Going large (format) in Bolivia


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Posted on June 28, 2015


By Rob

three nepalese porters with everest behind, shot by rob fraser From left: Bim Badhur Tamang, Eka Badhu Rai, and Kaji Sherpa at Gorak Shep (Everest peeking out from behind the Nuptse ridge)

Today I head away westwards for three weeks’ travelling across the land-locked gem of a country called Bolivia. I will take in jungle, the famous salt desert, the even more famous Lake Titicaca, high volcanoes and a train graveyard.

It should be hot during the day and cool at night, mainly due to the fact that I will be at 4000 breathless metres or higher, so a marked change from Kendal. I’ve visited twice before and it is undoubtedly one of my favourite countries in the world.

As well as lugging all the paraphernalia necessary to cover me for a huge temperature and landscape range I will also be taking along my large format camera and five plates loaded with 5”x4” monochrome film.

I’ve owned the camera for perhaps 20 years, but for many of those years it languished in a box stashed in the loft. Digital came along and film was dead, right? Well, wrong actually. I started to use the camera again five years ago and now could not imagine going on a trip without it.

Digital is fantastic for sure - cameras are improving on what seems like a daily basis and getting cheaper – but there is still a place for real film. Film that you can hold, that has limitations and contains tangible evidence of a moment in time.

5x4 negative in the darkroom 5x4 negative in the darkroom

This camera, a Horseman, has a functionality that has remained the same since the early days of photography over a century ago. In crude terms it is a light–tight box that allows focused light to hit a plane of film for a brief moment in time. Photography is derived from the Greek ‘painting with light’, a phrase that I love and one that I think perfectly reflects what happens when I click the shutter.

Using the camera is an ‘event’; it is slow to set-up, and it makes people curious. The fact that I hide under a big red cape to make the photograph kind of adds to this. It brings people out to see what I’m doing. Over the past few years I have used it to make images of people in Kenya, Nepal and India, as well as on projects closer to home.rob fraser photographing a porter in nepal everest region

Harriet has written a piece on my use of the camera as a submission to the next Dark Mountain book. Given that she writes a heck of a lot better than me I thought I would just pull out one of her paragraphs that sums up how I feel about using the camera. After writing about the fact that I use a comparatively slow shutter speed (half a second is a long time when most digitals snap a shot in around 1/125th of a second) she goes on to say:

“But this is not the only significant thing about the time taken to photograph in this way. You can't do it without striking up a relationship. In the planning of a slow photograph it's a case of considering where the person is - their place of work, the environment that inspires them, or shapes them. You need to spend time with the people you photograph. Talk with them, find common ground. It may begin with a smile, or an introduction from a mutual friend. It may start with the sharing of a task. Always, there is curiosity and an encountering of hearts and minds. There is no long lens, no shooting from afar. You can’t set up a large format camera, on its tripod, and stand there with a bright red cape over your head without being noticed. And a subject can’t be photographed unless they are ready, willing, and still. Everything must slow down. Photographer and subject resonate, and the frequency is that of the land in which they stand.”

I couldn’t have put it any better.

And I look forward to sharing some of my images after I return. It won’t be instant though, as it will probably take me a few weeks before I can get into the darkroom to hand process the negatives. Yep, it’s a slow process.

Photography nerd information

I use a 45D Horseman large format camera
My choice of film is Ilford FP4 black-and-white
I work on a De Vere enlarger
Carrying camera, film, tripod and changing bags (to swap exposed/fresh film) adds around 10kg to the weight I carry on treks that last up to three weeks.

Old Monk, Markha Valley, India shot with black and white large format film Old Monk, Markha Valley, India
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