by Patrick Jan Van Hove for Ultra Large Format, Belgium
Hi, William. Thank you for talking to us, let’s start with an easy one: how did you get involved in ultra large format photography?
I began the Japanese garden project with a 35 mm camera and soon recognized that it was the wrong tool for the job. Although, at the time, I wasn’t quite sure what I was after, I had this desire to go under the surface features of the gardens. I had hundreds if not thousands of combined impressions that demanded great detail and fidelity. I began working with a 4X5 camera which made the clarity of the surface features much more evident. This brought me much closer to what I was looking for. Then I looked through the viewing screen of an 8X10 camera and “saw” something deeper. With that large ground glass to look into there was less separation between what I saw in my head and what I saw on the screen. This helped to dramatically improve my compositions — and seeing better — I took more risks. But I still felt somewhat restrained. When I began working with the 8 X 20 camera it opened up an entirely new world for me–new dimensions, an entirely new palette. My compositions became more bold, more adventurous. Finally, I had the right tool for the job.
And what a tool it is! Can you tell us a little more about your camera?
My camera was made in the early part of the twentieth century. It was called the Korona Panoramic View camera. Made of wood, leather and brass, and minus any mechanical parts, its simple design had not changed since the beginnings of photography. It was pretty much in pieces when I found it. Along with a machinist and woodworker we did some extensive modifications to give a great deal more camera movements and more bellows extension without which, i.e., the portraits could not have been made. The lens is a 1950’s era Kodak wide field copy lens. It is the only lens I have ever used with this camera and I haven’t found any reason to need another.
Many ULF photographers limit themselves to B&W photography, but you went the whole way and actually got a custom order of color film made for you by Kodak, was that hard?
Until I began the Portrait series, I had always photographed in color. I see with a color mind and have little sense of the nuances in shades of gray. For my garden project I never gave a thought to not using color material. The logistics were actually quite simple; a single telephone call. If you wanted to pay for it Kodak would make anything you wanted. I was young and naive. I don’t remember how I pulled it off financially. I gather it’s not quite so simple anymore.
Your garden project is still ongoing, but there have been great changes in the photographic industry, with a strong push to digital. Do you worry about the availability of a film supply for the coming years and the continuation of your project and have you ever considered digital as an alternative?
The “experts” keep telling me that large format color negative film will still be around for a while. But it is only a matter of time before it is no longer sensible for them to manufacture it. Perhaps by then someone will be able to make a digital back for my camera. Just kidding! When I can no longer get the film I might end the project. I can’t imagine photographing the gardens in b&w or with a smaller format camera. I’m actually having a wonderful time with Portraiture now. Large B&W film is readily available and quite lovely. I’m learning to see in shades of gray. A garden, a face, it’s all a landscape.
“Banquet” format photographers, who use panoramic formats such as the 8×20 you are using often limit their work to horizontals, in good part because of the inherent difficulty of using such large cameras in “portrait” orientation. Yet a large portion of your images of Japanese gardens are verticals, and all of the portraits you present on your website are also verticals. What is it you find so compelling about vertical panoramas?
I had undoubtedly been influenced by the traditional Japanese scroll and, over time, the dimensions of the long vertical seemed entirely suitable for what I wanted to say. Except for the portraits, I never go out to photograph thinking I’m going to do horizontals or verticals today. I just respond to the compositional opportunities. It did take me a number of years to grow comfortable seeing in a vertical way. While it is a little awkward mechanically, with a little practice just as easy as doing horizontals.
The Japanese scroll was actually what had crossed my mind when I saw your verticals, do you think that you would have found the same vertical vision if you hadn’t worked in japanese gardens?
Since I have been working on the Japanese project for almost twenty five years I imagine it has influenced every aspect of my life and work. Even when I make photographs here in the Rocky Mountains there seems to be a Japanese aesthetic that comes through. It is funny though, that — even after all this time, I actually don’t know that much about gardens. But it has never been my concern. As an artist I was looking for material that would sustain my interest for a long period of time. In the gardens I found endless subject matter within clearly defined boundaries. I had no interest in documenting gardens. I don’t ‘see’ a garden. I see circles of yellow and slashes of red and oblongs of green. It is my job, my art, to integrate these pieces into a coherent, new and exciting story; a good picture. I am always thinking, ‘How far can I go? What if I try this?’ Horizontals or verticals are just ways of expressing what I feel. I never worried about how difficult it might be, or how expensive. I have been lucky enough to find something that has kept my interest for an awfully long time. There have been times of incredible frustration but never boredom. After twenty five years I feel as if I’m just at the beginning.
You now work almost exclusively with the 8×20 camera, how has this tool changed the way you see the world and make photographs?
I have grown so comfortable with my tools; my camera, my lens, my film. I can simply concentrate on making photographs. The 8 X 20 has defined who I am artistically and given me a distinctive style. Good or bad I don’t have to sign my prints… people know that photograph is a Corey.