The Photograph Explained: Upper Lansdowne River by Mark O’Neill

I was recently making an image with my 4×5 field camera when a fellow walking past stopped to comment on my choice of camera. You may well imagine the type of comments: “looks like something from the 1930’s,” or “what sort of camera is that”? It makes me ponder, at times like this, if I really do look like some photographic dinosaur in the digital this and digital that age? Should I give it away and move with the times?  However I only need to see the image that appears before me on the ground glass; large and crystal clear (albeit up-side down and back to front) and it all makes sense. The elation this brings soon smothers any doubt I may have about the perceived anachronistic nature of my craft. Using a view camera when people are around can draw a crowd at times; too many questions and unsolicited comments. The on lookers can be a little annoying but it does start a conversation. I use to shoot surfing photos from the beach behind a 1000mm telephoto lens, it too used to draw unwanted scrutiny from well –meaning busy bodies. On the contrary, making Upper Lansdowne River was a very lonely affair, no one around for miles and I relished in the peace and tranquillity of the shoot.

It is the craft of image making that endures with large format photography. The entire process from seeing to exhibiting relies on the photographer hand- crafting the image using a sound knowledge of camera, exposure, film and print. It is the love of this craft that inspires me to wake at 4.00am to drive to the location of my pre-visualised photograph, carrying camera gear, setting up and waiting for the moment. Of course the anticipation of the finished negative as the darkroom light comes on and the thin sheets of celluloid are fished out of the sweet-smelling bath of fixer is also a moment of sheer delight. (if all goes well that is). The first time the lupe is passed over the negative on the light box; the first focus of the image under the enlarger and the final, finished print are all part of the craft that brings so much pleasure. The outcome is totally dependent on the skill of the artisan-not Microsoft , Apple, Adobe, Epson et al.

Upper Lansdowne River is a photograph that has followed the crafting process. While not a pre-dawn image, the making of it still required a hike of around two kilometres, as the road into the property had suffered a landslip. The Sunday of the June long-weekend was lightly overcast and still, just perfect for this shot. Even with the cloud cover there was a healthy range of contrast which lead to the print made using a Grade 1 MG filter. I would have liked a bit more flow in the river but the mix of water and rock has shown the landscape in its typical mood. The river can flood up to two metres higher than the large rock in the foreground.

darkroom enlarger

I use 90, 135 and 300mm lenses and this shot was made with the 90mm lens hanging off the front standard of a Chamonix 45N2, Upper Lansdowne River was a fairly straight forward shot. The photograph is unremarkable in that it is a typical river landscape, but the making of it and the final print are special in that this is the only image of this type made at this location. Using some slight forward and rear tilts and some rise, the image fairly easily fell into place. The exposure was metered using a digital spot meter to typically place the shadows with necessary detail in zone three. The exposure was f22 @ 6 minutes due to reciprocity corrections. This explains the slight movement of the palm fronds- there is always some zephyr moving through a river valley. The Ilford FP4+ was tray developed in ID11 stock at a normal time, although slightly less development time may have helped control the contrast better.

light box image

The 16 x 12 print was made on Kentmere Fine Print VC, Fibre based paper. It is a scan of the print that appears here, not a scan of the negative as I am not terribly adept in making digital conversions.

I normally only make around a dozen or so photographs each year and these are nearly always shot between March and September when the heat haze of summer has gone and there is a surety of some cloud cover to clear the bald skies. Most of my subject matter involves sea and coastal landscapes and there are plenty to choose from living on the NSW, mid-north coast. I have a darkroom in the back of a studio room that was once a garage and it is a great space to while away the hours. Working full time means photography has to fit in with family and all the other events that make up an interesting life. I consider myself really lucky that I have the opportunity to practice an artistic passion that is, these days, quite unique. My reality is that large format, view camera photography is a passionate past time that I love and try to participate in as much as possible.

Mark O'Neill

Mark O’Neill