Paul Wegner: It Ain’t Retro, It’s Old
The following is the first in a series of brief interviews with photographers who, as part of their work, incorporate equipment that’s been around a good long time. As retro “styling” becomes more and more popular with camera makers and consumers, I find myself curious to hear from photographers who use honest-to-goodness old equipment instead of new equipment designed to look old. How do these choices affect one’s creative process?
Paul Wegner: It Ain’t Retro, It’s Old
Things Photographic What’s the old equipment you use?
Paul Wegner I use a 5×7/4×5 view camera. It’s a wood field camera made by Keith Canham that has interchangeable backs allowing me to shoot either of the two formats I mentioned. It was made in 1997. It’s a camera based on 19th century design made with contemporary tools offering expanded camera movements.
TP What do you like about using it? What do you like about its physical presence?
PW I like to use it because it forces me to be deliberative and thoughtful as I work. It is shot on a tripod, it takes time to set up a shot, the lenses are fixed focal length, and because film and processing are expensive I only make one or two exposures per shot. Thus, I am forced to be careful about the decisions I make as I shoot it. There are no shortcuts.
Its physical presence brings something unique to the whole experience of photographing or being photographed. Sometimes it works as a good icebreaker when I am trying to convince someone to let me take their picture. It doesn’t look like the cameras most people usually see.
TP What do you like about the results it gives you?
PW The quality of the negatives is wonderful and this is another reason why I go through the trouble required to use the camera. A sheet of 4×5 or 5×7 continuous tone file provides a great amount of detail.
Also, since I can see what is happening with the adjustments I make to aperture or camera movements I know ahead of time if I am setting the camera up to get the results I want.
TP Why not replace it with something similar but up-to-date?
PW I like working with this camera despite its bulkiness. It took me about two years to figure out how to shoot it (i.e. get used to it) and I feel like I am still learning from it. It is a tool that I dialog with in my process. After these years I feel like I am still having a conversation with it as I make my photos. It challenges me, but it also rewards me.
TP When do you use it? Is it for particular kinds of projects or does it suit particular moods you might have?
PW Right now I use it for all of my work because I want to maintain a consistent result. Shooting with a digital SLR would give me much different looking images both from the standpoint of physical attributes (continuous tone film vs. none continuous sensor piecing together an image) and visual attributes (shooting on a tripod with a fixed lens vs. hand held).
Certainly I could use a digital SLR and give myself rules like use a fixed focal length lens and always shoot from a tripod. However, I would drift from these rules because the camera would allow me to do so. It offers a much different set of parameters and I would want to explore them.
This doesn’t mean that I won’t someday. However, right now this is what I am working with. Maybe when my mood changes.
TP Where can we see more of your work made with the view camera?
PW Everything shown on my website has been shot with this camera. All of the black and white images were made with 5×7 film as were the color images up through 2009. All images 2010 or later were made with 4×5 film.
Paul Wegner teaches photography at Inver Hills Community College in Minnesota.
You can see his work at www.paulwegnerstudio.com