A Camera Lover’s Threshold for Cold

Though winter has brought frostbite-risk weather, a familiar sight in Dawson has been the silhouette of a young man carrying a large tripod with a sink-sized camera on top.

I had already been intrigued by seeing Evan Rensch along the waterfront trail with his gear over the last year. So when he kept working out there in the deep chill, I had to ask a few questions. Indoors.

Meg Walker: First I wanted to know about the cape you pull over your head as you prepare the shot. Why is that necessary?

Evan Rensch: The way the wide-format camera works is that you don’t have a view-finder. There’s a sheet of etched glass on the back of the camera. When the light passes through the lens, the glass catches an image but you can only see that if you’re blocking out the external light with the cloth.

MW: The front of this beauty says Wisner Camera Company, and you’ve called it a “Technical Field Camera” but it’s also a banquet camera?

ER: It’s called a banquet camera because that’s what the wide format was originally used for. Everybody has seen those old photos of 100 people around a banquet table, or 30 people in the regiment – this is the kind of camera they would have used.

And I should say that now large-format film has been re-appropriated by artists. It’s being used most commonly for photographing landscapes and architectural spaces, cityscapes, due to the wide nature of it.

MW: With all the advances in digital cameras, what’s the benefit of using large film?

ER: This is an 8 x 20-inch camera so it uses sheet film of that size. Every time I take a picture, it’s the same amount of information as what you would capture with 48 frames on your 35 mm film. It captures so much detail: every twig that’s out there, every particle.

MW: What’s one photo project you’ve been really satisfied with recently?

ER: One thing that sticks out is that I photographed an overpass construction about 20 minutes away from where I lived in New Brunswick, before moving here.

They were building an overpass that bordered on a mine, on the TransCanada Highway, and I photographed it every month for its year-long project duration.

It was monumental, but it’s also very industrial. So the series is not romantic in any sort of way.

MW: Are you avoiding colour to escape time?

ER: When we look at black and white photos we automatically think they’re old. So I think it makes placing the image in time a lot trickier.

For a while I played around with photographing condo developments, during that pre-recession period, in Toronto. Most of the time there was a construction site and I was photographing a lot of those marketing billboards they put up with smiling beautiful families and babies and so on.

When you turn that into black and white, it strips the facade off of things.

MW: What are you loving taking pictures of in the Yukon?

ER: On my trip to Whitehorse last week I made four negatives each way, turning each six-hour trip into eight hours. For example I stopped at one of those highway maintenance gravel pits.

MW: They’re like – ancient Egyptian architecture.

ER: Exactly. It was a site between Pelly Crossing and Carmacks. The light was just gorgeous, it was this shimmering, mottled sunlight so it really emphasized the volume of these shapes.

And so the gravel pile looked sort of like a pyramid, or some sort of foreign, alien object. And there’s another one that reminded me a lot of the craggy Yukon cliffscapes, but it was just sand.

So I’m really excited about those pictures, because they accomplish a level of transformation. There’s capturing the depictive level and then taking it to that different place where the image can bring a lot of associations and symbolisms and other ideas to the table.

An image like that, it’s just a gravel pile, it’s totally boring and utilitarian, but by photographing it there’s a transformation that makes it magical.

As for the question of taking photos in the cold – turns out that even on days well below zero, the wood-bodied camera still functions because all its parts are mechanical. The temperature threshold is when the human is too cold to work the levers and dials.

Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.

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