Accident, miracle, or coincidence?

Exhibition view.

Even though much of Fiona Annis’s photographic work does not make use of a camera body per se, she finds herself collecting old cameras that are given to her. She is certainly interested in the effects that historical photographic processes can produce and the many variables that leave the final image up to chance. This pair of works incidentally were created using cameras, though in a wholly unexpected way. 

She was recently gifted two 8” x 10” large-format cameras from a family who no longer had a use for them. She discovered that they were both still loaded with unexposed film. The material is highly sensitive to light, so inevitably throughout its years inside the camera some light leaks occurred. The photographic effect over such a long time serves as a unique moment of discovery. The final result is not dissimilar to her other images, such as the “desastre” series, but the process is much less involved on the part of the artist. Like much of Annis’s work in this exhibition, they are a portal to the past, a moment of contact with an outdated mode of photography which invites us to re-examine our conceptions of it as an artistic medium.

The side-by-side pairing gives context to each other, revealing similarities and subtle differences that are a murky record of the film’s lifespan. Annis could not re-create the same effect unless she had half a century’s worth of patience and time as well as identical materials and conditions. These works speak to the paradox of photography’s capacity to capture and obscure.


Originally developed in the mid-19th century, large-format cameras were only popular until the mid-20th century. The features of the camera structure allowed the photographer to have greater control over the image’s perspective and focus, though they required an extensive knowledge of photography to operate. Capturing an image using a large-format camera is a lengthy and laborious process, but the camera itself is as deceivingly simple as this pair of works.

Chambres obscure de voyage (“dark rooms of travel”), illustration from Les Merveilles de la science, 1867 – 1891, Tome 6, by Guillaume Louis Figuier.

Large-format cameras are just that, large. They must be mounted on a tripod or other base, as they are heavy and cumbersome. Everything must be adjusted manually, requiring both hands to focus, operate an external light meter and control the exposure time. Two panels, called “standards,” make up the back and front of the camera body. The front standard holds the lens and shutter, while the rear holds the rear lens cell, glass viewing plate and film. The standards are connected by a flexible light-proof bellows which is folded like an accordion to allow the standards to be manipulated independently. The image can be seen upside-down on a ground glass sheet set on the plane of focus at the back of the camera, often under a dark cloth with the use of a magnification tool, so the photographer can see to adjust the focus and composition even in bright conditions.

Ansel Adams, The Tetons and the Snake River. Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 1942. National Archives and Records Administration, 519904; Records of the National Park Service, 79-AAG-1.

The horizontal and vertical movements of the front standards and lens are referred to as rise and fall, shift, swing and tilt. Because the lens plane can move independently, the plane of focus is not fixed vertically. To get sharp focus further back without a very narrow aperture as would be desirable for landscape photography, the plane of focussed can be shifted downwards. The rise technique (moving the front standard vertically) would allow an architectural photographer to avoid converging lines and distortion of tall buildings. 

Large-format cameras require lenses with a longer focal length (the longer the focal length, the closer the object will appear to be), so the photographer must “stop down,” or use narrower aperture to achieve the same depth of field. A slower shutter speed is then also needed in order to let in more light, making it difficult to capture movement.

Yousuf Karsh, Self Portrait. Ottawa, Ontario, 1938.  Library and Archives Canada, PA-212511.
Karash was a well-known Armenian-Canadian portrait photographer.

The title of Annis’s works, “darkslide,” refers to an inner part of the large-format camera apparatus. It is the protective piece that shields the film from unwanted incoming light through the lens before and after the shutter release. 

Once the photographer is satisfied with the image, the glass is removed and replaced with the film holder. After setting the aperture and shutter speed, the darkslide can then be removed and replaced once the shutter triggered. The exposed film is then removed, safely inside the film holder. While a standard film camera uses 35mm film slides in a roll, large-format film consists of sheets that must be loaded individually in a darkroom or changing bag. Each slide is also developed individually, allowing control over optimal contrast, but is also time-consuming. A 4” x 5” or 8” x 10” negative can produce contact prints, without the use of an enlarger, creating high-quality images.


Fiona Annis: a portion of that which was once everything is on at the CRAG until September 4th.