A Systematic Derangement of the Senses

I am often asked, even by those who understand why I choose film over digital, why I choose the view camera over something smaller. Smaller formats, especially medium format combined with a film like Fuji Acros gives images of startling quality. And some cameras, such as the Rollei SL66, offer some movements. But none of them offer the ground glass, which is the large format cameras greatest advantage.

Looking through the ground glass for the first time can be a shock, because it sees the world upside down and reversed from the way we do. This defamiarizing of the common is the large format photographer's strength, because everything one sees is new, allowing one to see with beginner's mind. What seems like a pile of rocks next to a river when seen through the naked eye suddenly becomes a collection of geometric shapes when viewed through the ground glass, as do parking lots, city buildings, etc. 

Rimbaud referred to this experience as a systematic derangement of the senses, the moment when you stop seeing things as you think you see them (by labelling them) and see them as they are. 

Years ago I spoke with master photographer (and one of my mentors) Paula Chamlee, who was helping me under the dark clothe with composition, about this. As a new large format photographer I had run into an embarrising problem. All the literature I read from Ansel Adams said "previsualize, previsualize, previsualize," and that had become the large format mantra to many. The problem I found was that I would stop to take one photograph, say of a tree, set my camera on the tripod, look through the ground glass, and find a much more interesting image in the grass that it was pointed at, instead of the tree. So interesting that I didn't bother with that boring tree that excited me enough to pull out all my equipment moments earlier. Not always, but too often to ignore. And as importantly, I found this moment of discovery exciting. 

So I sheepishly asked Paula if there were times when she found more exciting photographs from just setting her camera up and looking through the ground glassthan photographing the image that first interested her. She paused for a moment, looked at me, and said with her soft southern accent "Well goodness, yes." Reading her journal entries in her monograph Natural Connections: Photographs by Paula Chamlee one sees her often discussing this issue with herself. 

Those moments of discovery are what I find exciting about using large format. Charis Wilson wrote in California and the West that she had grown used to looking at Edward Weston's ground glass and seeing things right side up. I'm fortunate in that I've never had that handicap. I still see everything upside down and backwards when I look slip underneath the dark clothe, and I hope that never changes.