Shooting a 70 year old Graflex Press Camera

A Note from Janey: Today I’m happy to have Patrick provide a guest post here on the blog! He has had a bit of a passion project from the last year and we are both very excited to show some of the results!

When Janey and I first started dating she soon realized I didn’t collect anything. At the time I was planning to become a professional photographer, and she gave me a vintage Savoy camera in seafoam green. Over the years I amassed a collection, but soon wanted to shoot with them. I started with a small, Kodak Duaflex II using 120 film. A few years ago Janey’s dad gave me a Graflex Pacemaker Speed Graphic from dating somewhere between 1947 to 1955 that I really wanted to learn how to shoot. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that I really had the time to sit down and do the research to figure out how to use the Graflex, as it is far more technical than any other film camera I had used. Once we got our vaccines, we started to go back out and I decided to take the Graflex along.

Photo of a building with "tobacco goods wine & liqours" on the side.

Photo a building with large aguave plants out front.

Photo of the Contenental Hotel in San Diego with "Los Angeles State Office" painted on the side.

Photo of the front of the Sunkist Anaheim Packing House.

Photo of an Arbys sign in the shape of a tall cowboy hat that reads "Arby's Roast Beef Sandwhich Is Delicous"

Large sign with a bowling pin.

Panoramic photograph of a large rock formation with a Joshua tree in the foreground.

A large barn with "Hay Feed" painted above the door.

Ruined adobe building with a Joshua tree visible though the center.

A large dead weathered tree.

Panoramic photograph of the Hollywood sign

Photograph of the Hollywood sign

Panoramic photo of Los Angeles as seen from the Hollywood sign.

Photograph of a large neon sign reading "Angelo's Car Hop Service Hamburgers"

Photograph of a mid-century modern post office.

Photograph of a sign board on the side of a florist shop.

Abandoned building at sunset.

Photograph of a large neon sign reading "Coffee Shop"

Despite being called the Speed Graphic the process for shooting it is anything but fast. Each shot requires manual focusing, cocking either the front or rear shutter, inserting the film holder (which only holds one sheet of film for a single photo), removing the “dark slide” (a plate that protects the film from being exposed) followed by pressing the shutter button, and finally reinserting the dark slide so the film can be safely stored until it is developed. Press photographers used special equipment to hold multiple sheets or rolls of film at once eliminating several steps. Photographers would often pre-focus the camera for a specific distance from their subjects often only getting a few changes to get a key shot.

I’ve been using my Speed Graphic a little differently since I mostly photograph static subjects like signs and buildings. To make the camera a little smaller and lighter I removed a things like the rangefinder and viewfinder. Because of this I compose and focus the shot similarly to a more traditional view camera, through a window in the back. It makes it a little more tricky, as what I see through the lens is upside down.

Using the camera is definitely a process since I have to load and unload the film holders inside a darkroom bag. You can also see the dark slide which covers up the film to keep it from being exposed to light until it is loaded into the camera.

The below photo is example of how things can go wrong quickly when you’re not paying attention. I didn’t make the correct notes and ended up double exposing my Bottle Tree Ranch photo with a shot I took earlier.

Two additional features I really like over shooting digitally are the ability to move and tilt the lens relative to the film. This allows for shots of buildings straight on that don’t show a lot of ground like the photo of the florist or the Anaheim Packing House or to shift something slightly in the frame like getting the Joshua tree exactly in the center of the ruined building. You can also achieve a blurry “tilt shift” effect where only part of the photo is in focus like in the Arby’s or the Bowl signs because the lens can swing forwards or backwards throwing the focus off, this is the original inspiration for Instagram’s “tilt shift” effect.

I also invested in a panoramic film back which allows for the extra wide shots you see above. A key feature of the Graflex cameras was the “Graflok” back that could be removed and different accessories like film holders for rolls of film rather than sheets or even accessories to shoot Polaroids could be used. I purchased a film back that shoots large 6×17 centimeter negatives on rolls of film which allows for different compositions and framing like the vertical photo of the dead tree or the Coffee Shop sign.

Graflex began making the Speed Graphic line of cameras in 1912 starting with the “Speed Graphic” and made them until 1973 with the “Super Graphic” being the last model produced. Speed Graphic cameras were the choice of camera for photojournalists for their ability to synchronize with a flash at high shutter speeds. They were so ubiquitous that every winner of Pulitzer Prize in Photography from 1942 until 1953 was shot on a Speed Graphic. This included most photography of World War II including the famous photo of Marines raising the American Flag over Iwo Jima. Speed Graphics continued to capture Pulitzer Prize winning photographs up until 1961 when smaller film and faster cameras finally began to outpace them. However photojournalist David Burnett continued to use a Speed Graphic to cover John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004, the 2012 Summer Olympics and the 2014 Summer Olympics.

While I do not use a flash for photos, the camera Janey’s dad gave me did come with a flash attachment. What is special about these models of flash attachments is that they were the base used to create the lightsaber hilts in Star Wars.

On top of learning how to use such a technically difficult camera camera, I also learned about large format slide film, which produces color positive film, as opposed to traditional negatives, which is my favorite discovery of this process.

While it is really tricky to nail a good shot pulling out these giant negatives is really satisfying and I hope to keep sharing more photos with you!

Photograph of large format slide photos


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