Aug 17, 2016; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; A BMX demonstration group performs prior to competition at Olympics BMX Centre during the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games.
One of the most challenging aspects of covering a major sporting event for a professional photographer is coming away with images that are unique to you. Back in August, during my coverage of the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, things were no different. I often found myself in photo positions shoulder to shoulder with 20 or more photographers, most of them shooting on the same digital camera bodies and using the exact same lenses as myself. The result? Everyone walks away with essentially the same photo. For tightly-cropped finish line jubilation or dejection, sometimes being in “the pack” is a necessary evil at the games. To walk away from the experience with something unique, however – something that made me feel that I really tried – being in the pack simply wouldn’t suffice.
In the months leading up to the Rio games, I spent many hours contemplating how I could create a body of work in Brazil that would stand alone as a radical departure from the razor-sharp zero’s and one’s of how-many-frames-per-second digital megapixels on wow-that’s-a-lot-of-gigs memory cards. Of course, the historic wet plate collodion process that I’ve been practicing for the past three years immediately came to mind. However, even if I could somehow overcome the hurdle of shipping hazardous chemicals halfway across the globe, wet plate would be impossible to juggle alongside my digital workflow.
I also considered taking 4×5 black and white film along with my Graflex Crown Graphic, but I’d already used this combo previously at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. I found the lens on my Crown Graphic, an Ektar 127mm, to be very limiting in situations where I couldn’t get very close to the athletes during competition (which, at the Olympics, is nearly every situation).
Just as I was about to abandon the idea of a unique camera for Rio altogether, I remembered my Kodak Six-16 that I’d experimented with last summer. I initially found the camera in my uncle’s attic after his death in 2004 as we were cleaning out the house in preparation for it to be sold. Dating all the way back to 1932, the camera is in surprisingly good condition, and was likely used by my great grandparents to create some of the very photos of my family that we now treasure. In order for the Six-16 to see the world again, I’d have to overcome a few hurdles.
The largest problem was that Kodak stopped making Six-16 film in 1984. Through some research, however, I found that modern 120 film is very close in size to the Six-16 format. Utilizing some spool extenders I purchased on eBay (a gentleman there 3D prints them specifically for this purpose), and after modifying the camera’s gate with gaff tape and plastic I cut from a CD jewel case, I was able to successfully load 120 film into the camera.
Even with film loaded and ready to shoot, however, the original 1932 bellows on the camera were filled with pinholes along every edge. I used black fabric paint to fill the holes from the inside, and shot a test roll outdoors in various lighting conditions. While the light leaks weren’t completely plugged, I felt confident that the images the camera was producing were adequate for what it was.
Prior to using the camera in Rio, I used black gaff tape on the outside of the bellows to try and further mitigate the light leaks that were marring the images. Of course, I had no way of knowing whether this was successful while I was in Rio, since all my film would be developed once my trip had ended. Still, I decided to roll the dice and see what I could capture with this historic gem.
Shooting on the Six-16 is actually somewhat freeing, as the only manual controls you have are shutter speed and aperture (and a very, very rudimentary adjustment of focus). The waist-level optical viewfinder is laughable, giving you only a rough (and often very wrong) approximation of the scene to be captured before you. The best way to go at it is to simply point the camera in the direction of what you’re trying to shoot and fire the shutter!
I did use a Sekonic light meter on incident mode to give me a rough idea of what the light was doing, which gave me almost as many odd looks from photographers alongside me in photo positions as the Six-16 camera itself. More often than not, questions about the camera would follow. I always enjoy the fact that historic cameras are conversation starters. I can’t remember the last time someone was fascinated by a digital camera (though that did happen early on), but old cameras never fail to pique the curiosity of those close by. This can be especially useful as an ice-breaker when trying to talk someone into a portrait!
Liam Phillips (GBR) during individual seeding at Olympic BMX Centre.
Altogether, I ended up shooting two and a half rolls of Kodak Tri-X 400 film at the games, for a total of 15 exposures. When I arrived home, I hand-developed each roll using a daylight tank and Ilford DD-X developer. Each roll was developed for 8 minutes at 70°F.
The resulting images from Rio leave a lot to be desired. Obviously, there are massive technical issues, namely a huge light leak that must have opened up in the bellows following my patch jobs. This light leak obliterated the left side of pretty much every frame I shot. I also had big problems with overexposure on sunny days.
The top shutter speed on the camera is only 1/100th, and even with the aperture closed all the way down to ƒ32, this wasn’t always enough to render a properly exposed image on the ISO400 film. Anyone who knows Tri-X film knows that it takes a LOT of overexposure to make an image completely disappear, and with the light leak compounding my situation, things were far from clean. I also had issues with mis-framing subjects due to the camera’s rudimentary viewfinder, along with mis-focused images (since the camera really offers no way to tell when you’re sharp).
Despite all the flaws, the images have a dreamlike quality that I’m actually quite fond of – the streaks, the softness, the monochromatic palette. In a way, the images reflect memories and the way they exist in our minds. We don’t always remember sharp details of each encounter we experience, but rather, a roundabout facsimile of the moment as a whole. I’ve also joked with a few photographer friends that I showed my initial results to that these images possess “actual” Instagram filters. No iPhone trickery here, this is the real deal kids!
In the end, while the perfectionist in me was let down by the technical shortcomings of my results (along with images that were completely lost due to them), I’m still glad I followed through and used this camera at the Olympics. Sometimes it’s important to remind yourself that not everything you undertake is going to be perfect. There are going to be flaws. There are going to be bumps in the road. Things aren’t always going to turn out the way you expect.
The more I think about the mistakes on my film, the more I realized that the best parts about having this camera at the Olympics had nothing to do with the film at all. The conversations I had with new friends in Rio about my Uncle’s old camera from East Chicago – the amazement in the photo volunteers’ eyes as I unfolded a camera that my great grandmother might have unfolded the same way 84 years ago – those moments will live with me forever.