Camera Tales: Seduced by the Cirkut

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.

 

Samples of original Cirkut film spools (back) and my handmade spools (front)

Samples of original Cirkut film spools (back) and my handmade spool (front)

My device for cutting an 8

My device for cutting an 8″ wide roll of Ilford HP-5 Aerial film into 6½” x 60″ pieces of film. These pieces are then rolled onto my handmade film spools and put into lightproof sleeves, also handmade. Bear in mind that this entire operation needed to be done in complete darkness to avoid fogging the film. Everything was designed to be done by feel.

Once the film had been exposed in the camera, it was brought back into my darkroom where, in complete darkness, the film was unrolled from its spool, laid on the wood cradle and pushed down into the loading tube (right) with the yellow-handled rod. The film was hand-fed into the developing tube (left), the loading tube removed and a cap put on the end of the developing tube. Only then could the light be turned on.

Once the film had been exposed in the camera, it was brought back into my darkroom where, in complete darkness, the film was unrolled from its spool, laid on the wood cradle and pushed down into the loading tube (right) with the yellow-handled rod. The film was hand-fed into the developing tube (left), the loading tube removed and a cap put on the end of the developing tube. Only then could the light be turned on.

The developing tube, loaded with film, is position on rollers as shown. Developer is poured into the the left end of the tube and rotated on the rollers for the required time. The developer is then dumped into the sink and the tube filled with stop bath. The process is repeated with fixer. After that, the negative is pulled out of the tube and washed in the tray seen behind the tube. The tube is ordinary ABS sewer pipe.

The developing tube, loaded with film, is position on rollers as shown. Developer is poured into the the left end of the tube and rotated on the rollers for the required time. The developer is then dumped into the sink and the tube filled with stop bath. The process is repeated with fixer. After that, the negative is pulled out of the tube and washed in the tray seen behind the tube. The developing tube is is constructed with ordinary ABS sewer pipe and fittings.

To make a print from a negative, the printing paper and film is loaded into a hand-built contact printing frame, seen on the back wall. Light is projected from my Omega enlarger (upper left corner) down onto a front surface mirror and bounced toward the contact printing frame.

To make a print from a negative, the printing paper and film is loaded into a hand-built contact printing frame, seen on the back wall. Light is projected from my Omega enlarger (upper left corner) down onto a front surface mirror and bounced toward the contact printing frame.

The exposed paper is laid out in this hand-built rocking tray. Chemicals are poured in, the tray rocked for the required time and the chemicals dumped out a drain on the left end. This is repeated for the developer, stop bath, fixer, hypo-clearing agent and selenium toning. Washing is done in the same tray with a built-in washing attachment (attached to the green hose).

The exposed paper is laid out in this hand-built rocking tray. Chemicals are poured in, the tray rocked for the required time and the chemicals drained through a pipe on the left end. This process is repeated for the developer, stop bath, fixer, hypo-clearing agent and selenium toning. Washing is done in the same tray with a built-in washing attachment (attached to the green hose).

 

 

 

In Prairie Grasses, South Dakota (from the series In A Circle Of Light)

In Prairie Grasses, South Dakota (from the series In A Circle Of Light)

Detail, In Prairie Grasses, South Dakota (from the series In A Circle Of Light)

Detail, In Prairie Grasses, South Dakota (from the series In A Circle Of Light)

 

Warm Spring Sun at Day's End (from the series In A Circle Of Light)

Warm Spring Sun at Day’s End (from the series In A Circle Of Light)

Detail, Warm Spring Sun at Day's End (from the series In A Circle Of Light)

Detail, Warm Spring Sun at Day’s End (from the series In A Circle Of Light)

 

End of Trail at Last Light, Texas (from the series In A Circle Of Light)

End of Trail at Last Light, Texas (from the series In A Circle Of Light)

Detail, End of Trail at Last Light, Texas (from the series In A Circle Of Light)

Detail, End of Trail at Last Light, Texas (from the series In A Circle Of Light)

 

Inside Tower Arch, Overlooking Utah (from the series In A Circle Of Light)

Inside Tower Arch, Overlooking Utah (from the series In A Circle Of Light)

Detail, Inside Tower Arch, Overlooking Utah (from the series In A Circle Of Light)

Detail, Inside Tower Arch, Overlooking Utah (from the series In A Circle Of Light)

 

Perfect Moment by a Canyon Pool, Utah (from the series In A Circle Of Light)

Perfect Moment by a Canyon Pool, Utah (from the series In A Circle Of Light)

Detail, Perfect Moment by a Canyon Pool, Utah (from the series In A Circle Of Light)

Detail, Perfect Moment by a Canyon Pool, Utah (from the series In A Circle Of Light)

 

Catalogue for In A Circle Of Light at the Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Centre, Winnipeg.

Catalogue for In A Circle Of Light at the Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Centre, Winnipeg.

 

 

Monday, July 19. The wall sheathing is on. (from the series Building Homes)

Monday, July 19. The wall sheathing is on. (from the series Building Homes)

Detail. Monday, July 19. The wall sheathing is on. (from the series Building Homes)

Detail. Monday, July 19. The wall sheathing is on. (from the series Building Homes)

 

Monday, July 19. Volunteers get an early morning start. (from the series Building Homes)

Monday, July 19. Volunteers get an early morning start. (from the series Building Homes)

Detail, Monday, July 19. Volunteers get an early morning start. (from the series Building Homes)

Detail, Monday, July 19. Volunteers get an early morning start. (from the series Building Homes)

 

Friday, July 23. All 700-plus volunteers at the end of the project. (from the series Building Homes)

Friday, July 23. All 700-plus volunteers at the end of the project. (from the series Building Homes)

Detail. Friday, July 23. All 700-plus volunteers at the end of the project. (from the series Building Homes)

Detail. Friday, July 23. All 700-plus volunteers at the end of the project. (from the series Building Homes)

 

 

We Rest During a Walk Across Frenchman River Valley, Grasslands National Park (from the series Grasslands)

We Rest During a Walk Across Frenchman River Valley, Grasslands National Park (from the series Grasslands)

Detail, We Rest During a Walk Across Frenchman River Valley, Grasslands National Park (from the series Grasslands)

Detail, We Rest During a Walk Across Frenchman River Valley, Grasslands National Park (from the series Grasslands)

 

On the Whetter Family Prairie, Manitoba (from the series Grasslands)

On the Whetter Family Prairie, Manitoba (from the series Grasslands)

Detail. On the Whetter Family Prairie, Manitoba (from the series Grasslands)

Detail. On the Whetter Family Prairie, Manitoba (from the series Grasslands)

 

Alone with an Endless View, Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan (from the series Grasslands)

Alone with an Endless View, Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan (from the series Grasslands)

Detail. Alone with an Endless View, Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan (from the series Grasslands)

Detail. Alone with an Endless View, Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan (from the series Grasslands)

 

Walt and Marjorie Larson's Ranch, Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan (from the series Grasslands)

Walt and Marjorie Larson’s Ranch, Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan (from the series Grasslands)

Detail, Walt and Marjorie Larson's Ranch, Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan (from the series Grasslands)

Detail, Walt and Marjorie Larson’s Ranch, Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan (from the series Grasslands)

 

Life and Death Under a Restless Sky, Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan (from the series Grasslands)

Life and Death Under a Restless Sky, Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan (from the series Grasslands)

Detail. Life and Death Under a Restless Sky, Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan (from the series Grasslands)

Detail. Life and Death Under a Restless Sky, Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan (from the series Grasslands)

 

A Good Place for Reading, the tall grass prairie at Oak Hammock Marsh, Manitoba (from the series Grasslands)

A Good Place for Reading, the tall grass prairie at Oak Hammock Marsh, Manitoba (from the series Grasslands)

Detail. A Good Place for Reading, the tall grass prairie at Oak Hammock Marsh, Manitoba (from the series Grasslands)

Detail. A Good Place for Reading, the tall grass prairie at Oak Hammock Marsh, Manitoba (from the series Grasslands)

 

 

June 4, 1994. The volunteer survey crew and dog. (from the series Silver)

June 4, 1994. The volunteer survey crew and dog. (from the Silver series)

Detail. June 4, 1994. The volunteer survey crew and dog. (from the series Silver)

Detail. June 4, 1994. The volunteer survey crew and dog. (from the Silver series)

 

June 12, 1994. After the first Sunday church service at the tent. (from the Silver series)

June 12, 1994. After the first Sunday church service at the tent. (from the Silver series)

Detail. June 12, 1994. After the first Sunday church service at the tent. (from the Silver series)

Detail. June 12, 1994. After the first Sunday church service at the tent. (from the Silver series)

 

June 27, 1994. Two young caravaners from Virginia. (from the Silver series)

June 27, 1994. Two young caravaners from Virginia. (from the Silver series)

Detail. June 27, 1994. Two young caravaners from Virginia. (from the Silver series)

Detail. June 27, 1994. Two young caravaners from Virginia. (from the Silver series)

 

June 28, 1994. Members of the Vintage Airstream Club. (from the Silver series)

June 28, 1994. Members of the Vintage Airstream Club. (from the Silver series)

Detail. June 28, 1994. Members of the Vintage Airstream Club. (from the Silver series)

Detail. June 28, 1994. Members of the Vintage Airstream Club. (from the Silver series)

 

At the dog show. (from the Silver series)

At the dog show. (from the Silver series)

 

Plastic jug ornament. (from the Silver series)

Plastic jug ornament. (from the Silver series)

 

Betty Cooper in her Bambi. (from the Silver series)

Betty Cooper in her Bambi. (from the Silver series)

 

Old friends meet again in Brandon. (from the Silver series)

Old friends meet again in Brandon. (from the Silver series)

 

 

Installation view, Grasslands and Silver, Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1997. On the walls are prints from the Grasslands series. On the computer is the Grasslands CD-ROM.

Installation view, Grasslands and Silver, Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1997. On the walls are prints from the Grasslands series. On the computer is the Grasslands CD-ROM.

 

 

 

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