The view camera and visual design

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This topic contains 3 replies, has 2 voices, and was last updated by  Ian McNab 1 year, 10 months ago.

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    Ian McNab

    Until Leica started to sell 35mm cameras in 1925, most art photography had been done with view cameras. These comprised a box supported on a tripod, with a ground glass screen on the back on which the photographer, with his or her head shielded from the bright daylight under a large black cloth, looked at and focused the inverted image projected by the lens. This equipment had important implications for the visual design of photographs. Berenice Abbott says this about taking a photograph with a view camera:

    ‘With the image inverted we can compose more “abstractly”, in a sense that the distribution of lines of light and shade in the composition are seen fully… [W]e can, for the time being, forget the subject and think of its design.’ [1]

    Here is a picture taken with a view camera by the great American photographer, Walker Evans, in late-afternoon winter sunlight:

    Walker Evans: Detail of a Frame House in Ossining, New York, 1931


    And here’s how it would have looked to Evans as he framed the picture on the ground glass of his view camera:

    See how the horizontal arrangement of sections of the building, the patterns made by the fences on porch and balcony, and those made by the pillars and their shadows, stand out more clearly in the inverted image, and how Walker Evans has used these in the framing and visual design of the inverted picture.


    The sort of static, monumental beauty we see in pictures by Atget, Walker Evans and Ansel Adams is thus very different from pictures filled with fluid, transient movement that come from the hand-held 35mm Leicas of photojournalists like Cartier-Bresson, Kertész and Koudelka – a format that came to dominate photography in the years after the 1930s.

    Although Cartier-Bresson’s pictures generally have a more dynamic composition than those typical of the great view-camera photographers, it was his seemingly miraculous ability to replicate, in the 35mm frame of a hand-held Leica, the view camera’s control over the geometry of the visual design that caused his work to be held in such awe by his peers. It is therefore interesting to recall Cartier-Bresson’s somewhat startling habit of holding contact sheets and prints upside down to inspect them.

    Try inverting your pictures to see ‘the distribution of lines of light and shade in the composition’, ignoring the subject of the picture and thinking of its design, as Abbot indicated.


    [1] Berenice Abbott (1948) The View Camera Made Simple. Chicago: Ziff-Davis.



    50 years ago my “must have” camera was the Exakta Varex 2b, but, on a student’s budget, it was just a pipedream. The cheaper Exa was eventually to fall into the ownership of a close friend, so I did get a chance to play with that. The point is that these cameras were SLRs but had no pentaprisms (as standard anyway). The pentaprism is what sits in that hump at the top of the SLR, above the mirror box and its function is to turn the image, which is otherwise upside down and laterally inverted into a correctly orientated view.

    We put up with the considerable inconvenience of the upside-down view for the sake of using these cameras, which we held in great reverence.

    It was hopeless for anything which was likely to move but it did bring a new experience in terms of composition.

    I think part of the answer to why an upside down view helps (not in taking especially but in viewing the picture afterwards) lies in the way our brains perceive what we “see”. A large part of the brain is at work in “seeing” – it needs a lot of computer power! A lot of the processing is about recognition and the brain constantly draws conclusions about what things are – a fact that can be easily demonstrated in dozens of ways which we call optical illusions.

    Turning the picture upside down shakes up those perceptions makes the brain start construing the image all over again and draws attention to features in the picture which are both good (e.g. desirable form) and bad (blemishes you would not otherwise notice).

    Leaving a picture when you have finished it, returning to look at it afresh 24hrs later, works in a similar fashion.


    Ian McNab

    Ah, yes, the intiguing Exakta – I remember it well: the camera that cuts all you fingers off when you try to close the viewfinder lid!

    I do agree about the problem that our brains immediately start (and often go no further than) ‘deciding’ what a picture or viewfinder image is about, instead of carefully observing what’s actually there; and that viewing the image upside down is one way of discouraging this construing, so the brain can register pattern, form, etc. and not just content.



    Ian McNab

    Just for a bit of fun, here’s a famous one…


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