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|| News Item: Posted 2006-07-30

In the Bag: 'Old Format' Leads to 'New Path'
By Francis Gardler, Western Kentucky University

Photo by Francis Gardler

Photo by Francis Gardler

The gear
"The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity."
American writer Dorothy Parker

"The world just does not fit conveniently into the format of a 35mm camera."
Life magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith

Graflex Crown Graphic camera
Graflex Optar 135mm f4.7 lens
Schneider-Kreuznach Symmar 210mm f5.6 lens
Polaroid 545 Pro 4x5 sheet film holder
Toyo magnifying loupe
Bogen tripod
Billingham Hadley large shoulder bag
Polaroid Type 55 positive/negative film

Here at Patuxent Publishing Company we follow each high school sports season with a collection of portraits to celebrate the accomplishments of boys and girls athletes in a variety of sports.

Prior to the fall of 2005 we had always published the portraits over a period of weeks, filling the gap between the close of fall and the beginning of the winter season. Starting with the fall athletes, we collected all the portraits in one issue, shot by one photographer (myself). Knowing that I would photograph the winter athletes of the year at the conclusion of the season I started to think of a different way to illustrate the project.

With this in mind I remembered the 4x5 work of Damon Winter of the Los Angeles Times and Mark Mirko of The Hartford Courant. They had been using Polaroid Type 55 film for their stories of former Olympic athletes (Damon Winter) and Bike Week '03 (Mark Mirko). Their work and a Leading Off piece by Robert Hanashiro ( charged up my curiosity about this "old format" and set me on a new path of experimentation.

Instead of using a conventional Canon 1D Mark II 35 mm camera like I usually use on assignment, I used a 40-year-old Graflex Crown Graphic camera I purchased off eBay in January. It took me a few weeks to find a camera that didn't look its age and also wasn't the subject of a eBay bidding frenzy. I tended to concentrate on auctions that had a low or reasonable "Buy It Now" price.

The Crown Graphic, commonly used by press photographers from 1947 to the end of the 1950s produces 4-by-5-inch images. Like the other photographers mentioned, I wanted to use Polaroid Type 55 positive/negative film, which produces both a positive print and a black and white negative with its unmistakable iconic borders.

The lens that came with the Crown Graphic was a Graflex Optar 135mm f4.7, which is the equivalent of a 40 mm lens for a 35 mm camera. I also wanted to get a lens that would give me the perspective of a small portrait lens (like a 85 mm). Once again, I went back onto eBay and found a modern Schneider-Kreuznach Symmar 210mm f5.6 lens, which would give me the look of a 65-70 mm lens. The only new items I bought were a Polaroid 545 Pro 4x5 sheet film holder (which has a screen that automatically adjusts the development time to the ambient temperature) and a magnifying loupe for critical focusing on the piece of ground glass inside the camera.

Photo by Francis Gardler / Patuxent Publishing Company

Photo by Francis Gardler / Patuxent Publishing Company

According to Father John Krzyzanski, an old Polish saying indicates, "A guest in the house is God in the house." Father John, a New Haven, Conn. native and UConn basketball fan, is seen here outside the friary.
While a camera like the Canon 1D Mark II has fast auto-focus and a motor drive which can fire eight frames a second, the Crown Graphic is focused by opening the viewing hood and applying the loupe to a piece of ground glass in which your subject appears upside down. The photographer then turns a focusing knob until the subject is in focus, then you manually set the shutter speed and the aperture and then cock the shutter.

Prior to starting the winter athletes' portraits, I wanted to give the camera a test with another story I had planned on a group of Franciscan Friars that had a friary in Howard County. This was a idea that had languished on my project list for six years, but when I purchased the Crown Graphic I felt I had found the camera that would match the contemplative nature of the subject matter. With the camera, tripod and a couple of boxes of film I headed off to make a few portraits, confident that I was ready to go. Boy, was I wrong!

There's one annoying thing about Polaroid Type 55 film: it's expensive! The Polaroid website lists a price of $74.94 for a box of 20 sheets of film. Simple mistakes turn into pricey mistakes. When I arrived at the Friary I used my Canon 1D to ascertain the exposure (who uses a light meter these days when you can "chimp") and made one test exposure. It was successful and I waited for the first priest to arrive.

Father Bart Karwacki sat in the cloistered walkway and I shot and processed the first exposure. It was blank! I took another shot. It was blank again. As I opened sheet after sheet of film they were all blank - no information whatsoever on the film. After 20 wasted exposures I had to call it a day. Both friars I tried to photograph must've thought I was an amateur. It was a common situation throughout the first two weeks of shooting the Friars story. I'd get a few successful pictures then I'd get a few blank ones. Father Noel Danielewicz sensed my frustration and offered a novel explanation.

He told me, "Francis, you have to realize that whenever someone is trying to do good in the name of the Lord, the devil will eventually find out and try to muck it up a little bit."

Hmm, try explaining that to your editors. In the end, the final result was what mattered most.

Photo by Francis Gardler / Patuxent Publishing Company

Photo by Francis Gardler / Patuxent Publishing Company

Atholton's Julie Taylor is a member of the Howard County Times All-County Girls Basketball team.
The portraits and detail photos started on the cover and ran for fourteen tabloid-sized pages inside the April 13, 2006 issue of the Howard County Times. The reaction to the story, which was written by reporter Jennifer Surface, was immediate - copies of the paper flew off the news racks, we received a request for an individual copy of the paper for each Franciscan Friar in the United States. The story and photos were published on the Thursday before Easter. Father Noel told me the attendance for Easter services doubled from previous years and that many who came mentioned that it was the story that drew them to the Mass. I even had a request for a reprint from a photographer who was studying to be a Catholic deacon who found inspiration in the photograph of Father Noel holding the Franciscan cord and Tau cross.

The photographs of the winter athletes were taken in the Patuxent photo studio with a painted canvas backdrop. The challenge in photographing the teenage athletes was keeping them in focus. The narrow depth of field of a 4x5 lens isn't helped by an energetic young athlete who is constantly swaying in and out of focus. This was remedied by having them brace themselves with an arm against a knee or thigh. One great thing about the Type 55 film pack is that it provides you a positive print to hand to the subject as a gift.

It not only lets them see what you are trying to achieve, but it also allows them to walk away from the session with something for their scrapbook.

Whereas the winter athletes' photos were taken indoors, I wanted to finish off the year by photographing the spring athletes of the year outdoors. By this time, the problems of blank exposures disappeared. I have a feeling that I didn't push the sheet pack firmly enough into the Polaroid back and although a symbol on the LCD screen on the back indicated the film was secure, it really wasn't.

For all the published portraits I used the negative to provide the image. Not knowing the best means to transfer the negative into the computer I emailed Mark Mirko and asked him what equipment he used at The Hartford Courant. He recommended the Epson Perfection 3200 Photo flatbed scanner which only cost my company $250. The only problem with the scanner was the Polaroid's negative didn't fit into its negative carrier. The down and dirty solution was to tape the negative to the glass. Another problem arose: Newton's rings. The solution: taping the dull, emulsion side to the glass.

Photo by Francis Gardler / Patuxent Publishing Company

Photo by Francis Gardler / Patuxent Publishing Company
Let's face it, shooting with a 35mm camera and a motor drive makes you approach an assignment in a certain way. Why not try a different format for selected stories or projects. Filling the frame with a Hasselblad challenges you envision the world as a series of square moments instead of the conventional rectangle dimensions of the 35 mm frame. And if you use a Hasselblad without a motor drive you'll have to advance the film one shot at a time. It'll probably give you the chance to think about what you're shooting before you press the shutter.

Another kind of medium format camera I've seen is the plastic Holga camera. Why not go really retro?! Check out Robb did a portrait series of Texas cowboys with an 8x10 view camera using a process from the 1800s called "tintypes." It involves mixing and applying chemicals to a sheet of tin and while the sheet is still wet, shooting the image and developing the image immediately after.

Websites to check out:

Damon Winter / Los Angeles Times

Mark Mirko / The Hartford Courant

Bruce Moyer / The Hartford Courant

As you can see, the Hartford Courant is a good place to find 4x5 work with the Polaroid Type 55 film. Get a subscription to their Sunday paper and check out the NE (or Northeast) section. Not only do they show good large format work, they use it very well.

(After nearly ten years as a staff photographer at Patuxent Publishing Company, Francis Gardler is returning to his alma mater Western Kentucky University as a Photojournalist-In-Residence for a one-year contract beginning in August 2006. To see a sampling of his recent 4x5 work, please go to his member gallery: or check out the following galleries : and

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