The Photograph Explained: Robe by David Roberts


Silver gelatin photograph

I had long wanted to make a photographic study of a contemplative group.  This desire was recently fulfilled with a three-week sojourn at Tarra Warra Abbey in the Yarra Valley of Victoria.  Seventeen monks who follow the strict Cistercian Catholic order live out their vows there, several of them having lived there since the beginning of the monastery in 1954.

Large format cameras were used for a variety of reasons.  Tonality, detail and resolution always rate high on the ‘reason to use large format cameras’ scale but they are not exclusive.  The pace of large format suited the contemplative environment and life of the monks.  Further, there was an agreement that all photographs would be made with a tacit knowledge of those in the Abbey – no ambushing with a quick camera here!  Also, there is a kind of ceremony involved with view cameras.  This is particularly evident with large format portraiture.  The sitter simply takes it more seriously and this can be parlayed into a deeper or more meaningful photograph.

I used a variety of formats including 5 x 7, 7 x 11, 11 x 14, 8 x 20 and even the 20 x 24.  The photograph accompanying this article was made with an old Burke and James 11 x 14 camera.  This format as well suited for portraiture since it is the smallest format in which you can fit a human head when photographed 1:1 or life size.  The 5 x 7 is also a delightful format not only because of its pleasing proportions but also because its relatively small size makes for fewer visits to the chiropractor and is quick to set up.  The 5 x 7 is a Linhof Tech III.

My primary lens for this project is also a favourite lens – a 14 inch (~360 mm) Voightlander Heliar made in 1907.  This lens was used with a Packard shutter.  While a bit of a cannon, size wise, its greatest features are: a) the beautiful way it renders out of focus areas.  This aspect of a lens is often overlooked as we mostly notice ‘in focus’ areas.  Often, however, a photograph is comprised mostly of out of focus content.  The character and quality of these areas is, I believe, a major determiner of our subjective response to a photograph.  b) The narrow depth of field is also useful as a design or compositional features of a photograph.  This lens has a maximum aperture of f4.5, something that is also useful for focusing in low light situations.

Film for the project was Ilford HP5 Plus for all but the 5 x 7 where Kodak Tri X was used.  Both these films have reasonably high speed and different characteristics.  The HP5 is smoother and the Tri X has a bit more grunt and a more earthy feel.

All my contact prints are made either on Kodak Azo or Lodima paper.  I have yet to decide on a paper for enlarging on this project.  It has been many moons since I’ve done any serious enlarging but that may change now with an ULF enlarger that Ray Strong and I recently created.  This enlarger will take up to 16 x 20 negatives.  I have yet to decide the final sizes for the exhibition prints from this project.

Negative development for me is invariably with Pyrocat HD.  I tray develop the negs and develop them by inspection.  The prints are made using the amidol developer formula advocated by Michael Smith.  The contact prints are made on a  simple platten with a plate of glass holding the neg and paper in registration.  A 300 watt halogen globe run by a foot switch provides the light.  A digital metronome beeps out 120 beats a minute allowing for fine-tuned timing of less than 1/2 second.

The Abbey project will be an on-going endeavour.  Over the coming years there is an open door for me to continue the portrait of the Abbey.  Minor White photographed things for what else they were.  My aspiration for this project is to provide a window on a life that few of us see and fewer yet of us would choose.  While this article notices mostly technical areas of large format photography these details are only a means to an end.  The creative process of making photographs and the myriad links of that chain include the technical but must incorporate other intangibles.

David Roberts

David Roberts