Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Scalability Effect

The scalability effect permits processes and devices, once calibrated and fine tuned at smaller sizes, to be applied to projects of larger magnitude. Yet at precisely where the breakdown of scalability occurs remains a mystery. This is the lesson I have been engaged in learning for the last week, as I have been found to be busily crafting, calibrating and fine tuning an object now known as the 'F490 Mega-Cam'.

Actually, there will eventually be a pair of Mega-Cams; that, too, is part of the story, the beginning of which goes back to some cogitating over doodling in a sketch journal. I had been thinking along the lines of 'ultra-large format' (ULF) pinhole photography for some time. At the time, the largest format of camera that I possessed was of 8"x8" or 6"x9.5" film capacity - hardly a size large enough to convey the immensity implied by the word 'landscape'.

Thinking along the lines of the finished print on display, I desired the image's size to approach the point of overwhelming the viewer, yet permit a camera and film format compact enough to physically handle and process within the confines of my diminutive darkroom. Since I wanted the quality of a contact print, combined with the convenience of paper negative media, it sounded like I was asking the impossible.

The conceptual breakthrough came when I began to think about a previous project, the Grid-Cam, which combined multiple pinhole chambers projecting discrete images upon a common negative space; the resulting discrete images separated by the thin borders provided by the walls segregating each compartment. In the Grid-Cam concept, multiple views or subjects can be uniquely captured and combined, in camera, upon a compact film space.

What I had in mind was just the reverse: a single, majestic view, captured upon the surface of a tessellation of smaller negatives, to be recombined post darkroom into a window-like gaze out onto this spectacular vista.

Or, at least that was the intention.

As for the size of the assembled tile-work of discrete negatives, I knew that I would be starting with the fundamental building-block of my paper negative work, the 8"x10" size. These are large enough to grasp a significant amount of detail, and individually seem, at arm's length, to be of significant scale, encompassing a majority of the detail-oriented center of the human ocular field of view. Yet they remain at this size compact enough to handily process and scan, and are found in ready supply at most photo suppliers.

But how big of a composite image should be built? Given the physical limits of my darkroom, and my desire to have a central image pane, surrounded by neighboring satellite panes, the choice was made: a 3 by 3 grid of 8"x10" negatives, for a combined image size of 24"x30". The extent of this composite image would overwhelm the human scale of the viewer at close range, yet be compact enough to be practical to construct and execute.

Then I made the decision to incorporate within this camera the 'falling plate' mechanism, which would allow more than a single image to be exposed on one outing.

Armed with ideas, I proceeded to the hardware store and completed the detailed size and material selection, while finalizing the camera's design right then and there. I came home and tore into the building process at once, energized and excited by the possibilities.

It wasn't until I had the box's inner frame built, and partially sheathed in Masonite, that the thought struck me as to whether or not the camera would actually fit inside the darkroom. It seemed the excitement over the potential for a falling plate camera this immense obstructed the reality that such a design necessitated a deeper box, to provide adequate room for the film plates to fall. A simple trip to the darkroom with the box frame provided the answer: it was too large to fit through the door.

I entertained for several minutes the thought of how much work would be entailed in converting the whole garage into a darkroom of size adequate to load and unload the massive film plates. Then reality hit home, and I realized the answer was simple: I would cut the box in half, and make two cameras, each a wider angle of view than originally conceived, and each holding a single film plate. Armed with two such box cameras, I realized that I still had the multiple-shot capability I required for extended landscape jaunts.

Cut to a week later: I've made an initial composite exposure, to learn both the good and the bad. The camera is basically good; it has a sharp pinhole, and the structure is sound. But, the corners are vignetted, cut off by some obstruction up front by the shutter, and there's a large light leak on one side. I repair the light leak, and widen the opening in the box between the shutter and the pinhole.

Today I've made another exposure, this one quite impressive, a portrait of the northern foothills of the Sandias, taken with great care along the side of the road that leads to Placitas. But there's still a bit of cutoff along one side of the image - a sure indication that more work is needed.

And the Scale Effect is quite evident in every single step of the process made with this big cannon of a box camera: nine sheets to process, with zero error, to arrive at just one image. The flawless execution required to arrive at a fine print is magnified nine-fold, yet I remain hopeful and excited at the prospect of the resulting images.~


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