I see that beautiful spirit Floating there with the darkness
Unique in all the Universe
Not appeared accidentally Not created deliberately It… simply… just… happened
I made this picture in 1994 as a student at OIP&T (The Ohio Institute of Photography & Technology) in Dayton, OH. It was my first attempt at using a view camera, 4x5. This was before the digital revolution really took hold. I was 18 years old, full of ambition, optimism and eager to learn photography very well. Finally getting my hands on a view camera really did fill me with joy. I sort of knew what I was doing but not from experience, only from reading about large format photography on my own and ruminating on the principles. This image wasn’t even the product of an assignment. The moment I was granted lab privileges, I marched my little ass into that studio and made this image.
I still love this picture so much. I didn’t consider myself an animist at the time, that word hadn’t even entered my purview. But I was an animist. I still am. Seeing light. Working with darkness. Photographing Spirit. I didn’t know it in 1994 but this image would become my own personal emblem for my worldview.
Medical Transport Helicopter Taking Off From Helipad Atop Parkland Hospital Employee Parking Garage, Parkland Memorial Hospital Employee Parking Garage, Medical District, Dallas, Texas. January, 2017.
I love working with my 4x5 field camera. Doing so pushes me to truly compose a shot by positioning the camera and tripod around my subject until all visual elements fall where I want them. To focus, frame the subject, take meter readings and adjust the settings on the lens can be a slow process. Nothing is automatic: there is a dial or lever for everything. And because the image projected on the glass plate on the back of the camera is upside-down and backwards, I sometimes miss the fact that a car’s bumper or flare from a strong light source has snuck in around the edge of the frame.
I like to think it is relaxing going through all the steps until I’m able to fire the shutter and expose what I hope will be an interesting scene; but really it can be stressful. And though I have three focal lengths of lenses I can choose from, it always seems I’m never at the right distance. My tripod legs scooch me closer or into the street, through a flowerbed, or into a very conspicuous spot where I must forgo my stealth just to crop a tree or billboard out of the shot.
So then I have to work fast, trying to click the cable release then pack my stuff away quickly. Before someone hovers about asking a hundred questions. Before a group of teenagers stand in front of the lens posing ridiculously thinking it’s a video camera. Before a security officer tells me “You can’t be here.” Well, the scene above of the helicopter taking off had all the elements that work against me working at once.
I heard the chopper landing from in my office about a block away. The walls shake with the concussive whoosh of the spinning rotors as the medical helicopters fly over my building on their way to the helipads of the surrounding hospitals. I was gathering my things to head home when I heard this one, and grabbed my camera bag and tripod and ran to my car.
One of the parking meters outside the garage where this helipad sits was open. Paid it, then went ahead and assembled my camera with my widest lens, a Nikkor 135mm, onto my tripod and grabbed my meter, loupe, and a few film holders and jammed them into my pockets. To get to the top of the garage, I had to ride an elevator up to the sixth floor. The first obstacle was around the corner from the street where I parked, into the main vehicle entrance. There is always a Dallas Police officer sitting in an unmarked vehicle facing that entrance. I followed close behind a hospital employee in scrubs, carrying my tripod and camera down low and tried my best walk in a steady “I’ve had a long day at work so I just want to get to my car because I totally belong here and am not doing anything wrong, officer” posture. I made it to the top, even after not realizing the elevator car has a huge window that is open in plain view of that officer’s line of sight.
Once up there, I practically tip-toed around, dancing from one shadow to the next as I peered through the ground glass, trying to frame the sitting chopper on the helipad. I was worried about the downdraft that would occur upon take off, so I backed the camera on the tripod into a corner parking spot that was walled in on one side by a staircase that reaches the top level parking. I compromised on distance just in case the wind created pushed the camera over; hoping that it wouldn’t send my whole setup over the wall and on top of one of the cars parked on the street six floors below.
I was scurrying around in the pitch black dark of this corner space. The sun was behind the concrete stairwell bunker opening and was setting fast. My phone was dead at this point so I was setting my shutter speed by counting the clicks as I turned the dial. I thought if I shoot wide open (F/5.6 on this lens), I could catch the take off without overpowering with a long exposure of the strong electric ambient lighting happening all around this level and on the structures in the background.
My handheld meter said F/5.6.3 at 30 seconds using a rated 100 ISO film. I half-assed the reciprocity failure calculation to 1 minute to compensate; plus, again, I did not want to heavily overexpose the scene.
Ok, so then I was ready. Ready for the next forty-five minutes of nothing happening. I forgot that sometimes, after a flight crew rolls a patient down into the hospital, it could take a really long time before they come back up and prepare for takeoff. This is actually my second attempt to catch a takeoff. The first try, I’m pretty sure the crew saw me and jumped into their aircraft and lifted off so fast, I’m not even sure they fastened their seat belts. Once they got into the air, they hovered over me to get a good look at what I was doing I guess, then sped away in to the dark. (See photo below of the first, failed attempt).
Believe it or not, it was nearly dark a couple weeks before this evening when I shot this. I set this shutter very slow to make sure I caught the takeoff, but when I reached around front to cock the shutter, they had lifted up and left. The ridiculous vignetting you see is me trying to gain some height at my vantage point by rising and tilting the camera planes way up. I had stopped down to something like F/32. I went about this one all wrong.
Keep it simple. I’ve got a faster exposure ready. The shutter is cocked. I have a place to hide around the corner of the stairwell to avoid the downdraft. I am ready. I did have to dodge a couple employees driving by and slowing down to check out the camera sitting alone in the dark corner, but no one ratted me out. It was windy now and cold; and the whole structure would shake when a commuter train across the street went by. But I was hopeful my shot would happen between all of these events.
The time came. The transport crew loaded their gear and started the engines. I was hiding behind the concrete wall of the staircase, peering around the corner and thought once they closed all the doors (and the engine got higher pitched) I would slither around the stairwell and press the shutter-release. I couldn’t have timed it better.
*Click-hide-chopper takeoff-shutter open for an extra 30 seconds-click shutter closed.
*Sigh of relief. And just in time because the chopper hovering over began to audibly rattle the camera on the tripod. I pulled the film holder, re-stuffed my pockets with gear, then made my way home.
My exposure ended up being a minute and thirty seconds. A whole minute more than the meter suggestion. I’m so happy I caught the motion of the liftoff with a comfortable ambient brightness around it. No camera shake. Upon closer inspection, the stars are littles streaks rising in the sky too.
The kit I brought with me to Germany; Toyo VX125, Fujinon 65mm SWD, Fujinon 90mm SWD, Nikkor 135mm W, Feisol Tournament tripod, and accessories. Overall it worked pretty well and was actually lighter than my Rollei setup, but I noticed that my lenses didn’t always have as much image circle as I would really like. Since coming home I actually sold those and switched to using these; Nikkor 75mm SW, Fujinon 105mm SWD, Fujinon 150mm CM-W.