There can be no doubt, my Cirkut No. 6 Outfit draws attention wherever it goes. It is a beautiful thing to behold, this wood and brass camera perched atop its spindly wood tripod. And to witness it in motion, engine purring as the camera slowly rotates, is a mesmerizing experience. I see its effect on bystanders as I demonstrate its workings. I watch the giddiness of people, arranged in an arc around the camera, each waiting for the lens to swing around, to briefly point at them and capture their likeness as it continues its sweep across the group. It draws press attention too. The camera has appeared, along with me, in several newspaper articles. CBC television took notice as well, producing a lengthy documentary about my work with the Cirkut camera that was seen across Canada!
I was no less seduced. It is a remarkable event to be alone with the camera, standing on the flat prairie of Manitoba or alongside some wind-carved stone arch in Utah.
Time plays a significant role in Cirkut photography. Time to set up the camera, to compose the panorama, to load the film. All slow processes, requiring meticulous adjustments. Waiting for clouds to organize themselves, wind to abate, people to disburse. And then there is the exposure, perhaps a minute-long as the camera completes its rotation.
Arguably, seduction can be seen as a fleeting thing, an infatuation that is bound to pass. It takes hard work to maintain a relationship. And my Cirkut No. 6 Outfit was a hard mistress to please.
I had bought my Cirkut with no handbook. None existed. Ansel Adams never wrote a book called The Cirkut Camera. I quickly discovered that all I had was, well, a camera. There was no source for film. Instead rolls of 8” wide aerial camera film had to be sliced to size on a homemade jig, the film loaded onto homemade spools and the spools stored in homemade lightproof tubes. And film, being panchromatic and sensitive to all visible light, meant the entire film cutting and packaging process had to be accomplished in complete darkness and entirely by feel. Many other questions had to be resolved as well. How would I develop the negative? How would I print the negative?
The courtship lasted a year while I invented gadgets and developed techniques. It was a year before I felt completely comfortable using the camera. A year before I produced my first successful negative, printed my first technically competent print.
What followed was a flurry of productivity. Over the next five years, four photographic projects would be completed with the Cirkut.
The first project was In a Circle of Light (1989-90), consisting of 22 prints, each a 6¼” x 58” full-circle panorama. It is a far-reaching series of landscapes exploring the Canadian and U.S. midwest, stretching from Manitoba down to Texas. Lone figures disappear into the vast expanse of these scenes. They could be my wife, a friend or family. But most often that person is me, inserting myself into the scene while the camera makes its slow rotation. Pictures of me, taken with my time machine camera, lost in the wilderness.
The series was exhibited it its entirety in 1991 at Winnipeg’s Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Centre. The gallery also produced a handsome duotone catalogue for the show, unique in that its 8½” x 19” format gave space for the awkwardly long, thin images to comfortably spread across a single page.
In 1996-98, prints from this series were purchased and exhibited for Before the Land, Behind the Camera, a group show at the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography in Ottawa (since merged with the National Gallery, Ottawa). In 2014-15, the same pictures were included in the National Gallery’s A Clock for Seeing: Photography, Time and Motion. The show is currently (February 18 to June 18, 2017) on display at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton.
A second project, the Grasslands series from 1992-94, explores the prairie landscape from Manitoba to Alberta. A feature of both In A Circle Of Light and Grasslands is the incorporation of handwritten titles into the images. I see it as a reference to early 19C. photographers who would inscribe or paint titles directly onto their glass plate negatives and prints. Given that my Cirkut dates to 1915-17, the titles feel like a necessary evocation of those pioneering photographers.
My Cirkut photography took a different turn in 1993 with a third project, the Building Homes series, documenting Habitat for Humanity’s building of a neighbourhood of homes in Winnipeg’s north end. Twelve panoramas were taken throughout the construction process. The last is an ambitious full-circle shot of an estimated seven hundred volunteer builders. Well tucked into the crowd are the event’s benefactors, Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter
In the early summer of 1994, I completed a fourth project, Silver, a series of Cirkut panoramas and 35mm camera images documenting a Wally Byam Caravan Club Rally in Brandon, Manitoba. For over a month, Airstream trailer owners converged on a small patch of undeveloped prairie on the outskirts of Brandon. I had always been fascinated with the Airstream trailer as a symbol of mobile architecture and an enduring icon superb industrial design. The Brandon rally melded that interest with my ongoing study of the prairie landscape.
Grasslands and Silver were exhibited together as a solo show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 1997.
1997 also marked the end of my working relationship with the Cirkut camera. Just one year earlier I had met a new seductress, the Macintosh 6100 AV.
I had never owned a computer. I had no computer background. But I took to it immediately, mastering its quirks and possibilities with the same vigour I brought to the Cirkut. First came QuickTime VR, at the time a revolutionary new way of creating navigable panoramas. Then came M-tropolis, a sophisticated multimedia authoring tool. Both were challenging programs with steep learning curves. “Some coding experience required” might have been a useful warning on the package. Yet, within a year, I had created my first fully-realized, digital project, my Grasslands CD-ROM.
Set alongside framed Grassland prints in my 1997 show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery was a Mac computer. On its glowing screen was my Grasslands CD-ROM. The digitized versions of my Grassland prints could be navigated with a mouse, panned and zoomed, and clicked to reveal the sounds of wind or farm machinery or birds. Quotes from prairie authors would appear and disappear as the mouse moved over the screen.
1997 was a pivotal year in my transition from film-based to digital photography. A new world of photography awaited me. A story for another time.