Through An Antique Eye

Crew members of IndyCar Series driver Will Power push their car through Gasoline Alley prior to the 2013 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This image was created using a vintage Crown Graphic 4×5 camera loaded with Kodak Tri-X 320 film.

No matter which one of my disciplines I’m working within on a given day, I’m always looking for new ways of challenging myself creatively. Whether I’m using parts I’ve removed from theatrical spotlights to cast sharp shadows of dancers on a wall, or building a view camera from scratch out of foam core and toy magnifying glasses, using components and materials for things they were never intended for – and making the result actually work – is quite satisfying.

A foam core view camera project I started this April, which is still ongoing, sparked my interest in view camera photography overall. The slow, methodical nature of composing and focusing on an inverted, dark ground glass, coupled with almost always having to use a tripod, was a huge breath of fresh air from the 10 frames-per-second world of digital SLR photography. While I won’t go as far as saying I’ve mastered digital image capture, the new challenges brought forth by view cameras (and the inherent “surprises” that come with each image) brought a lot of fun back to creating photographs.

My research away from my foam core view camera project into actual, commercially produced models led me to purchase a 1971 Graflex Crown Graphic 4×5 view camera off Ebay, equipped with an Ektar 127mm f4.7 lens. Countless hours of viewing YouTube tutorials, reading, and sending emails to film experts later, I developed my first two perfect negatives down in the basement using mostly antique tools purchased off Ebay, along with new chemistry. While I learned and shot on 35mm film in junior high and high school, I’d never developed anything myself, so pulling this off on the first try based on YouTube tutorials alone was quite rewarding.

With one of the fastest sporting events in the world on my schedule just two weeks later, the Indianapolis 500 race, I decided to take one of the slowest imaging methods in my world, the Crown Graphic, to the track to capture some features images during the event. Juxtaposing these two worlds was something I wanted to try, despite the inherent challenges of the format.

 A worker changes light bulbs on the pole prior to the 2013 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This single image took me the greater part of an hour to capture, waiting for the worker to become visible in the lift on the correct side of the pole from this angle.

Wading through the mash of spectators on Gasoline Alley with my Crown Graphic was a challenge in and of itself, not to mention finding moments that would last long enough for me to set up the camera, compose and focus on the ground glass, load the film, meter the light, and make an exposure. As I climbed up a set of stairs to get an overhead view from a spectator viewing platform, someone pointed to my camera and said to his companion, “You see that? That’s photos next week right there!” While this is an exaggeration (I could have developed my images that day thankyouverymuch), the aesthetic benefits of the 4×5 film format far outweigh its lack of qualifying speed for me.

The images I captured on film have a softer vibe to them which is hard to put into words, and not necessarily softness as far as the images themselves (a high res. 4×5 negative scan is startlingly sharp and detailed, and rivals all of my DSLR’s). The atmosphere of the 4×5 frames feels historic and noble. The dreamlike quality of seeing the modern world through an antique eye is something that I’m not sure I’ll tire of anytime soon.

Crew member Jeff Hughes with IndyCar Series driver Ed Carpenter checks tire pressures on pit road prior to the 2013 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

By far my favorite thing about the 4×5 process is the fact that it is indeed so slow and limiting! I went to the racetrack with 9 double-sided film holders loaded, giving me a total of 18 frames for the day. Each moment or interesting scene before me begged the immediate question, “Do I really want to use a sheet of film on this?” It’s amazing how this mindset remains when you pick up a digital camera again.

Aside from the images themselves, I had so many great conversations with people at the race who came up to me while I was using the Crown Graphic. Some knew about the format and wanted to know what type of film I was using, how I developed, etc. Some were veteran photographers who thanked me for keeping film alive. Others just wanted to take a photo and tell me how “pretty” they thought the camera was.

Indy racing superfan Michael Hopson of Indianapolis was more than willing to wait for me to set up his portrait using the Crown Graphic.

The Crown Graphic has a very special aura about it, and it got me access to a few situations at the race (such as very close to the Borg-Warner trophy) that I might not have otherwise been granted with DSLR’s. The two people I asked to photograph were also very patient — dare I say excited — to have their picture taken by such an old-looking camera. To have a subject be excited from the get-go for a photograph makes the rest of the process so much easier.

The 4×5 film results I’ve shared here from the Indy 500 are just the beginning of what I hope will be another long-rewarding facet of my passion for light and images.

An overall view of the pagoda prior to the 2013 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Crew members of IndyCar Series driver Dario Franchitti wheel their car away from the inspection area prior to the 2013 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The man on the right walked into the frame at the moment I tripped the shutter, though I’m not sure I mind the layer he adds here.

The Gordon Pipers perform near the pagoda prior to the 2013 Indianapolis 500.

Crew members of IndyCar Series driver Helio Castroneves eat lunch on pit road prior to the 2013 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Purdue Marching Band member Reid Steinbach (right) of Tinley Park, Illinois, prior to the 2013 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The Crown Graphic set up amongst my modern digital gak between turns three and four to get an image of the actual race.

The resulting photo from the same position. IndyCar Series driver Ed Carpenter (left) leads during the 2013 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The Borg-Warner Trophy prior to the 2013 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Trash fills the front stretch grandstands following the 2013 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. If you look closely, you’ll notice an accidental double-exposure here, a group shot of the other photographers I worked with at the race. With 23 sheets of film shot in two weeks on a completely new format, I’m actually not too embarrassed to show off one my first major mistakes.


Posted in Experimental, Large Format Film, Photography, Photojournalism by Guy Rhodes on May 29th, 2013.

2 Responses to “Through An Antique Eye”

  1. Jaime Del Rio says:

    You are an inspiration and a role model. I hope to one day have 10% of the natural talent and skill you have. Please keep doing what you do. Your a blessing to the world my friend.

  2. Wade Bell says:

    We talked at the track because I have a 4×5 Speed Graphic myself. A simple camera that does outstanding work. And you have done most excellent with it. %-)