Large Format Group weekend Beechworth, Victoria

Large Format Photography Get-Together: an oxymoron?

By Lloyd Shield

Barrie Bunning by David Tatnall

The quintessential historic town of Beechworth in north central Victoria was the venue for a get-together of 20 large format photographers, organised and facilitated by Richard White, over the weekend of 30th August to 1st September 2013.

What appeared to be a disparate group was drawn together by the opportunity to practise their craft in a stunning location and to renew old and develop new friendships.

Photographers are connoisseurs of the beauty of light. Hence it was not surprising that most of the shooting was done an hour or two from sunrise and late afternoon, while most of the talking was done in the harsh light in between and at night, over a pizza, a pub meal and one or other form of liquid refreshment.

Alastair Moore by David TatnallDuring the magic hours, it was time to focus the mind. Some went to their pre-visualised shoot locations alone. Some went in small groups. But groups soon dispersed to practise their solitary pursuits and to realise their dreams of making beautifully evocative images. But even in their single-mindedness there was an awareness and concern that one is not intruding into the field of view of another. An echo of ‘I’m not in the way am I?’ was a familiar refrain.

For most fields of endeavour, for returning participants, the ubiquitous question ‘how did you go?’ can be answered directly. For the LF photographer it is a different story and the compulsively offered, essentially rhetorical question can only be answered with an approximation. You, the returnee, and he or she the inquisitor, both know that the answer will not be forthcoming for another day, or another week or perhaps another month. But this is part of the ritual and ultimately the pleasure and pain of LFP: to see the end result so clearly in the mind the moment the shutter is released, but not to have the instant and irresistible gratification that is so much part of digital photography. LF photographers must harbour self-control, or is it masochism, in their DNA.

Jim Moir by David TatnallBut implied in the question ‘how did you go?’ is the subtext: did you find an emotionally and aesthetically fulfilling subject and did you enjoy the experience of being in the zone?

In LF photography, being in the zone encompasses many different states of being. There is the intense joy of the discovered visual treasure. Looking too hard often disappoints while wandering with an open mind often rewards with an unexpected visual prize. There is the zone of physical pleasure in removing from its bag a mechanical apparatus that you enjoy operating, irrespective of whether it is a wonderful mahogany and brass beauty or a functional but not particularly attractive LF camera. Then there is the zone of excitement of composing the chosen scene on the ground glass – a moment, I suspect, that most LF photographers cannot get enough of. There is the zone of uncertainty, after the shutter is released, as to whether you did everything right. And sometimes the zone of extreme anxiety when you realise that you may have stuffed up the meter reading or forgotten to add a bellows factor, or extra exposure for the filter. Or you slightly knocked the tripod and you really should have rechecked the composition before exposing the film.

John de la Roche by David TatnallA significant component of the weekend was a review of recently printed images. What fascinates me is how so many images of great beauty, delicacy or charm, arise from apparently simple, humble or unassuming objects, and urban or country landscapes. So many things we walk past without a second glance have been skilfully fashioned into images of beauty and meaning. This of course is the special skill of a photographer, and it was a skill evident in abundance around the Beechworth table.

And the element of craftsmanship manifests its presence in the almost endless variety of visual languages expressed in the prints – from the bold and contrasty architectural image through to the delicate almost ethereal rendition of a landscape micro environment; from black and white, to colour to ‘alternative’ processes. That film, developer and paper can be crafted to yield an infinite variety of outcomes, dependent on the vision of the photographer, never ceases to amaze. And if you try to copy the ‘feel’ of somebody else’s imagery, you are almost certainly doomed to disappointment. Because it is craft, not mass production that is on display here.

Peter McDonald by David TatnallWhen wandering through the breakfast room or lounge room of The Old Priory, or down the main street of Beechworth, past the cafés, one could see individuals in earnest discussion, or large groups espousing the fonts of all wisdom, on issues existential through to the spiritual and encompassing all points of the spectrum in between.

With respect to photography, technical issues got their fair share of analysis and comment. And rightly so given that LFP has a highly technical basis. But if there is to be one constructive comment, it is that there was room for more formal and informal conversation about the art of LFP rather than the mechanical and scientific. Image design, vision, visual language, reading of images, development of concepts and projects, matching printing techniques to the subject, and many more of the issues central to the art of photography, richly deserve a stronger presence in the mix.

In the early days of Beechworth, the presence of a few photographers with LF cameras in the street would not have caused a passing glance. But in 2013, to the few locals who happened to see the collection of 20 assorted souls with 20 olden days cameras, each a different colour, size and shape, having the obligatory group photograph taken (with a digital camera!) in front of the remaining façade of the historic Ovens District Hospital, this must have seemed like a bunch of eccentrics. But they were not disheveled eccentrics; they were protagonists of an art and a science that they love practicing.

And by the way, a large format photographer get-together is not an oxymoron. LF photography may be a solitary pursuit, but Beechworth showed that its practitioners are not loners. They love a get-together, and they look forward with anticipation to the next, and the next.

The Large Format Group meets twice a year at different locations and is open to anyone using large format cameras. There is no fee. For information about the next event contact Richard White.

Lloyd Shield

Photographs of the photographers by David Tatnall.

Peter Sanders by David Tatnall

Robert Elliott by David Tatnall

Stephen Bennett by David Tatnall

Wendy Watson by David Tatnall