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Burnett's 4x5: Covering Politics the Hard Way

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

At 57, David Burnett, is a renowned photojournalist who has worked in 60 countries and has covered presidential campaigns and Olympic games for the past three decades. He also co-founded the famed Contact Press Images agency that includes such other high-wattage photo luminaries as Don McCullin, Sebastiao Salgado, Alon Reininger and Annie Leibovitz, to name but a handful.

Burnett keeps calling himself an old man, which I don't appreciate since, with birthdates just days apart, we are almost exactly the same age. He keeps saying that one day he'll slow down a bit.

Which flies in the face of the fact that, for the past six months or so, David Burnett has been covering the 2004 presidential campaign lugging the photographic equivalent of a box of rocks.


Dave, who never met a camera system he didn't like – or couldn't master and produce great images with – is now covering the men who would be president with a brace of ancient 4x5 Speed Graphic press cameras – and the occasional medium format Rolleiflex and Holga. He was a familiar sight on the trail four years ago with his plastic square-format Holgas, and in fact, made one of the best images of the 2000 campaign with it: a picture of Al Gore on the stump, stemwinding in shirtsleeve shortly before Election Day – as ominous clouds loom overhead.

[As for using a Rollei, the prize for retro groundbreaking here must go to former Newsweek shooter Arthur Grace, who in 1988 did a stunning series of available light black and white portraits that ran big in the magazine and that ultimately became the classic book, Choose Me.]

So, it stands to reason that in 2004 someone like Dave Burnett, looking for new alternative photographic kicks, would gravitate to the Graphic.

For those too young to remember these gorgeous behemoths, the Speed Graphic, and the similar Crown Graphic and Graflex, were large format "press" cameras – rigid 4x5 view cameras, with limited tilts and swings – that were most often meant to be used handheld, as opposed to on a tripod. They used 4x5 film in holders – two sheets to a holder. And back in the old days (we are talking the 1920s-50s) the photographers had to load their own film, in the dark, of course.

Speed Graphics were bulky, unwieldy and, by comparison to today's digitals, heavy as lead. But that great big negative – from the comparatively slow bxw films of the era – produced some simply gorgeous photographs of unbelievable sharpness and tonal range. To see these cameras in use, go to the video store and rent "King Kong," the classic 1930s monster flick about the monkey that ate Manhattan (or crushed a lot of it, anyway.) The guys who set the great ape off on his midtown rampage were press photogs carrying Speed Graphics. The exploding flashbulbs from their big, bulky cameras made Kong, well, testy.

Dave Burnett had been familiar with 4x5 press cameras for decades, but never really became expert in their use until recently. "I bought my first Speed Graphic from a friend at the Salt Lake Tribune a dozen years ago when they were cleaning out their locker, and I was adding to mine," he noted in a recent e-mail from the campaign trail.

Still, just being familiar with what this system could do, Burnett said, "provided me with an additional understanding of...how it differs from 35mm (and now, digital). The first thing you notice is that with a 'normal' lens of 127mm or 135mm, 'Normal' takes on a slightly different look. The added focal lengths (and with longer lenses... a 270mm, for example, which is equivalent to a 90mm) you have a narrower focusing field, and the pictures start to just LOOK a little different. I have been influenced by, among others, the wonderful Peruvian photographer Martin Chambi, whose early 20th century documentation of Cuzco (done in glass plates.. 5x7 and larger) is just sublime. More than once I have walked into my lab in Arlington and asked: 'How can we get pictures that look like THIS!?' No obvious answers were forthcoming, but the fact that I so enjoyed pictures from the 20s, 30s...made me continue in my pursuit to try and expand the way I was working..."

Burnett noted that he had "shot bits and pieces" with the 4x5, mainly using Polaroid's Type 55 positive/negative instant film in his commercial work "when I wanted a diversion from the usual 35mm (which was 95% of what I did.)"

Then last spring, he said, "having decided not to go to Iraq, I tried doing the D.C. side of the war, (Rumsfeld, President Bush, etc., etc.) and doing some work with my Speed Graphic. There were a couple of nice images and it kept my interest up, even as I found a very clean Speed Graphic and matching Aero Ektar lens from the mother lode of all good gear, eBay."

So the seed started to germinate, especially after Burnett saw the atmospheric available light bxw images he was getting (see the Rumsfeld testimony picture.) Where four years ago Dave was known as the guy shooting the presidential race with a little toy camera, this time he decided to expand his repertoire (not to mention his equipment cases) by going to 4x5 as well.

"I started shooting pictures, and sending an occasional image to the editors at Time, Newsweek, US News, and our European agents, with the note 'I know you probably won't be able to run this picture, but I wanted you to see what I was up to....'" But Time loved what Dave sent in and within a short while Burnett was off on his first campaign trip: the Howard Dean "Sleepless Summer Tour" of ten cities in four days in late August. Through it all, Burnett carried "two Speed Graphics, and a Super D Graflex - the one with the chimney viewfinder for seeing through the lens. Take a tip from me. Don't carry more than ONE of these cameras at a time...."

[Note to Dave: Don't worry.]

The images Dave got – and still is getting – are gorgeous, with all of the wonderful tonal range and modeling that available light photography affords. In addition, the much shallower depth of focus of the 4x5 camera helps Burnett to isolate his subject dramatically. At the same time, the formal squareness of his Rollei work (see the Clark and Dean pictures) reinforce the idea that here is someone who is taking a little more time to make a picture – not just take a picture.

"It takes a while to get it, and a long while to get it right," Dave said, "and above all, it gives you an appreciation you never before understood for our photographic ancestors, who worked daily with this gear shooting a minimum of film and creating that photographic history we enjoy today."

"It makes you want to treat all your cameras like a press camera: Make every frame count. Don't just lay down on the auto-focus and shutter buttons and drill twenty images when one will do. It will definitely make you a more thoughtful, precise photographer."

"One of my favorite stories is about [the late] Frank Cancellare, the curmudgeonly gifted UPI photographer who, after the agencies switched from Speed Graphics to 35mm, kept in [his] head the way [he] had worked for 20 years. Cancie, getting off a Presidential plane unloaded his 20-exposure roll from his Nikon, looked for the UPI courier in the crowd, tossed him the film and said 'Print 'em both, kid.'

"Would that we were all that self-possessed."

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Spencer Green
The AP's Spencer Green caught famed photojournalist David Burnett using his bulky but beautiful Speed Graphic during a campaign rally this year. Dave, now 57, likens his visage to that of Ichabod Crane in 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.'

©David Burnett/Contact
This dramatic image of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld at the witness table to defend the war in Iraq helped convince Burnett that he should take the Speed Graphic on the campaign trail.

©David Burnett/Contact
Sen. John Edwards woos a crowd in Iowa before the caucuses. Note how the 4x5 camera's shallow depth of focus isolates Edwards.

©David Burnett/Contact
Working on the fly with a square format Rolleiflex, Burnett was able to capture this quiet moment between Gen. Wesley Clark and a factory worker – so unlike the average campaign shot.

©David Burnett/Contact
The formality of square format lends a dramatic quality to this wonderful available light portrait of a pre-scream Howard Dean.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Leica's Digilux 2: The 'Analog' Digital

Bar-Hopping with Mario: Pix 'In an Easy Way'

The Available Light Wedding

Tiny Digitals: When Smaller is Better

One Photographer's Return to Film

Creating the Decisive Moment