DIY Camera: Chris McCaw’s Large-Format Cameras

February 13, 2012

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Chris McCaw

McCaw's 30 x 40 camera, raised on its wagon mount (right) and the camera he built around the lens from a spy plane (left). To see photos taken by two of his homemade cameras, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

Crafting a unique image can require a photographer to think beyond the mass-produced tools of the photographic industry. In our DIY Issue we interviewed three photographers who built their own cameras in order to achieve the photographs they envisioned.  

In his “Sunburn” images, Chris McCaw captures long exposures, allowing sunlight, magnified by a lens, to burn a line across photo-sensitive paper. The series reduces photography to its primal elements: “It’s just a lens, light, photo-sensitive material and time,” says the San Francisco-based photographer. The cameras he has constructed over the years are equally elemental. He has made cameras out of cardboard boxes lined with photo paper and fitted with a lens, and assembled 8 x 10, 16 x 20, 20 x 24 and 30 x 40 inch cameras using salvaged parts and a few cordless power tools. In an era of ever-growing digital sensors, McCaw thinks photography has become obsessed with the next technological breakthrough at the expense of the images. His homemade cameras, he says, are “crude machines that do what I need them to do.”

McCaw built his first camera in 1995 out of economic necessity. “I was just out of art school, and I was broke.” When he sold his antique 7 x 17 banquet camera to pay his rent, he kept the film holders, ordered some inexpensive gears and parts online, and started building himself a replacement. He made the bellows out of black paper he laminated. When he couldn’t find a spring to hold the ground glass in place, he used the blade from a hacksaw. “I was able to go hiking with the camera knowing that if anything broke, I could fix it.”

He used his homemade banquet camera to shoot travel images and document his family’s farm in Northern California, then started making long nighttime exposures. His “Sunburn” series began by accident when, at the end of a night-long exposure, he forgot to put the cap back on the lens and in the morning discovered the sun had burned the film. He had large sheets of vintage silver gelatin paper given to him by the photo lab where he had worked, and decided to try burning the photo-sensitive paper instead of film.

At first, he used an 8 x 10 camera he had built, but when he wanted to use the 16 x 20 paper, “I made a camera out of two cardboard boxes,” with one box sliding inside the other. He cut a hole in the top to hold the lens, secured in place with gaffer’s tape. Once he lined the box with photo paper, he left the box on the ground, and let the sun mark its path. Thanks to the chemical make-up of the vintage photo paper, it solarized, so each piece of paper transformed from a negative into a one-of-a-kind positive.

Working with even larger paper, McCaw has had to build larger film holders, and the cameras he has made have grown in size as well as sophistication over the years. Recently he constructed a 30 x 40 camera. To make sure it was structurally sound, he says, “It had to weigh about 70 pounds.” He mounted it on a garden wagon he fitted with all-terrain wheels. He’s wheeled the camera, which is about waist high, through sand dunes and into the Santa Cruz Mountains. Last spring, he drove it to the Arctic Circle in a van he outfitted with a darkroom light so he could use it when changing his photo paper.

The camera is “a cumbersome beast,” he admits. “It’s not aerodynamic.” If there’s any breeze, he has to use rope or sand anchors to hold the wagon in place. The wagon also has no brakes, so on hills, he says, “I feel like I’m being dragged by the camera.” On the vernal equinox, he plans to make a series of “Sunburn” images at the Equator. If he can’t figure out how to take his wagon-mounted camera on the plane, he’ll have to switch to an 8 x 10.

After years of building cameras, McCaw says his workshop has still not advanced “beyond junior high shop class.” He has turned for engineering advice to photographer Tracy Storer, director of San Francisco’s Polaroid 20×24 Studio West. Storer recently helped McCaw with his latest experiment: Attaching 63 lenses from old Pentax cameras to a single lens board in order to capture an Eadweard Muybridge-like exposure.

Each new device requires trial and error, and not all of his contraptions have worked. After he built a camera to hold a lens from a U-2 spy plane, for example, he found that the optics didn’t work when shooting into the sun. Still, he says, in relying on a camera you’ve made yourself, “you’re more involved physically in the process, beyond just seeing and reacting.”

McCaw notes, however, that the camera he uses is less important than how he uses it. “The lesson here is that a camera is a simple machine. Who cares if it’s pretty? It’s just a tool.”

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