• Andy Whysall

It's been a while...part 1

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

(WARNING - this one is about gear)

Over a year ago now, early summer 2018, I bought for a mere £40 a 5x4 camera that had seen better days. A charity shop job that had potential. It was (still is) an MPP MkVI/VII (so a VI with some minor VII features). It dates from the mid/late 1950s and for those unfamiliar, that '5x4' refers to the film size; not 5cm x 4cm but 5 inches x 4 inches, or near enough. It belongs to a class of cameras called 'large format' whose film sizes spiral upwards from say 9 x 12 CENTIMETRES to 20 x16 INCHES and, yes, beyond.

I am not new to large format, having used an MPP MkVIII for a good while in the mid-1980s (the MkVIII looks much more modern than the VII, with lovely round edges and new knobs). So not new to it, but really out pf practise.

I disassembled much of the camera to clean out a load of gritty filth in joints and get dried oil off rails and so on. In my enthusiasm for getting on with it, I managed not to photograph the process, sorry. But I did take a few pics right at the end of replacing its black, torn and crumbling, leatherette with some lovely red leather from the very helpful Milly's Cameras. My favourite bit though is the hand strap, which is now no longer a tatty mess, having been replaced with a gorgeous piece of work by a local saddler (the original strap appears in the first three photos, the new one is in pic 4 on the garden table).

I won't write a treatise here on 5x4 and MPP in particular. There is an old-fashioned users' club with an amazing - old fashioned - website. A canned history on Wikipedia here.

Anyway, suffice to say that since I sorted it all out, and taking a few test images with some Ilford Harman reversal paper (hate it) to make sure there were no leaks in the focussing bellows, I have done nothing with it other than looked at it and thought how handsome it is. I was reminded about that by my friend Adam Mennell at the University of Cumbria MA show opening last night. Cheers mate, I feel obliged to get on with it now.

The point about large format photography is that there really is no image quality like it. Tonal range, almost invisible grain in enlargements, and the cameras allow a variety of correctional 'movements' to adjust perspective and focus planes and so on. It remains a popular medium for fine art and documentary photographers looking for ultimate quality. Most of all it takes time to make a picture. You think harder about what you are doing, mainly I reckon because you know how much money each individual shot costs. Commercial processing of ONE sheet of colour film is around £5, and the film itself comes out at around £5 sheet for quality stuff.

This is just a test shot, on the reversal paper on a windy and sunny day, a middling to poor scan as well, but already I can see the power of 5x4.

Here endeth part 1 of this rambling about my MPP camera. Part 2 will talk a bit about one of the particular pitfalls of buying this kind of ancient and unloved camera.

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