When a writer friend heard
that photographer Les Jörgensen takes landscape and location photographs
using a high-resolution digital back on a view camera, and goes into
the field with a computer, batteries, battery packs, a solar panel,
tripod, and a full complement of the necessary wires and cables to lash
the whole thing into working configuration, he asked, "And a mule?"
Well, no. But you can see where someone would conjure up the vision
of a photographer of the mid-1800s, trekking off to the hinterlands
with a cumbersome view camera, film plates, and supplies to bring back
those extraordinary views of the territory.
Jörgensen, in fact, carries all his stuff--some 45 lbs of it--in
a Lowe-Pro backpack. There's a Phase One PowerPhase digital back
for his Linhof 2x3 view camera; lenses of 47, 90, 120, and 370mm; a
Mac PowerBook Duo 230C; two batteries for the laptop; a Phase One Powerkit
battery array; a Bogen 600 tripod; and a solar pack that on sunny days
Jörgensen plugs into the battery pack to power and recharge as
And that's not all: back at his base of operation--whatever hotel
or motel is nearest his shooting location--there's a Yamaha CD
writer and a supply of blank CDs. The PowerBook has a 6GB hard drive--plenty
of space for lots of images, but at the end of every day of work, Jörgensen
transfers the digital images from the PowerBook's drive to a CD.
Well, actually two CDs. "One stays with me, the other gets FedExed
home," he says. The reason is safety: "If the computer collapses
or I drop it into a stream, I haven't lost more than that day's
work. It's the same reason we do split processing when we shoot
a studio job, and why we ship film in separate batches. I was recently
in Scotland for two weeks doing this field work, and I spent a lot of
time, a lot of money, and a lot of effort; why, through my own laziness,
would I risk it?"
Okay, so we've worked out the logistics. But that still leaves
the question, why? Why carry all this equipment? And why put up with
the obvious limitation of a digital scan back--the long exposures necessary
to make an image? Why try to do what an acquaintance of Jörgensen's,
photographer Russell Sparkman, called "the impossible with the
Simply, for the results. "There are a lot of reasons not to do
this work," Jörgensen says, "but one big reason to
do it: I get a beautiful 150MB digital file that has absolutely no film
grain. I can print these pictures up to about 5x5' with incredible
When he's not in the field, Jörgensen is in "the cave"--his
New York City studio, where he produces still life advertising, editorial,
corporate, and catalog images for a variety of clients. In the beginning
he thought he'd be a "sticks, twigs, and stones" photographer.
"I had spent a lot of time in the desert and park areas in and
around California while attending Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara
learning photography. I thought I'd be a landscape photographer,
and landscapes are really what I enjoy the most." Of course, life
being what it is, he ended up in a studio in Manhattan with a reputation
for outstanding graphic, colorful still lifes. "My career took
off pretty quickly in the early '90s," he says.
In 1993, Jörgensen took a course in the Mac and Photoshop at the
School of Visual Arts because he "saw the industry going that
way" and wanted to know whether to say yes or no to the process.
Within three weeks he was doing photocompositions for The New York Times
Magazine. "I was hooked," he says.
After testing several digital camera backs, he chose the Phase One for
his studio work. "It's not at all foreign to work with--it's
just a back for my 4x5. Everything else is the same." Today he
feels that high-resolution digital cameras and their technology have
gotten so good "that a digital image file is the equivalent of
an 8x10 chrome."
The inspiration to shoot landscapes with his digital equipment came
about a year and a half ago when Jörgensen visited the headquarters
of Phase One, the makers of his high-res digital back. "I found
out that the computer chip used in the camera back was highly infrared
sensitive, and the chip was being used by various people as an infrared
sensor in scientific applications and research. I'd always been
interested in doing infrared photography, and on the way home a light
went off: I could use the back with an infrared filter and do location
infrared work--and see the results immediately on the computer's
screen." Jörgensen quickly tested the idea in his studio
and was soon ready to go out on location.
What Jörgensen produces are beautiful infrared images that, if
not predictable, are certainly controllable. "You often don't
know what you're getting with infrared," he says, "and
the photographs often wind up being grainy. But with this method, I
know exactly what I'm getting. I know my white point, my black
point--I'm seeing the previews on the screen, and I'm changing
f/stops or shutter speeds and making it as exact an exposure as I need."
Digital, then, takes the guessing game out of infrared. "I always
liked the look of infrared, but thought it was pretty crude; this makes
it controllable," he says. The only addition to the digital process:
an infrared filter on the lens--"the same as you would have if
you were using infrared film."
A problem that film doesn't have, but a high-resolution digital
back does, is the long exposures necessary for the digital back to scan
the scene. "That's one of the reasons not to do this kind
of photography," Jörgensen says. But, obviously, it doesn't
stop him. "I just have to be aware of movement in the scene. I'm
limited to photographing things that are fairly far away...or working
on very calm days; that, or a ton of retouching."
While Jörgensen feels that the future will bring improvements to
the technology, for right now, "the miracle is that it can be
done at all." He likens it to the slow and deliberate photographic
processes of the mid-1800s. "They made some gorgeous images back
then, and I think we can make some gorgeous images right now."
The majority of Jörgensen's smooth-as-silk digital field
images are part of two projects. One, "the Iowa pictures,"
began two years ago. "I started taking infrared pictures in the
county in Iowa in which I was born and raised. The landscape of Iowa
is changing drastically. The old family farm is disappearing. A lot
of the old wooden buildings are falling down. What I remember, what
I grew up with, is becoming more and more dream-like, and will someday
be forgotten. Infrared pictures are perfect for that--they have the
feeling of a dream and also the look of seeing the invisible, like seeing
into another time."
The other project is comprised of photos Jörgensen took during
a two-week trip to Scotland, during which the solar pack proved its
value. "It keeps adding juice as I'm working," Jörgensen
says. "I try to keep things topped off as much as possible. One
day in Scotland I didn't think anything was happening, and then
suddenly the sun broke through. I took off, hiking and shooting for
six hours. If I hadn't had the power topped off, I'd have
been in trouble."
When Jörgensen returns to his studio, the images come off the CDs
and onto the hard drive of the office computer--the Mac clone Power
Computing Genesis MP, which has 12GB of hard drive space and over 700
megs of RAM. The images sometime need a bit of manipulation in Photoshop--"not
in terms of the highlights or shadows or tones," Jörgensen
says, "but to remove a power line or an abandoned car sitting
in front of an old barn."
What's he done with the digital infrared images he's produced?
"Looked at them, showed them to my mom," he says. "Actually,
my goal for the last year has been to get together a body of this work
that would show a range of images, and now that there's a group
of them, some of which I've published at my web site, I'll
approach galleries and offer them for sale. I've also interested
a stock agency in them." Among other possibilities are a book
and a series of calendars.
If you visit Jörgensen's web site (www.lesjorgensen.com),
be sure to check out his VR panoramas. You'll need QuickTime and
the QuickTime VR plug-in components required for your system and browser
(they're available free on the Internet), and with them you'll
be able to take a 360° "motion picture" look at one
of Jörgensen's infrared high-res digital photographs. He
produces the VR panoramas by panning his tripod-mounted camera in a
circle, taking 24 to 36 consecutive photographs, then using the QuickTime
VR program to put the series together as a single image.
For Jörgensen, his work with the digital field camera is a wonderful
convergence of new technology and old-style deliberation and care. The
technology isn't inexpensive--he's invested about $60,000
in the contents of his backpack--but the results, those glorious images,
are to him well worth the time, effort, and investment.
And he doesn't need a mule.