John Kenny on Facing Uncertainty with a large format camera

“My work in Africa attempts to capture tangible aspects of tradition in particular the details of personal attire and expression.  I often feel that I can see a whole way of life etched in a face.  A life inextricably linked to the rigours of both terrain and climate. Seeing, and feeling this is vitally important to my passion in making each one of my pictures.On my recent journey to Northern Kenya I took a Chamonix 10×8 large format film camera, in addition to my digital equipment.  I wanted to experience the craft of photography in a far more involved way and shooting on to a sheet of film about the size of an A4 piece of paper (8×10 in the US) certainly provides this.  It is not cheap (each shot costs £3 – £10) and the equipment is very cumbersome but when the Gods are favourable then the quality of one of these images remains unparalelled, even in this age of digital technology.  Many of my photographic heroes used this format – including Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Richard Avedon.

 

Chamonix 10x8

I spent February and March experimenting in London slowly learning the constraints of the equipment.  I had a number of maddening light leaks that forced me to re-examine every step of film handling and picture taking – even the slightest leak will make a picture unusable.  By late March I decided that despite the difficulties I would take the camera, 15 boxes of film and five film holders to the extreme heat and dust of northern Kenya.  It was only in the final days before my departure that I narrowed the light leak problem down to the supposedly “light tight” slit of my filmholder and worked out a solution. 

I would be hitching through this harsh, rugged environment and risked all the time, money and sheer physical exertion being wasted if my fix didn’t work.  I could feasibly return to find all of the film  fogged, so I was glad to have the added insurance of my digital camera.   

It turned out to be an amazing, if challenging, experience for me and my subjects.  At times I had large crowds watching the mad Englishmen working his big contraption.  It may not be a direct equivalent of their lengthy traditional lineage, but the interest and laughter it created could certainly be classed as a cultural exchange. Certainly it provided a meeting point given the prolonged period of interaction required between photographer and subject, particularly when I showed them the equipment and tried to explain – ‘It has nothing inside…it’s….it’s just a box!’

Compared with the digital world every aspect of photography is more complicated.   This was compounded by my choice of film –  Provia 100 pushed to 200.  I shoot in the shade to reduce the extreme effects of light which meant either my shutter speed was very slow or my aperture very wide, resulting in a narrow depth of field.  Everything had to be set manually, and often reset multiple times, as the light or subject’s position changed.   Focusing is checked by examining an inverted image on a plate at the rear of the camera,  the film holder is then inserted and a dark slide removed before the shutter is released.  Even a small adjustment in the subject’s posture in the time between the original focusing and releasing the shutter could result in an image lacking sharpness. And of course you can’t see the picture composition when you actually press the shutter release cable. Pray that the person doesn’t blink! Without an assistant these challenges are very tricky even without the windy, dusty, baking Kenyan desert to contend with. 

Chamonix 10x8

I started the trip aware of all these problems and did my best to adapt my working practices to give me a chance of success. So I am amazing pleased with the results of my efforts.”

                                                                                                                                    courtesy of John KennyJohn’s work can be seen at Capial Culture Gallery from September 21st – October 2nd 2011.