The Calumet C-1 "Green Monster"

The Calumet C-1

The Calumet C-1

 

All artists by nature must grow to love the tools that they use to create their art, or the act of creation becomes onerous.

My friend Chris, who paints in oil, lives in a one bedroom and took on a roommate to make his budget. Instead of choosing to paint elsewhere, or changing his medium from oil (which can be, um, a bit odiferous)to acrylic or watercolor, he found a way to paint that didn't smell up his apartment.

Chris knows his stuff. He can tell you his preferred brand of burnt umber, which his favorite brand of canvases are and why, and how mythological themes influence his art. When he took on a roommate, it never occurred to him to stop painting or change mediums. His art is too important to him, and stopping painting would be akin to asking him to saw off his leg. In that sense he reminds me of Harlan Ellison.

In the film Dreams With Sharp Teeth, Ellison shows the late Robin Williams his collection of manual typewriters - all the same brand, all portable, all lined up on shelves along the wall like books. And, Ellison declares to the guffawing Williams, he has a lifetime of typewriter ribbons on ice in the refrigerator, just waiting to be used.

Ellison, anticipating that technology would marginalize his favorite writing tool, stocked up. Never mind that these manual typewriters are the size of a suitcase, weigh more than a half dozen laptops, or that they are loud. He loves them, and they've played an important part of his creative process.

Cameras are just as important to photographers as oil paints to Chris, and those manual typewriters to Ellison. The right one makes creation a joy, while the wrong one feels like wrestling a pissed off rhino.

I went through a number of cameras, especially view cameras, before realizing that the two features that I really cared about were large knobs and rear movements. It was my Horseman 45L, with its infinite, silky-smooth movements that called out to be played with, that made my appreciation of these characteristics clear to me.

And I've never once seen anyone write either feature as a must-have in a review or article.

Large knobs are common on studio view cameras, but not field cameras. That's because small size is one of the most prized features of field cameras, and it's hard to have a small camera with big knobs. The same with rear movements.  Field view cameras typically have very limited, or no movements in their rear standards, the exact opposite of what I want. One of my favorite movements, which is uncommon on field cameras, is shift (the ability to move the lens or film, left and right).

When I recently had the opportunity to return to shooting 8X10, I kept the requirements of big knobs and rear movements in mind. Frankly, the only "field" camera that grabbed my attention was the Calumet C-1 "Green Monster."

 

One of the first 8X10 negatives from the Green Monster. 

One of the first 8X10 negatives from the Green Monster. 

 

Calumet began manufacturing the C-1 around 1965 in Chicago. The earlier versions, such as mine, were made of magnesium, and weigh 14 pounds. Later versions (including the black version known as the "Black Beast") were made of aluminum, and weigh 18 pounds. This is before the weight of lens or tripod is added. That means that the "Green Monster" is probably only a good fit for certain people. Luckily I'm one of those people.

I'm also someone who probably would break a wood camera before too long, so the fact the "Calumet C-1" and "John Deere Tractor" are often used in the same sentence to discuss how tough the C-1 is definitely inspired me to buy it.

I ordered my C-1 from someone I'd connected with on eBay over a different camera, and also bought a 240mm Schneider Symmar-S 5.6 lens, which is a heavy chunk of glass in its own right, sporting an 86mm filter ring (240mm is considered the widest lens that can easily be used with the C-1. I've read that you can go down to 180mm, but you won't be able to have any movements because the standards will be too close together.) that has proven to be tremendously sharp. The camera kit and Ries tripod easily come to 35 pounds before adding the weight of film holders. Surprisingly, I found that carrying the camera and tripod on my shoulder fairly comfortable.

I took the C-1 for a warm up shoot and found that I grew used to where the knobs were fairly quickly. It turns out that I like using shift on the rear standard of the Green Monster, but rise and fall on the front, because of the C-1s front gearing.  That may change as I use the camera more.

I couldn't help but notice that the movements were much rougher than my Horseman. I assume that both age and manufacture are the culprits. My C-1 has a fairly low serial number, so I assume that it was made before 1970. That means it's been shooting for a long time and probably has some issues with wear. Also, many other owners have observed that the Green Monsters aren't the most elegantly made cameras in the first place, so they probably were a little rough right off the assembly line.

Since the paint on mine is scratched up, I can see getting a second, back up camera, and then restoring this one. I'm inspired by several other C-1 owners who have posted photos and instructions on the Internet about restoring their cameras.  Because my goal isn't to restore to new (as in collectible), but to the condition I want, I'll work on smoothing out the movements and painting it a different color. I think that there may be some other interesting colors for the camera besides green and black, and I've already begun removing the easy to break clips which are essentially useless (OK, I'm fibbing. I've begun breaking those clips that are essentially useless, reinforcing my decision to get the John Deere of 8x10 cameras).

Some have called the C-1s ugly, but I don't agree. I see them as a masterpiece of modernist art, and if ever there was a camera that would have been displayed next to Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase at the 1913 Armory Show, the Calumet C-1 is it. The camera also looks like it belongs on the Nostromo in the first Alien film.  

And just as most people don't need a Deere tractor, most large format photographers won't need or want the Calumet C-1. But for those of us who love the movements, don't mind the weight, and want something that's rock solid, this is a great camera, and certainly one where, like my friend Chris or Harlan Ellison, the artist isn't left feeling like they've compromised.