The photographs are stunning not only because they have been beautifully seen and superbly printed by one of the great photographers and printers of our time, but also because they are tack sharp, making full use of all the superb optics on John's assorted large-format cameras.
There is a measure of hyper-realism in Sexton's work just as there is in that of many other great view camera landscape photographers, the best known of whom was Ansel Adams. This is because in most cases the zone of focus in their photographs goes from the near foreground to infinity, a trick our human eyes can't quite accomplish.
To achieve this, these photographers use the perspective controls on their view cameras to maximum advantage, and routinely work at close to pinhole apertures to insure minimal distortion of light rays as they pass through the lens, thereby maximizing image sharpness. (This is the same reason we squint to see things better the smaller the "aperture" of our eye, the sharper things appear.)
In photography, especially in large format, working with such small apertures often requires shooters to work at seconds-long and sometimes minutes-long exposures. In turn, this means the photographers must work in almost monk-like silence and tranquillity, to minimize any possibility of camera shake during the exposure that could ruin the image and force the photographer to start all over again.
In other words, not your basic grab shot.
So when I received John Sexton's gorgeous new book Places of Power last year and set about the enjoyable task of reviewing it, I was struck (make that damn near struck dumb) by the following technical note accompanying his striking series of photographs made in power plants:
"Upon entering a coal-burning power plant one is quickly struck by the fact that there is coal dust everywhere. This is not because of lack of maintenance or cleaning; it is simply a side effect of moving nearly one million tons of coal through the plant annually…. Yet in the photographs everything looks so clean almost sterile. The coal dust is camouflaged by the photographic process: since it is 'as black as coal' and doesn't reflect light, the dust disappears in the images."
That was fine as far as it went: a neat bit of photographic esoterica, pointing up photography's unnerving way of sometimes masking the truth before our eyes. But then came the clincher:
"As unexpected as the extremes of noise heat and dust was the considerable vibration I encountered. I still remember how anxious I was when I first set up my view camera in the turbine room. The entire building was shaking so much that the bubble level on the camera was quivering. Fortunately, the camera, the turbine, and the building were vibrating in synchronization, and the negatives were tack sharp." (Emphasis added.)
Now, I was familiar with the theory, but the final application blew me away: there it was before me a sharp picture made with a camera that was shaking so violently at the time of exposure that it caused a bubble level to quiver.
But in fact, the same theory at work here is the one that lets us make sharp pictures when our cameras are anything but tripod-steady. Take panning.
Following a fast-moving object or person with your camera might seem counter-intuitive to good picture-making technique until you realize that your camera is moving at the same rate of speed as your subject. That's why people in a moving train appear to be stationary when viewed from a parallel train going in the same direction at the same speed. Obviously panning will blur your background to a fare-thee-well, but in most cases that's the effect you desire: enhancing the look of speed while your subject is rendered fairly sharply.
But let's say you want real sharpness. That's when you can use the same panning technique, only this time augmented by flash to freeze your subject even as your camera is moving.
The most bizarre thing about even the most basic flash unit is that the duration of the flash the time its output is at maximum brightness is incredibly short, far shorter than even your highest shutter-speed setting. That means that you can, in effect, make two pictures at once. The first will be a slow shutter available-light picture; the second made at the same time will be a high-speed flash picture with the flash acting almost as a second shutter, capable of freezing motion cold.
The technique I'm describing is best used indoors or outside when the light is not at its most intense. For example, at an indoor track meet, let's say you want to capture a runner, but also give the feeling of speed as he or she goes past you. Working with flash, if you normally would shoot, say, at f 5.6 at 1/60th or 1/125th of a second, try setting your shutter speed way down to 1/8th or a 1/15th of a second, then pan with the runner and make your picture as he or she goes by you. [Note: for best results, you should use a camera that affords "rear curtain flash sync." This will insure that the blur of motion will be behind your sharply rendered subject, not in front a much more natural looking effect.]
In the accompanying picture, of our late golden retriever Daily News in a moving car, I 'm shooting flash at 1/15th of a second. See how the background blurs and how sharp every whisker is on our girl's snout.
Try it. You'll be surprised, I think, at how sharply the flash will capture your subject.
Almost as surprised as John Sexton was when he made his pictures with a vibrating view camera.
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.