Friday, September 19, 2014

Medium Format Cameras for Street Photography?

Jesse and Ayreene, Photographed by Charlie Arnhold
Mamiya Universal Press (MUP), Mamiya Sekor 100mm f3.5 Lens
Kodak TMax 400 Film
Of course, street photography started with the camera technology of the times. It's difficult, and not so important, to pinpoint exactly when that happened, but certainly a lot of street photography was done in the days when the Graflex 4x5 camera was the main game in town. Later, street photography was largely associated with 35mm cameras, and small 35mm rangefinders like the Leica and Contax in particular. Today, smaller and smaller high quality digital cameras are playing their role, as are smart phones.
So, can you really shoot street photographs with medium format cameras? Of course you can. In fact, one generation that I skipped over in the paragraph above is that of the twin lens reflex (TLR), led by the Rolleiflex. As you can see above, my friend and mentor Charlie Arnhold is quite comfortable shooting the Rolleiflex for this purpose. In this case, Charlie has engaged his subjects (Jesse and Ayreen, visiting DC from NYC). But, yes, the TLR has a firm place in the street photography game. Reasonably compact, especially for the negative size they produce (6x6 cm), TLRs are also pretty well-accepted by subjects on the street.
Okay, so what about other medium format cameras? Well, there are also reasonably compact medium format rangefinders, the main ones having been made by Mamiya and Fujifilm. They also work fine for street photography.
To push the upper size limits, I've been shooting some street scenes with my Mamiya Universal Press (MUP) camera. Yes, it's a press camera, which means it was designed to be taken out in public. But, it's a big beast, not one that will go unnoticed in the process. While it does a fine job of capturing the scene in a high quality image, I find that most of my subjects are looking at the camera. This is different from shooting anonymously with a smaller camera. Different, but not necessarily better or worse. I'll have more examples to share shortly.
My guess is that using the MUP for street photography is similar to what one would experience in going back even further, and shooting on the street with a Graflex 4x5 camera. I haven't done much of that at all. Maybe I'll give it a try again soon.