Ask a New York City cab driver, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” and you will be told, “Practise, practise, practise.” There are lots of anecdotes about practise. In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell goes into detail about a concept of putting 10,000 hours of practise to become an expert at something. And though I never became an expert myself at large format photography, I was subjected to an exercise in repetition that gave me an excellent shot at competence.
Back in the 1980s I hauled my old Graphic View 4×5 camera to Vermont to study with artist Fred Picker at one of his workshops. Every day we’d take our behemoth cameras on wooden tripods out and take photographs, then come back to develop the sheet film at night. If we lost a picture opportunity due to fleeting light, a moving subject, or attack by cows, it was usually because we failed to set up our cameras fast enough. Fred could set a picture up and make the exposure in about a minute, a task that took me at least ten minutes. I had to
plant the tripod,
take the monorail 4×5 camera out of the box,
screw it to the tripod platform,
aim the assembly in the general direction of the picture,
slide the lens and lensboard into the front,
screw in the shutter release,
open the shutter,
compose the image on the glass,
meter the scene,
set the aperture and speed on the lens,
slide the film board into the back of the camera,
(this one’s important) close the lens,
pull out the slide to expose the film,
trip the shutter,
push the film slide back in,
flip the board to take another picture,
change the lens settings,
make another exposure,
make sure the film board showed that the film was exposed, then
disassemble the camera,
put it away and
move to the next photo opportunity.
So I asked Fred how he got to be so fast at setting up. I thought it might be that he had a few refinements on his camera, like a quick-mounting baseplate and non-sticky lens shutters that didn’t come from the Dark Ages. He demonstrated that he could set up my more rustic camera gear in about the same time as it took him to set up his. He told me that when he studied with Ansel Adams, he was sent off to do a thing called One Hundred Set-ups. One morning he loaded film in as many film boards as he could round up, and set off on his assignment: set his camera up, take a picture, put the kit completely away and change location, one hundred times. Okay, maybe not one hundred, but at least fifty, he said. Still.
Since I wanted to be good fast, I did about twenty set-ups. There’s an interesting change that takes place after ten, and I’m sure there are turning points when you do thirty or fifty. Some things become as automatic as driving a car. You calculate your exposures even as you mindlessly attach the camera on the tripod. The shutter release magically appears in one hand as you pull the lens board out of the box, and it all goes together smoothly. Same hand. Same way. It’s a bit like dance.
One Hundred Set-ups came to mind when I watched Gene Kelly dancing with his reflected image in a shop window in the movie Cover Girl with Rita Hayworth. The two parts of the number were filmed separately, and yet every move each Gene Kelly makes is identical in position and timing. After a while one just looks for discrepancies and doesn’t find them, he’s that good. No doubt he got his 10,000 hours in long before that performance.