for printing. It's not widely recognized, but the negatives from Polaroid's 55 P/N film are extremely fine grained and tack sharp. The quality is truly outstanding and is certainly as good as any conventional black/white sheet film.
You do have to be careful with it as the emulsion scratches quite easily while in the clearing tank. Also, the effective film speed of the negative and print are different. The negative is more than a stop slower than the print emulsion. So, a print from type 55 with the desired density results in a negative that's too thin and there may also be gilding in the shadows. (Gilding is an effect that looks similar to solarization where the values are so underexposed that they appear reversed.) To obtain adequate density and avoid gilding, I would increase exposure until I could judge with a loupe that the negative would be good for scanning. Because of the relatively low light level, reciprocity failure was also a factor to be dealt with. The final exposure issue in the equation was bellows factor. I was photographing relatively small objects and in many cases their scale on film was larger than life size. (Bellows factor is simply an exposure adjustment necessary when photographing close up. The f-stops on any given lens are calculated at infinity. They remain accurate until the photographer begins to focus extremely close to the camera. Once the light has to travel a markedly greater distance to get from the lens to the film plane, then exposure has to be correspondingly adjusted to make up for the difference.) The nice thing about working with P/N film is that, as with digital capture, the feedback loop is relatively immediate. You can look at the print and the negative right away and via trial and error all the factors from variation in film speed, to reciprocity failure, to bellows factor, are accounted for in the final exposure.
I used a couple of different lenses in photographing the still life series. For the larger objects, I typically used a 200mm-M Nikkor. But, for the smaller objects I used a 135mm El-Nikkor enlarging lens fitted in a Copal press shutter. The shorter focal length lens allowed a greater degree of magnification without running out of bellows extension. As long as you have unrestricted movement between camera and subject, shorter focal length lenses can work well for close ups. Also, the El-Nikkor lenses, because they are enlarging lenses, are optimized for close-up work and edge-to-edge sharpness. Now that many photographers are printing digitally, the repurposing of enlarging lenses for close-up and copy work is a good way to get continued use from these excellent lenses. The limited coverage of enlarging lenses isn't an issue with close ups. Because the angle of view is constant, the lens's image circle becomes much larger as the bellows is extended. So, a lens that won't even cover the format at infinity will have more than adequate coverage when used for close-up photography.
Conceptually, I wanted the still life images to be executed as simply as the landscape images they complemented. Spare compositions, lit with available light, are attributes common to both the landscapes and the still lifes. The simplicity of the Ebony 45SU lent itself to this straightforward photographic approach. The 45SU also proved to be a very capable camera for still life work.
Though it's typically considered as a camera strictly for field work, it's just as capable in the studio executing photographs that many might feel only a monorail camera system could handle. However, any view camera design with a range of movements and features as extensive as the 45SU is capable of virtually any photographic task. This is the true beauty of such fully featured field cameras -- their versatility rivals that of a monorail and they are equally at home in the field or the studio.
Richard Sexton is a noted fine art and commercial photographer whose studio is based in New Orleans. His latest book Terra Incognita: Photographs of America's Third Coast was published this fall by Chronicle Books, San Francisco. The book is accompanied by an exhibit of the same name at The Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans. For more information about this new book and the accompanying exhibit, please visit his web site: http://www.richardsextonstudio.com.