Getting my head around the idea of using a swing lens camera which could see everything I could see including my peripheral vision was more difficult then I had imagined. I had waited for the right tool to come along and when I thought it did I jumped on it like a duck on a June bug. The right camera finally arrived in the mid-1990’s, and at a time I had almost given up my hope of finding a camera I could work with. It was the Noblex and in mid-1996 I took delivery on one of the earliest models to hit our shores.
The Noblex had its problems and issues and one was that it was made in the former East Germany. Quality control seemed to be non-existent, so the first few cameras I had were defective right out of the box. The first had a drum which would not turn, and the second had a pinhole in the drum which made a streak down the middle of each frame. They both went back the day after they arrived. They kept sending nonfunctional cameras, and it finally came down to me leaving for a trip to Las Vegas and the Nevada Test Site.
I was leaving the following day and so had them send my new camera to my hotel. I asked them to shoot a roll of film and develop it before sending it so I would at least get a camera which worked. Dealing with Noblex was terribly frustrating as they kept sending cameras which failed to work correctly. In the first few years, I had about a dozen defective cameras arrive and almost immediately, leave.
Nonetheless, it was early May and brutally hot in Vegas. We were to meet our guide two days later in Mercury and I finally had a functional panorama camera in my possession. After showing more ID’s than I thought was possible, we got checked into the larger-than-Rhode-Island test site where they had set off more than 1000 atomic weapons and ‘safety’ tests over 45 years. We transferred all our gear and water into a white SUV, and drove out to Frenchman Flats. In my hands I had a completely untested camera loaded with the first of many rolls of 120 film and I was a bit worried.
As it was 105º in the shade with a humidity of about 10%, we brought along a case of water. During our day on the NTS, we drank all of it. We had been on the NTS for the first time in January, and so knew a bit of the lay of the land. It’s hard to get a footing in reality while there as the guides either blatantly lied or sought to confuse visitors, and most especially visitors with large format panorama cameras on tripods. In hindsight, I am not entirely sure why they let me in. It was a quiet time in America, as 9/11 had yet to take place, although various Egyptians and other middle eastern men were already learning how to fly but not land 767’s at flying schools across the US.
Being driven around the NTS to see the various sights they could show us would be interesting but not thrilling for the average photographer. It is largely a big expanse of desert with the occasional blasted, or otherwise destroyed edifices littering the landscape. There are concrete ‘motels’, twisted steel frameworks, collapsed walls, a radiative tank and partially melted concrete walls. There are small piles of rubble and earth, and in a few places there are actual buildings stripped down to their covering by heat or blast wave. With one exception, wood structures are not in existence. It is a barren landscape which hides more than it shows. Reportedly there are large numbers of radioactive Jeeps, trucks, locomotives and other vehicles buried on-site. The railroad trestle still stands, although it is twisted and warped and the locomotive which stood on it during the Priscilla tests got thrown ‘a moderate distance’ by the blast wave. ‘Moderate’ is the word I was given but the real distance is probably a few hundred yards. Standing out on Frenchman Flat was a bit frightening if one could imagine the utter destruction which took place there in 1957. Management has tried to ameliorate the destruction by renaming itself.
But by the time I got to the Test Site, I had about 25 years in photography and knew my way around the block. I knew what I could see through the eyepiece of a Nikon, Canon, Mamiya RZ, or 4×5 view camera, but I had no idea what I could see through the viewfinder of a Noblex. I wasn’t sure whether it was accurate or not, and so I did my initial viewfinder testing that day out on Frenchman Flat. Our guide kept telling me not to shoot “…those mountains, as there is a secret military base on the other side” and I presumed he meant Area 51. I shot them anyway, knowing full well I was neither going to see through the mountains, nor catch an object in flight as they only fly at night.
Working with the Noblex was refreshing as I realized I could see virtually everything in my field of vision, albeit somewhat distorted by the swing lens. At the edge of Sedan Crater I ran up the short sandy embankment to see if I could get the entire crater in my shot and it was easy. (enter Sedan Crater)
Having the camera on a tripod in the blazing sun meant that I could shoot at maximum DOF (depth of field) to get both the pylon in the foreground from which the bomb hung, as well as the bottom of the crater in focus too. I’m sure the DoE Nevada office is tired of my visits, as I eventually shot there 10 times and I have been led to believe that is a course record. I want to go back but now I am positive I’ll have to contact my Congressman and press the Public Affairs office harder than ever before.
The use of a tripod allows me to concentrate on what’s going to be in the picture, how long the exposure can be, what the sky is doing, wind effects, and if water is in the shot then I can take the time to see how it will be affected by the angle of view vis-a-vis the sun and wind. To be honest, I don’t look through the viewfinder all that often as all I really do there is make sure the camera is level. It’s much more important for me to sense or intuit what the turning lens will allow me do with the scene. My shutter speeds are generally low, and for example I don’t think I have made an exposure of 1/250th of a second on any panorama camera in the last decade.
Various people have theories about why there is a serenity to my images and I can say it is something I am striving for, and so it may be a result of my contemplative approach to my work. I get into a ‘zone’ while shooting and connect with my surroundings to achieve a harmony and balance not available to handheld photography. This is not to say that I can’t make an exposure in a hurry, as I do that all the time, but I put a lot of energy and concentration into what it is I am seeing. When I was less experienced, I returned from a venture to a location and returned with things on my film I had neither seen nor imagined. That still happens, but now I am more tuned in and so ‘happy accidents’ are happier.