Sunday, June 16, 2013

Week One: Climax Camera and Other Things Dreams are Made Of

  It's been a week since Gilli and I left San Diego.  It seems like so much longer than that though.  I think this is going to be a pretty hefty update, let's see how much I can recall....

  On the last day before leaving I had a wet plate experience scheduled with Chris Whitney, a San Diego photographer who is interested in doing wet plates.  I don't really call my sessions 'workshops' just yet as I think I need some more personal time with the process to really feel comfortable teaching.  Instead I provide all the knowledge that I have gathered so far and give people a real hands-on chance to experience working with collodion and all the fun of making images with it.  I encourage those who, after going through my 'experience', still want to pursue wet plate photography to take a workshop with others who teach it, buy books and read up on it, watch videos (though I really don't think there's too much value in seeing this process in Youtube....) and to just keep going with it.  Nevertheless - Chris really enjoyed himself and he was already well versed in large format photography, so that really helped to lessen the learning curve.  He brought along his Wista 4x5 and a lovely wife for a model.  Here they are focusing the camera with me sitting in for the model, wiping off a plate and an example of a plate that Chris poured and developed under my supervision.  That was his last plate of the day and I think it really came out great.

  On Sunday morning I had an early start as I had to be in Santa Monica by 8:45 to assist Jamie Johnson with a photo challenge.  Jamie had used the facilities on board The Photo Palace Bus a couple of times in the past to make wet plate images and she is now converting one of her bathrooms into a darkroom.  She also had me find her an entire 4x5 outfit with a modern lens, holders and even a Polaroid holder for Fuji film.  Now all she really needs is the little stuff like tanks, trays, beakers, etc. But I'm going off-track....  The photo challenge was a pretty nifty thing - five photographers who are all a part of a Verge Photographers Collective were given a non-professional model for one hour and were challenged to create a masterpiece photograph using whatever means possible.  That hour also included and make-up and outfit changes they may desire.  To top it all off there was a film crew filming the entire thing and a gallery owner who was looking to dramatize it on the spot.  Jamie went first because we were worried that the sun would come out and start heating up the bus and the chemistry along with it.  In fact the desire of the gallery owner to add a dramatic twist was so great that toward the 30 minute mark of Jamie's shoot he decided to cut the time allotted from 1 hour to 45 minutes!  Jamie was able to pull three plates and one of them was a real success - I hope she wins!  I can't show you the plate as it is still top secret, but here is Gilli and Jamie's new 4x5 and the next photographer using Gilli as a background prop with the film crew scattered about the frame.

  Sunday evening was spent in a gorgeous location in the foothills of Pacific Palisades - a peaceful neighborhood of LA.   Here is a view of the lights of the city as seen from the back yard of the house I stayed in.  Doesn't LA look like some serene place you'd like to visit from all the way up here?

  In the morning I was shooing a portrait for the occupant of the house.  She has been living there for quite a number of years and now she was notified by the owners that she needed to move and the sweet little 1970s house would be torn down to be replaced with a new 2-story one with a basement and all that... We did a really nice 8x10 plate, but in the excitement of what happened next I completely forgot to get a copy of it with my trusty iPhone.  What happened next is something that only seems to happen in movies and I haven't even dreamed about.

  At the end of the shoot I was starting to clean up the chemistry in a small bathroom that I converted to a darkroom for the purpose of the shoot and decided to check my email.  There I found a message from a San Diego museum that a curator at SDMOPA Scott Davis (whose interview you may have read on here) had given them my information.  This museum was looking to decommission a camera and the email sent to me by the archivist was titled 'Early Large Format Camera'.  It stated that the camera has nothing to do with the mission of the museum and that it simply had to go and all that was asked of the recipient was to arrange pick-up.  As you may have figured out by reading some of my posts I am always interested in seeing vintage equipment rescued and put back to use and so I eagerly opened one of the four attached images.  After it was done downloading I nearly screamed of excitement and felt my heart pounding at three times its normal rate.  Here is that picture.

  It is difficult to tell in this picture how big the camera is, but you must agree that it looks substantial.  It is obviously a studio camera from late 1800s and that's all I needed to know.  I ran, more like skipped, to inform the lady I was staying with that 'something came up' and I have to rent a car and drive down to San Diego ASAP.  Within an hour I was on I-405 weaving through traffic like there were no highway patrolmen in existence.  In order to make it to the museum before they closed I had to beat rush hour traffic in both LA and San Diego and that meant making it from Pacific Palisades to North Park in less than 3 hours.  I made it in 2.5 with time to spare.  My good friend Justin Edelman had agreed to help me out with this and we used his girlfriends SUV to head to the museum.  In the lobby we were met by a lovely 20-something year old archivist who led us upstairs to the hallway where the camera resided at the time.  Rounding the corner I was filled with trepidation like a young man who was about to meet his arranged marriage wife for the first time.  Unlike many such men my future wife ended up being a true beauty - tall of stature and with fine sophisticated finish.  At the sight of the camera (yes, we are still talking about a camera) I instantly fell in love and a bewildered smile got planted on my face and lingered on for the next few days .  Here I am next to the beautiful beast with that very same smile.

  Now it is much easier to see the true scope of what I was faced with.  The whole thing was just about 5ft tall and the wood... oh the wood....  I quickly realized that in front of me was one of the biggest studio cameras ever made - a monstrous 20x24in machine and in nearly new condition at that.  The nameplate on the front read 'The Scovill & Admas Co.  New York' and the one on the rolling stand proclaimed 'E. & H.T. Anthony and Co.", I was soon told that the model is called Climax, but I'm getting ahead of myself.   Simply getting this camera out to the elevator required taking off the cast iron wheel that raises and lowers the stand.  Getting the whole thing into the SUV was a whole other challenge, but nothing that a seasoned Tertis-playing Russian couldn't handle.  In the end everything including the fantastic Benster universal adjustable plate holder with a dozen nesting inserts and an 11x14 reducing back with three holders for it was safely packed and we left after shaking the hand of the woman who had just made me the happiest man on Earth (no she didn't agree to marry me, though I probably should have asked...).  Now this beautiful camera is resting back home awaiting my return.  When I come back I intend on making an acrylic wet plate back for it (the original Benster back was for dry plates and though I could very much use it for wet plate photography it would be a darn shame to mess it up by dripping silver nitrate into it).  What a beginning to the trip, eh?  Now I really have something to look forward to upon my return!  

  The trip must go on, as I am sure Jerry Garcia must have proclaimed many times in the 60s.  I waited out the traffic and zoomed back to Pacific Palisades to spend one more might there.  Luckily nobody disturbed the chemistry that was still left in the bathroom and I was able to neatly pack it all up before returning the rental car in the morning.  

  Next stop was Ventura and the house of Luther Gerlach - an incredibly talented and knowledgeable photographer I met through the online wet plate circles.  I was looking forward to meeting him for a while in hopes of seeing a few of his mammoth 20x24in tintypes live.  As I keep saying - there is no way to relate something like that on any computer screen, so wanted to behold them with my own eyes.  
  Luther turned out to be a very nice guy, someone who has been the world of alternative photography for over 30 years.  I knew he was teaching classes, but I was unaware that he also frequently lectured on photography at the Getty museum.  Luther had built his own 20x24 camera.  He had also built a mobile darkroom in a much smaller space that Gilli, but it is every bit as functional.  Here is the camera resting on just inside his traveling lab and Luther in the background by a nice stainless steel sink (which I now really wish I had installed in my darkroom - plastic is fine when you are working with traditional B&W, but when you get into alternative processes you have to deal with some majorly corrosive stuff...).

   We had lunch and talked wet plate and then Luther was kind enough to invite me for a short visit to his loft.  There I was confronted with a collection of cameras and lenses that made me weak in the knees.  The man claims to have an example of EVERY brass Dallmeyer lens made and I don't doubt him for a minute.  The amount of ancient camera gear was simply staggering and I instantly felt at home.  To top it all off there was a plethora of stunning photographs, both vintage and new, all over the walls and I could have spent an entire day soaking it all in visually.  

  Toward the end of the visit I asked to see the catalog that Luther had mentioned he had upon seeing my new camera on Facebook.  Here is the Climax camera model and all the sizes it was offered in in 1890.

 As you can see, historically there were two sizes bigger than 20x24, but Luther said that in all his years he had never seen or heard of those still in existence, so I wonder how many were produced and if any have survived through the ages.  I bet they are hiding away in some museum basement, probably being eaten by termites or rats...  As much as I love museums and the preservation work that they are engaged in I think functional pieces of equipment lose their souls when not in use and I'm glad to have an opportunity to give a second life to my most recent find.

  After leaving Ventura I headed north once again and reached Bay Area in just under 6 hours.  I once again met up and stayed with my friend Ryan Kalem - the man who was instrumental in the purchase and construction of The Photo Palace Bus.  It was rather late, so we didn't have too much time to catch up as he had to be at work in the morning, but the brief time we spent together totally brought on some excellent memories.  I still wish he would someday be able o join in on this adventure, I think we have great synergy.

  In the morning I headed down to San Jose - the home of my Alma Mater SJSU.  There I visited the old lab where I spent all too many sleepless nights and was happy to find Keay Edwards, a teacher and vigilant lab tech, at his post.  He blessed me with a 150mm process lens, which, upon my return to the bus, I found to have plenty of coverage for 8x10.  Now I have a really sweet, super light and compact ultra wide angle lens.  I also decided to take a shot of downtown San Jose as Silicon Valley is one of the places that California is now known for.  Lucky for me my old schoolmate Mehrzad Karimabadi visited me at the location I chose to make the below image and she guarded he camera while I was coating and developing the plates.


  After that I drove downtown to San Jose ICA and paid a visit to the folks I used to work with so many years ago.  That space is really great and the people who run it make it very inviting and vibrant.  They always have great shows and I hope to work with them in the future again and again.  For now it was just nice to park Gilli right in front and say hello.

  The next few days were spent in Pacifica at the welcoming house of Kirill Krylov who has been so gracious as to host me for the third time now.  On Thursday I had planned a tintype portrait event at Golden Gate park and a few people did indeed make it and had their portraits done.  I was parked by an old windmill and I thought it was a perfect subject for my test plate.  Here is a resulting 4x5 ambrotype.  The collodion was a bit too fresh, oddly enough and unlike with regular B&W chemistry you want to let collodion ripen for a day or two after mixing in order for it to work better, so there is a little bit of fogging on in this image.

  One of the folks who came to see the bus on Thursday was not quite ready for his portrait session, but he did contact me later and asked to stick around till Saturday so he could pose for an 8x10.  Here is the resulting image.  I am quite proud of it as this was the first time that I didn't have to make a test image - the first plate worked out perfectly!

   From there I once again crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and headed to Sonoma county to stay with Barbara Hoffman, the woman behind the Russian Magic Lantern Slides about which you can read in a post from January.  Right as I was crossing the bridge I did notice that the tachometer was dead and hanging on 0.  That's not really something I like to see - this is the first thing to go wrong with Gilli in the past year and and a half.  Now I am waiting for the morning when I'll take her in to a truck shop, get her an oil change and have them take a look at the tachometer.  Some say 'who needs a tachometer anyway?'.  Well, I do - when I drive at night the light above it is about 10x brighter than the one above the speedometer and so I pretty much drive by it - when I'm at 2400 rpm I know I'm going 55 and that's where Gilli likes to be.   Let's see how many tanks of gas this little thing will set me back....  Oh yeah, when I'm on the road I pretty much think of my budget in terms of tanks of gas - nothing else matters.  I have plenty of plates at least for a while (just got done cutting about 150 pieces of aluminum, plus about 40 pieces of glass) and food is very much third on the list as there are plenty of berries and fruiting trees this time of year, so if all else fails I'll be scavenging with the best of them.

 Tomorrow is another day!  A day dreams are made of....

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