Camera Tales: The Cambo 4” x 5” Monorail View Camera

Did this camera choose me or did I choose it? I can’t be sure. What I do see in the photos taken with my Cambo view camera is a wonderful synchronicity of photographer and machine.

I bought it used, in 1978. Found it advertised in the classified ads of the Winnipeg Free Press. At $300, including a high quality Rodenstock 210mm lens, it was a good deal for this university student. 

Mine is a slightly later iteration of the SuperCambo introduced in 1958 by Cambo BV, a Netherlands company founded in 1946. The SuperCambo had a grey hammertone finish typical of many industrial products of the post-war era. My Cambo has a more modern, black finish but otherwise similar to the 1958 version.

It’s generically classed as a large format view camera, meaning it uses large sheets of film, typically ranging from 4” x 5” (like mine) to 16” x 20”. View cameras come in various flavours, including field and press versions and are made with wood and brass or are all-steel. My Cambo is an aluminum technical or studio camera. It consists of two upright standards, or frames, mounted on a long 1” square aluminum monorail. The front standard holds a lens board and attached lens. The back standard includes the film-holder and ground glass viewing screen. A pleated leather bellows stretches between the front and back standards. Focussing is primarily accomplished by moving the two standards back and forth on the monorail.

Both the front and back standards are capable of a number of manipulations. The lens and film-holder can swing about their vertical axis or tilt up and down. Both movements are used to extend or reduce the plane of focus – the Scheimpflug principle – beyond what is possible using f/stops on a roll film camera lens.

The lens and film planes can be shifted up and down on their standards, a movement that is primarily used to control perspective. For example, tall buildings can be photographed with the lens shifted up, a movement that maintains the rectilinear quality of the building’s façade. The lens and film planes can also be shifted horizontally on the monorail, a movement helpful in composing a picture.

This is no ordinary camera. I like to think of it as a photo-taking lab instrument. In essence, its multiplicity of precise, controllable movements offers complete creative control over every aspect of the photographic experience. To a student of architecture, as I was at the time, the camera’s precision movements and total control over perspective were attractive. A good reason to buy the Cambo.

In 1978, I had no intentions of using it as a studio camera. My interests were in the field, photographing architecture and exploring the countryside as I had done with my 35mm Konica’s, for the Towards a Prairie Aesthetic project.

Unlike a 35mm camera, I cannot wander about with a huge view camera, look through a viewfinder, frame a shot, take the picture and move on. Pre-visualization is a necessary skill. I need to choose my viewpoint, consider what lens to use, imagine how the subject will be framed. All before the bulky camera is pulled out of its case, set up on a tripod, lens attached and image viewed on the ground glass.

Once I have staked out my camera station, set-up and taken that first look through the ground glass, my tripod position is tweaked and the camera levelled. Camera movements are adjusted, usually with vertical and lateral shifts of the front standard to adjust perspective and composition.

All this is accomplished with the lens aperture wide open while viewing a dull, upside-down image on the ground glass. In the great outdoors, this must be done under cover of a dark cloth that I pull over my head and the back of the camera to control external light as I examine the ground glass. The image is fine-focussed using a magnifying loupe held against the screen. Careful meter readings of shadows and highlights are taken with a Pentax Spotmeter. The aperture is closed down. The shutter speed is set. The lens is cocked.

I am ready to take a picture.

A film-holder is slid behind the spring-loaded ground glass frame. I wait, sometimes minutes, occasionally hours, for the sun to emerge, for clouds to position themselves artfully, for winds to abate. The moment arrives. The dark slide is pulled from the film-holder, exposing the film sheet to the black interior of the camera. I push down on the cable release button, listening for the seconds-long mechanical tune of the shutter opening and closing. The dark slide is pushed back into the film-holder, protecting the film and its latent image, waiting to to be revealed later in the darkroom.

Taking photos with a view camera is a contemplative, measured process.  Out there, on the Manitoba prairie, as I often was in those early years, a unique communion emerges between photographer, subject and camera. We are united by time on that volatile, endless plane. In front of me, a building or a town defies the ravages of harsh prairie realities. Beside me, a camera, with its deliberately slow set-up, sits perched on its tripod, waiting for the final push of a button. The photographer waits, watches clouds, listens to winds.

The work that flows from that relationship will sustain me for several years. In fact, I consider 1980 the start of my work as a thoroughly engaged photographer. The year I graduated from architecture. The year my photography with the Cambo took flight.

My first fully-formed project was Prairie Views, a study of architecture as it fit into the landscape of southern Manitoba. Concurrent with that was The Lake, a study of cottage life on Lake Winnipeg. Both projects led to several gallery shows, including Winnipeg’s Floating Gallery and the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Prints from the Prairie Views series were purchased by the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.

But more importantly, these two projects established two themes that would pervade my work in the following decades. First, the relationship of our built/manufactured/created/deteriorated world to the natural world. Work that began with Prairie Views. Second, a need to look beyond the single-frame view of the place I am temporarily occupying and experiencing. The Lake series started that process.

 

Cambo with vertical shifts.

Cambo with vertical shifts.

 

Cambo with front and rear tilts.

Cambo with front and rear tilts.

 

Cambo with front and rear swing movements.

Cambo with front and rear swing movements.

 

Cambo side elevation.

Cambo side elevation.

 

Cambo in photo-taking mode. The film holder is loaded behind the ground glass screen. The dark cloth isdraped over the monorail.

Cambo in photo-taking mode. The film holder is loaded behind the ground glass screen. The dark cloth is draped over the monorail.

 

Carman, Manitoba, from the Prairie Views Series (original 11" x 14" silver print on Oriental Seagull Paper), 1978

Carman, Manitoba, from the Prairie Views Series (original 11″ x 14″ silver print on Oriental Seagull Paper), 1978

 

The Lake 2, Panel One, from The Lake series (original 16" x 20" silver print on Oriental Seagull paper), 1983

The Lake 2, Panel One, from The Lake series (original 16″ x 20″ silver print on Oriental Seagull paper), 1983

 

The Lake 2, Panel Two, from The Lake series (original 16" x 20" silver print on Oriental Seagull paper), 1983

The Lake 2, Panel Two, from The Lake series (original 16″ x 20″ silver print on Oriental Seagull paper), 1983

 

The Lake 2, Panel Three, from The Lake series (original 16" x 20" silver print on Oriental Seagull paper), 1983

The Lake 2, Panel Three, from The Lake series (original 16″ x 20″ silver print on Oriental Seagull paper), 1983

 

The Lake 2, Panel Four, from The Lake series (original 16" x 20" silver print on Oriental Seagull paper), 1983

The Lake 2, Panel Four, from The Lake series (original 16″ x 20″ silver print on Oriental Seagull paper), 1983

 

The Lake 2, Panel Five, from The Lake series (original 16" x 20" silver print on Oriental Seagull paper), 1983

The Lake 2, Panel Five, from The Lake series (original 16″ x 20″ silver print on Oriental Seagull paper), 1983

 

Morden, Manitoba, from the Prairie Views Series (original 11" x 14" silver print on Oriental Seagull Paper), 1982

Morden, Manitoba, from the Prairie Views Series (original 11″ x 14″ silver print on Oriental Seagull Paper), 1982

 

Mariapolis, Manitoba, from the Prairie Views Series (original 11" x 14" silver print on Oriental Seagull Paper), 1982

Mariapolis, Manitoba, from the Prairie Views Series (original 11″ x 14″ silver print on Oriental Seagull Paper), 1982

 

 

 

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