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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

'Magical' Pix With Hassy's SWC/M

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

I am the first to concede: It takes guts to spend on one camera the amount of money that, under the right circumstances, could buy you a car.

Not only that, but for that amount of change, you might reasonably expect the camera to have a few bells and whistles-or at least have interchangeable lenses and maybe aperture priority and a motor drive.

But the Hasselblad Superwide C/M that occupies a place of honor in my medium-format-camera bag probably would look at such arriviste doodads as program mode with the same disdain that a Siamese cat might show a dinner offering of Beefaroni.

After all, my anthropomorphic camera might say: I might have cost five-grand-plus when I was new, but with the lens I'm toting I'm cheap at twice the price.

And damned if my talking Hasselblad wouldn't be right.

My first exposure to the wonders of this frankly bizarre camera came maybe 15 years ago at the Maine Photographic Workshops, where I studied location lighting and portraiture under Neil Selkirk. Among the wonderful black-and-white images Neil showed us from his portfolio were a series of shots made in the West, of cattle being branded. One picture showed a steer's head straining against the ground, a cowboy's boot on its neck. The animal's eye is wide with fear and rage as the branding iron nears. I couldn't believe how Neil could have gotten so close to this animal to make such a powerful image.

The sharpness was wonderful, but the lack of distortion in his images was equally surprising‘ as was the huge depth of field. The camera, Neil said, was a Hasselblad Superwide C/M, arguably one of the oddest cameras of its kind. After all, he noted, this was just a very wide-angle camera – in fact, it was more a very expensive lens cobbled onto a Hassy film back. Nothing more.

For example, Neil went on, the Superwide has no interchangeable lenses, and you can't even look through the lens when you make a shot. And of course, it cost an arm and a leg. [Current list: around $5,600.]

The only thing the Hasselblad Superwide does, Neil Selkirk told us, "is take magical pictures."

And he is right. I bought my own Superwide a few years later – an older version Hasselblad Superwide C. I got it used and got a great deal on it, so that I was not unhappy about shelling out an additional $400 to have the camera professionally modified into a Superwide C/M that was able to take a Polaroid back. [Note: Used Superwides can be found at prices ranging from about $2,500 to $4,500, depending on their age, condition and features such as the ability to take a Pola-back.]

I have used this camera in all kinds of portrait situations – and have gotten some of my best images when I broke the rules a little. The fact that this camera does not enable you to focus through the lens, or focus conventionally at all – it has only a wide-angle viewfinder above the lens – almost forces you to try shooting from the hip, or to try some other unusual angle [holding the camera at arm's length down, by a steer's head, for example]. And even when trying such unconventional applications, the huge depth of field of the 38mm Zeiss Biogon lens assures that almost any picture will be acceptably sharp.

For more conventional uses, the camera comes equipped with a circular bubble level that is visible when sighting through the viewfinder. And when the camera is held absolutely level, that amazing Biogon lens shows absolutely no distortion! [This almost seems like a photographic parlor trick, but it's true.] For example, when I did the portrait of author Stephen King that is in Down East Maine/A World Apart I shot him in the Little League Stadium in Bangor that he and his wife Tabitha helped build. Though there are light poles and fences all around, none shows the barrel distortion so common in ultra-wide angle shots.

Such a feature also makes this camera a natural for certain kinds of interior photography. Though our specialty is location portraiture, Judy and I have done our share of interior work, for architects, interior designers and contractors. If I were to do this kind of work all the time, I'm sure I would work primarily with a 4x5 view camera, but the Hassy SWC/M always would be in my bag for those special applications when, for example, a corner was just too tight a fit for a bulky view camera.

By contrast, breaking the "rules" to actually accentuate distortion can have its rewards too. When I shot a magazine layout at the Kennedy Center in Washington – of a man in the foreground of the Grand Foyer – I deliberately shot from a slightly low angle to make my subject loom dramatically and let the lines converge, also dramatically, in the background. I also loved how everything was in sharp focus front to back.

As you might expect from the above, the SWC/M is a favorite of wedding photographers who love the way it allows for gorgeous environmental shots of bride and groom in a church or synagogue. The fact that the camera is so portable and easy to use is especially useful at these times, when there often is precious little time to make an image.

The new incarnation of the SWC/M, the 903 SWC/M, retains all of the "magic" of its predecessors – in fact the changes in it are largely cosmetic. But as my old teacher Neil Selkirk might say, if you've already developed a magical camera, why change it?

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 fvanriper@aol.com.

Frank Van Riper
Portrait of author Stephen King, made with Hasselblad Superwide, shows absolutely no distortion since the camera was held precisely level, as recommended.

Frank Van Riper
This environmental portrait at the JFK Center becomes more striking when the Hassy Superwide camera is tilted up to make the subject loom dramatically, and make the lines converge.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

The Perfect Camera System

The Odd Genius Who Froze Motion

The Day I Shot Aaron and DiMaggio

When Technology Weakens Technique

The Ultimate Point n' Shoot

Picturing New York One Face at a Time

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