My camera was made in the early part of the twentieth century. It was manufactured by the Gundlach-Manhattan Optical Company and 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. These cameras were made in three sizes: 5 X 12, 7 X 17 and 8 X 20 inches, which denotes the size of the sheet film that they utilized. The camera that I use is the 8 X 20.
When I discovered this camera in 1987 it was badly damaged and virtually unusable. Much of the wood had dried and split, the brass gear track was bent and congealed with old grease, the leather bellows cracked and full of holes, the ground glass in two pieces, the film holders not light-tight. The owner of the shop was delighted when I paid $200.00 for it …”as is.”
My dear friend, George Morris, now a retired engineer from Ball Aerospace Laboratories had modified most of my equipment over the years. Working in Japan presented some unique problems; from delicate floors that needed to be protected from the pointed tripod ‘feet’, to camera movements that would allow me much more depth of focus. George always managed to come up with simple solutions and repairs for seemingly impossible problems. I brought him the camera and nine months later, after many, many different design and structural changes meant to suit my specific needs and idiosyncrasies, it was as good – no, not as good – better than good as new.
I had a camera, but no lens.
The 8 X 20 requires a lens that can cover a fairly large angle of view, more than twenty inches across. There are only a few modern camera lenses large enough to be adapted for this purpose and they are fairly expensive. I had always been partial to older lenses, using an old Kodak Wide Field Ektar for my 8 X 10 work. Though the older lenses are not as sharp as modern lenses, they have a certain ‘feel’- a luminosity and a ‘character’- that I have always found appealing.
So it seemed destined, when shortly after the camera had been refurbished, while sitting in a friends office, who was a serious collector of photographic equipment, I noticed a large lens sitting on his desk that he used as a paperweight. He graciously gave it to me when I asked about it. It was an old Kodak 18″ wide field copy lens. Known as a flat field lens, it was not designed for photography, but for the printing trade, to be used on a flat bed copy camera. I made a temporary cardboard lens board for it, mounted it on the camera, took it all outside, stuck my head underneath the focusing cloth, and saw for the first time what the world looked like from an 8″ X 20″ perspective.
It was wide angle for sure, actually it appeared about twice what my eyes were capable of seeing without scanning across the ground glass. Yet everything appeared in proper perspective – no fish-eye look – but initially almost too much to look at. Could I get used to this? The only way to know was to take a picture and find out.
I had a camera and lens … but no film.
One just doesn’t walk into a camera store and ask for 8 X 20 color negative film. I telephoned the Kodak special order department and asked if they could make me the same film as I was using with my 8 X 10 – Vericolor VPL – in 8 X 20. I was pleased to discover that the cost for the larger film was only slightly more than twice the cost of the 8 X 10. I was shocked to hear that the minimum order was $10,000.
This new circumstance created a dilemma, which in my naivete, I had not been prepared for. Though I knew that technically the camera would work, I had no idea if I would really be able to grow comfortable photographing with it. But I wouldn’t be able to know unless I gave it a chance, made some pictures and got the feel of it.
Ultimately, I reasoned that if it didn’t work I could always cut the film in half and use it for the 8 X 10. I’d have a lot of film, but kept frozen it would last for quite a long time. Six weeks later a large shipment of film was delivered to my door. Almost immediately I went out and made two pictures in the back yard of my house. It was awkward, hard to handle, harder yet to “see” than I imagined and I knew the real work was just beginning.
Then the unexpected happened. I received a phone call that I imagine every photographer dreams about. It was from the director of a very large and prestigious New York foundation. He wanted to know if “I would consider” making a book of their vast gardens. Three days later I flew to Newark Airport and was driven by car a few hours north of Manhattan to view the gardens and meet with the curators.
After touring these fantastic gardens, some fifteen acres in size, we sat discussing the costs and details, working towards the hand-shake agreement before the lawyers step in with the finished contracts. Just as the negotiations were coming to a successful conclusion, I remembered that I had brought with me the two test pictures of my back yard that I had made with the 8 X 20. I had planned on stopping in Manhattan on my way home to show what I was working on to my gallery.
The curator was fascinated with them and asked, “Instead of 8 X 10, could you do our book like this?” Without a moments hesitation I said, “Sure, but it will cost another $10,000.” (Lesson learned: Follow Your heart!)
The agreement was finalized and I spent the next four marvelous months photographing the gardens with the 8 X 20.
Gradually I fell in love with the odd, rectangular shape. It seemed to force me to look more carefully at things and although it is still awkward to use, heavy to carry and the film is sooo expensive … I have not used any other camera since.