In the last post I wrote of my frustrations with 5x4 in my early use, and stated my belief in the ‘possible satisfactions’ of the format. To put matters bluntly, there’s simply no point in persisting with a format if those satisfactions can’t be acquired. At stake is a considerable investment in time and money, and, worse still, one’s efforts as a photographer. Why invest in a format if it doesn’t enable you to realise your vision, or at least a sizeable part of it?
Having developed and contact printed some negatives this week, I’ve been able to reflect on those ‘satisfactions’ and to provide some evidence to myself of the value in persisting with 5x4. Along with, ‘do I see those satisfactions’, I’ve also asked myself ‘what exactly are they’? I’ve answered yes to the first question and ‘I’m not sure’ to the second. It’s the ‘not sure’ that’s the point of this post.
Two qualities apparent in the contact prints that I would expect in see in my 5x4 work are sharp details and a wide, appetising, tonal range. Indeed, this may be the nub of it, and there may in fact be nothing more to say. It is, after all, customary to admire the detail and enlarge-ability of large format.
Yet there is that something more, a peculiar combination of elements; certainly tone and sharpness, but also the extensive rendering of fine details, a grandiose air, a certain look derived from focal length and the 5x4 format, a specific kind of depth of field, an expansive and airy tonal modulation across the image, leading the eye on a journey from centre to periphery and back again. It’s very hard to say what exactly, but I suspect it comes from the peculiar possession and combination of these elements. A ‘magic’ (for want of a better term) of the medium and the satisfactions it gives in translating the world we see with our eyes.
Photography is a representation or simulation of the visual world, and it seems to me that 5x4 has a peculiar excess of detail that our everyday vision (with its blurred periphery and constant scanning movements) lacks. It’s not just the ability of a large negative to render fine detail, but also the extensive depth of field that can be achieved with small apertures in combination with camera movements, that conspire to make this excess possible. It’s a physical feature of the medium I’m sure (my ‘magic’ is not metaphysical), but one I struggle to define precisely. Given a little more work and attention to the medium as I go, I may reach such a description in the future.
Have I glimpsed enough magic to continue undeterred (at least for now)? The answer in the affirmative has been given above. It’s nothing more than a sketch, but it is a start.