England’s Largest Camera

A handmade, six foot high by seven foot camera, creates negatives that are 22″x26″ in size. This beautifully hand crafted beast of a camera was made by Tim Pearse a 3rd year BA photography student from Plymouth College of Art; it took him five months to build, where he spent long hours in the workshop to try to build it, from 9 in the morning until 4:30 Monday to Friday. He says, ‘The idea behind this project is a simple one; to assertain whether traditional craft skills once inherent to the practice of creating photographs can still be accessed and utilised within the modern, technologically progressive sphere of image making, and whether or not these skills are still relevant.’ We were able to get an interview with Tim where he explained to us further the concept behind this project and why he is doing it:

Film’s not Dead: What drew you to build this large camera?

Tim Pearse:  Well, as part of an ongoing project looking at the erosion of craft skill within the photographic sphere, I wanted to find out whether or not it would be possible for an individual with little or no previous experience in working with their hands to reconnect with the skills and abilities which were afforded to early practitioners of the medium. We live in a time, after all, where we are becoming more and more reliant on technology, whilst our understanding of how things actually work is slipping away. If we are ever to truly know how to engage our photographic vision, I feel that it is important to understand and be able to utilise every single aspect of any individual practice. Only in this way, can we ever really understand how all of the different contributing factors inherent within can come together to offer us a deeper connection to our medium. The more you know about something, the more you can ultimately do with it in the long term.

Film’s not Dead: How long did it take you to build it and are their other cameras you made before this one?

Tim Pearse:  The camera took five months to build and I was in the workshop from 9 in the morning until 4:30 Monday to Friday. It was a very intense process, with a steep learning curve, as it was my intention to build the entire thing from scratch, by myself. This not only included all of the woodwork, but also all of the metalwork that was needed. This meant that I had to learn an entirely new set of skills, which was a difficult task in itself, as I had never attempted any form of joinery or metalwork before. It does go to show, though, that if you put your mind to something, no matter how daunting it might at first seem, it can be achieved with a little perseverance. Other than a few simple pinhole cameras and a box camera, I had never put my hand to this kind of task before.

Film’s not Dead: Where did your interest for photography begin?

Tim Pearse: I suppose I have always been interested in making photographs. I had a few simple point and shoot cameras when I was a child, and I suppose those early experiences encouraged an initial curiosity for image making within me. I think that if something has been part of your life for such a long time, it can quite easily develop into something more important without you noticing. As such, I decided to take a GCSE in photography whist at college, and found that I had a real thirst to learn as much as I could, which spurred me on into completing an A level, and eventually a degree in this thing that I love. I had worked as a commercial photographer for eight years before going to university, and I decided to do this as I wanted to find out about who I was as a practitioner, and what I was capable of doing, beyond the commercial sector.

Film’s not Dead: Why is film photography important to you?

Tim Pearse: I think that film photography is important to me because it offers a greater connection to the moment captured through the lens of the camera. The negative is an object in its own right, and is a physical record of a time, a place or an individual; it was there, as you were, when the shutter was released. The process of altering the properties of a sheet of film chemically is a tangible act of creation, that is, you are affecting the way in which the viewer will eventually come to see or “read” your own work, directly, through the skill of your own hand. I just don’t think that snapping away with a digital camera and doing a little post production can ever emulate the physical connection between the photographer’s vision, their knowledge of a process and their skill to execute their creative choices.

Film’s not Dead: Where do you intend to use this big camera and what is it intended for?

Tim Pearse:  When I designed the camera, I chose to make it completely modular, so that it can be taken apart or have new sections added to it readily. The ground glass focusing screen, for example, can be removed from the rear standard of the camera and rotated by 90 degrees to facilitate both portrait and landscape compositions. Saying that, the camera is extremely heavy, being made from a mixture of Iroko and Mahogany hardwoods, so at this particular time, I find that working in the confines of the studio to be the optimum working environment. That isn’t to say, however, that the camera will never see the outside world, as I am currently making attachments to allow it to be transported more efficiently. At the moment, I am using the camera for portraiture and still life. I have a 760mm f10 lens attached, which is the equivalent of an 85mm lens on a 35mm camera. As the bellows of the camera extend to a maximum draw of 7.5 feet, this gives me a reproduction ratio greater than 1:1. Essentially making it a macro lens, this raises some very interesting possibilities considering that the negatives are 22”x26” in size.

Film’s not Dead: Who will your subjects be?

Tim Pearse: For the first part of my project, I will be photographing individuals who are engaged within trades that are in decline due to factors such as economic or environmental pressures, or the erosion of knowledge or skill in their industry. I am currently looking for subjects in and around Plymouth, Devon, as this is where I am currently based, but I will be taking the camera further afield in the near future to begin the next phase of the study. I think that it is very important to record these individuals, as one day their trade or craft will perhaps no longer exist within our society, as changes in how things are done remove the need for applied knowledge of singular practices, effectively wiping out older methods in favour of more progressive approaches.

Film’s not Dead: Could you please tell us what it has been like exposing, positioning and generally using this camera?

Tim Pearse:  The Camera itself is a simple tool, as it has been being built around tried and tested principles. Its sheer size, however, it makes things a little more complicated. It takes two people to operate it in most circumstances, with a third on hand to help out if needed. As the camera is so large, careful consideration must be taken in deciding where to position it in relation to a desired composition, as once it is set up, it is not easily moved. Saying that though, I have built the camera in a way which allows it to be folded up for transportation, although its weight does mean that it takes two people to lift it. The lens I am using does not have a shutter, so exposing the film correctly is quite a challenge. In order to do this, I first position my subject and focus the camera under the modelling lights of my flash set up, then insert the film holder into the back of the camera after placing the lens cap back onto the lens. I then remove the darkslide from the film holder, and switch off the modelling lights so that we are in complete darkness in the studio. I then remove the lens cap once again, and fire the flash using an old 35mm camera body, to which the flash is connected. I then replace the lens cap, reinsert the dakslide, and switch the lights back on. This method has so far given very good results.

Film’s not Dead: How have you been developing the film and where have you been able to get hold of film of this size?

Tim Pearse:  The film I am using is orthographic film, which enables me to work with it under red safelight conditions in the darkroom. As such, I can process each individual sheet in large trays, as you would if developing paper. Orthographic film has extremely high contrast and ordinarily gives only black and white, with no mid-tones whatsoever. However, if it is processed in dilute paper developer, it gives continuous tone negatives, which can then be printed in the normal way. I have not only been contact printing my negatives onto fibre based paper, but also onto sheets of film to create positive transparencies. The film is quite difficult to come by, but I have managed to secure a large stock from various sources. At this moment in time, I have been experimenting with wet collodion ruby ambrotypes and tintypes, which is the way I feel that I will progress in the future.

Film’s not Dead: What advice would you give to aspiring photographers?

Tim Pearse: Try everything you can. There is so much to learn about photography, and each part of the puzzle you put into place will help you understand more about the next. Don’t just settle for a digital camera, they can’t do everything.

Film’s not Dead: If someone would want to go about making a large camera themselves, what advice would you give them?

Tim Pearse:  Talk to people that know how to make things. I have learned so much from others during the course of building this camera and I don’t think I would’ve been able to realise my ideas without them. There is a wealth of knowledge out there, and you never know who may hold the answer to a question you may have. Also, take your time. Its one thing to cobble something together in a weekend that will do its job for a few days, but its an entirely different thing to make an object that functions in the way you’d imagined for a lifetime. If something’s worth doing, its worth doing right. Oh, and measure twice, cut once.

Film’s not Dead: What do you feel about the current state of photography?

Tim Pearse: Photography has never been more accessible. This has opened up the practice of image making to everyone, allowing countless numbers to enjoy this thing that we all love. However, with this has come the idea that anyone with a camera is a photographer, diminishing the value of skill and knowledge within our sector. I feel that a return to basic principles is what is needed, for then we can truly know where we reside within our field after becoming connected to the shared history of the medium. The digital camera is a very useful tool, but it is becoming far to “clever”. This is effectively removing the need for the users of this technology to actually know anything about the medium they are utilising. Why bother to learn anything at all, when everything is taken care of in the body of the camera? We have become so preoccupied with owning the latest gadget or increasing the number of pixels at our disposal, that we are forgetting that photography is so much more than just simply a competition to see who has the most expensive camera. Progressivism can be a good thing, but not when it white washes all other methodologies held within a particular field. The possibilities of photographic expression are practically endless, there is so much out there to experience and have a go at. It would be a real shame if the digital camera caused us to forget them.

To find out more about Tim’s brilliant camera then please click Here.

Updated:July 29, 2019