Avedon's 8X10 portraits-what lens???

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Avedon's portraits in "In the American West" were taken with an 8X10 camera close to his subjects (so close he could almost touch them). This would suggest that he was not using a very long lens (300? 360?) and certainly not the traditional 1 1/2 to 2 times normal focal length lens for portraiture. Can anyone give me insight into his technique and lens selection? Regards from Toronto, Mark Nowaczynski

-- Mark Nowaczynski (archivalprints@home.com), July 30, 1999


I have no idea as to the answer to your question! (well, maybe that's not true either. I seem to have an opinion on everything these days. I feel that this is a result of the aging process!) How about that as a wimpy answer to your question, but I have another purpose! I don't know if you are asking this question from having seen the book, or if you have seen the original exibition prints. About 14 years ago I worked in Atlanta, and at the High Museum, at one time, there was an Ansel Adams exhibit, a W. Eugene Smith exhibit, and the Avedon "In the American West" exhibit. The Avedon exhibit just was revelatory!! The presentation of the photographs, mounted on brushed aluminum was, to my taste, wonderful! I immediately gained a huge new respect for Avedon's work and vision. Other than my homage to Avedon for this body of work, and in answer to your question--My feeling is that this was probably produced with a 240mm Symmar (total guess on my part), but I have used this lens and found it to be magnificent. I would dearly love to see the exhibition of these photographs again. The book is nice, but the scale of the museum exhibition is truly awsome! As an aside, to someone who seems to be discerning, look into the works of Clarence John Laughlin. He was a man who couldn't print worth a crap, but his works are beautiful.

stay in touch--I love this computer stuff--I have met a lot of people on-line who have, to some extent re-energized me.



-- fred deaton (fdeaton@airnet.net), July 31, 1999.

Whether this response is helpful probably depends on how badly you want to pursue the answers to your questions. FWIW, several years ago an instructor in a photography class showed us a long, maybe two hour, videotape about Richard Avedon's career. I believe the tape originated as a PBS or some other network television program. It included a segment on his Western portraits and as I recall it showed him making some of the portraits. If you can find this video tape it probably would give you some idea of his techniques. Calumet and B&H both have a pretty extensive library of photography related video tapes so they might be good places at which to start.

-- Brian Ellis (beellis@gte.net), July 31, 1999.

The March/April 1994 issue of "American Photo" (Volume 5, Number 2) had a feature story about Richard Avedon, which included a section about his portrait work. On page 81 of that issue an article regarding Avedon's technique states, "For 8 x 10 work, which is done with either a 360 mm f/6.8 Schneider Symmar-S or a 360 mm f/6.3 Fujinon-W lens, Avedon relies on an aging Sinar P1; on location, a collapsible Deardorff wooden field camera fills in for the Sinar. Lighting--if not daylight--is always strobe, powered by 2,000 watt-second Elinchrom packs." There is also a diagram in the article illustrating placement of the lights.

-- Jay Packer (jaymp@earthlink.net), July 31, 1999.

Perhaps this is a good place to ask what I am doing wrong: When I use my 8x10 to take portraits the images are so crisp that they are unflattering no matter HOW beautiful the subject is. I get an almost eerie image, as if it is more crisp and detailed than real-life.

How do people like Avedon, Sturges and other large camera users get around this?

-- Erik Ryberg (ryberg@seanet.com), July 31, 1999.

Erik --

"I get an almost eerie image, as if it is more crisp and detailed than real-life."

Why don't you just GO WITH IT!? Photography is supposed to reveal, not conceal, though you'd hardly know it by looking at most photography these days. Who says portraiture has to be flattering? That might be true if you're doing commercial work...but art?! Look at the portraits of Francis Bacon. Well, I demand the same right to look into a person's soul. Only I do it with a camera rather than paint and brushes.

Susan Sontag, in her book "On Photography", says that we (the human race) would trade all the paintings and drawings of Shakespeare for one good photograph. Wouldn't we (the human race) like to have that photo as sharp and detailed as possible? Well, I'm not much of a Shakespeare person, but if I could travel back in time and photograph, say, Beethoven, I would do it with the most revealing technique I possible could. Eerie? Crisp and detailed? YOU BET!

To see specifically what I'm talking about, view my portraits of AIDS dissidents at: http://www.ravenvision.com/rvafaceofaids.htm


-- Peter Hughes (leonine@redshift.com), August 02, 1999.

Many thanks to all for your helpful replies. I use my Rolleiflex (6X6, 80mm lens) extensively for portraiture and have grown weary of the misinformed telling me that a normal lens is not suitable for portraiture. Irving Penn and Richard Avedon used the Rollei TLR extensively for portraiture with an 80mm lens. After 1938 Imogen Cunningham virtually abandoned large format using a Rollei TLR instead. Dorothea Lange did all her Farm Security Administration work in the 1930's with a Rollei TLR and a 4X5 Grafflex. Cecil Beaton and Helmut Newton used the Rollei with normal lens for portraiture as did Walker Evans for his series of Chicago candid street shots in the mid 1940's. Diane Arbus did most of her portraits with a Rollei TLR and an 80mm lens as did her mentor Lisette Model. The list goes on... Avedon's portraits in "In the American West" were apparently taken with an 8X10 and a 360mm "almost normal" lens and are stunningly revealing. If the normal lens was adequate for the requirements of some of the world's most talented photographers, I suppose I can learn to live with its 'limitations'. I have been making platinum prints of my own small and medium format work using enlarged negatives. I have also printed other people's 8X10 negatives and have fallen in love with the possibilities offered by large original negatives. I am currently making a series of portraits of my housebound elderly and palliative patients (I am a family physician who actually makes housecalls). I shiver to think of how detailed and revealing and ultimately powefull these environmental portraits would be using an 8X10 camera and a 300mm lens. One could almost see into the soul... Regards from Toronto. Mark Nowaczynski.

-- Mark Nowaczynski (archivalprints@home.com), August 02, 1999.

Mark - Just a bit of minutia: Diane Arbus actually used a Mamaiya two and a quarter, and had several lenses [actually lens pairs since it's a TLR]. This doesn't diminish your point any, it's just trivial pursuit material!

-- Dick Fish (dfish@javanet.com), August 02, 1999.

Dear Dick, I was unaware of the use of the Mamiya TLR by Diane Arbus. However in the Aperture monograph titled "Diane Arbus- Magazine Work" there is an essay by Thomas Southall (The Magazine Years 1960-1971) in which he states (pg. 159): "In 1962 and 1963, the magazines Arbus had been working for began to discover that her real strength lay in portraiture. By this time, she had abandoned the 35mm in favor of the Rolleiflex, a twin-lens reflex camera that was the standard tool of the studio photographer. Its 2 1/4-inch square negative was larger than the 35mm negative and was capable of rendering the greater detail and clarity she was beginning to search for in her work. The more passive square format seemed to lend itself to her direct, central compositions. Furthermore, the Rolleiflex, held at waist level, had the advantage of permitting her to maintain a more natural contact with her subjects and to see in reality, rather than only through the lens, what she was photographing." Southall references this to comments made by Arbus which were published elsewhere. Sorry, but graduate school taught me not to make assertions I could not defend.

-- Mark Nowaczynski (archivalprints@home.com), August 02, 1999.

I answered Mark directly from the office earlier today, but just to keep everyone current with the discussion, I'll do it again. Yes Arbus did use a Rollei when she and her husband were in the fashion photography business, but when she was on her own, doing the photographs for which she became famous, it was a Mamyia 6x6 that she used - a TLR with interchangable lenses.

-- Dick Fish (dfish@javanet.com), August 03, 1999.

Man, I get the biggest kick out of Richard Avedon. You got your answer earlier so I won't be redundant. 8X10 wasn't big enough for me so I went to 11X14. Still, the clarity you can get with these large negatives is really astounding. I've been spooked by it as well. Have a nice d

-- Ron Cowie (roncow@aol.com), August 05, 1999.

From an optical standpoint there's certainly nothing wrong with using a "normal" lens for portraiture. The principal reason longer lenses are usually suggested is to be able to get a head and shoulders shot without having to get so close that you make the subject uncomforatable.

If you're Cecil Beaton or Richard Avedon et al I guess the subjects wouldn't care if you put the camera on their nose. If you're Joe Blow it might bother them.

-- Brian Ellis (beellis@gte.net), August 05, 1999.

Avendon's 8x10 portraits

BrianThe reason longer than normal length lens are used is not because you stay further back to get head and shoulders-it is so the perspective of the face will be flattened and look more "realistic" not elongated in a forward direction as can happen with a wide-angle lens. The use of a normal lens is generally not recommended for portraits for that reason, althyough of course, wonderful portraits can be made with any length lens. It isn't the lens that makes the photograph, it is the photographer. I have made portraits with lenses from 10" to 24".

Michael A. Smith

-- Michael A. Smith (michael@michaelandpaula.com), August 06, 1999.

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