Most jobs require a lot of patience and knowing how to work under pressure, but some jobs require exceptionally enduring people. Working in politics, and especially covering Capitol Hill requires a lot of nerves, and for NBC producer and reporter Frank Thorp V, it's been an intense few years. Parallel to his day job, Frank developed an affinity for film photography two years ago, starting off with 35 mm and medium format, before throwing himself into large-format. With his Speed Graphic, he has been taking pictures during the Impeachment, as well as around the Hill, but also in his personal free time. With the LomoGraflok 4×5 Instant Back, he got to experience instant shots on his 4x5 camera, with the ability to shoot at a much higher speed than other instant films. We spoke to Frank about his impression of the LomoGraflok, how he got into large format, and his experience working on the Hill.
Hi Frank, it's great to have you here at Lomography. First off, can you tell us for how long you've been shooting large format and how you got into it?
I was shooting film on Capitol Hill, medium format with a Hasselblad to be precise. One of the photographers for Getty, which is a photography agency, saw me shooting film and was like Hey, I have these 4x5 cameras that I am trying to get rid of, why don’t I bring them in for you to have a look at.
When he brought them in, I was just totally blown away, and I fell in love right away. One of the cameras he brought was this Speed Graphic and they had stripped away the leather and it was just this beautiful brown stained wood camera.
So I bought these cameras from him on a whim. I knew they worked but I hadn’t even tried to seriously use them until the Impeachment Hearings started and I decided to bring one of these cameras with me to try it. I started taking pictures with the 4x5 Speed Graphic at the first Impeachment Hearing for Donald Trump, and I went home and developed them that same night, thinking that it was going to be a complete disaster. I thought they weren’t going to come out and I would look like a complete idiot for bringing in that humongous camera in front of everyone at this huge national news event. But when I developed them and pulled out the negatives they turned out great! It showed it was a viable way to shoot an event like that, and then it went from there. I’ve been shooting 4x5 ever since, it’s an addictive thing.
It’s so much fun to shoot film in general but the time and effort you put into shooting a 4x5 image is so special. There are certainly times it doesn’t work out but when it does work out, it is so amazing. When you can pull out a 4x5 negative and you nailed the focus and exposure, it can feel like a massive achievement. It’s something you can totally fall in love with.
What do you like most about the shooting experience with a large-format camera?
Large-format makes you a way more deliberative photographer. It makes you think about your shots ahead of time. I found that when you’re shooting 35mm or even medium format, it’s not necessarily point-and-shoot but it can be, while with 4x5 you really have to game out what you’re going to do.
The 4x5 Speed Graphic I am using, I can actually shoot handheld and the rangefinder is matched incredibly well to the lens. So I can frame up a shot handheld, pull the shutter and it works, which is just great. But even then you have to think about it ahead of time. I would go to bed the night before an Impeachment Hearing and think about where I wanted to be standing when Fiona Hill was being sworn in because I needed to be in the right place, I needed to take my exposure ahead of time and I needed to remember to set my shutter speed. I needed to remember to take out the darkslide, I needed to remember to hold my breath and hit the shutter, put the darkslide back in – there’s just this whole other process that goes into it, that is not usually a part of shooting other film formats. I love it because everything slows down. It can be frustrating at times for sure, but as I said, when it works it’s just an intoxicating feeling. To be able to get images that are so amazingly crisp and at the same time have this almost old, historic soul to them.
The Speed Graphic I am using has a Tessar-type lens that’s probably 80, 90 years old and it gives everything a very artistic and historic look to it, which is such a cool way to shoot Congress.
You're definitely not making your job easier with like, having to think about all these things!
Yes, I mean, it's a process. But I'm not the only person that shoots large format on the Hill. There's another photojournalist, David Burnett, who's been shooting this format while covering news for a long time. His work is so awesome. I got to know him through this whole process and his work has been a real inspiration for me, making me know it’s actually possible to shoot large format in these situations.
Large-format photography has taught me so much about just the basics and the fundamentals of photography. Slowing everything down, realizing that photography is just a box, a lens, and a piece of film and that’s how it works. It makes you fully understand all the different aspects that go into shooting a picture. I definitely learned how to be a way more deliberate photographer by using large-format.
Have you ever shot instant film with your large-format camera?
I shot peel apart once. When I was doing the Impeachment Hearings someone messaged me on Instagram and said they have this back and some packfilm they’re no longer using and they asked me if I wanted to try it. He generously sent it to me and I think 6 out of the 10 shots came out, and I found it pretty frustrating. It was probably due to the fact that the back was old and the film was expired, of course. It was FP100C, so a pretty slow stock and when I am shooting indoors, I normally shoot ISO400 pushed to 1600, so shooting packfilm at 100 speed is not an applicable way of doing things handheld. That was the only time I ever tried it and honestly, until you reached out to me about the LomoGraflok back I didn’t have any interest in shooting instant film on my 4x5 camera again.
Having tried peel-apart film and now the LomoGraflok with Fuji Instax Wide film, can you make any comparison?
First of all, using the Instax film is a way easier and cleaner process itself. And of course, because they don’t make peel-apart film anymore, it’s always hit-or-miss when you buy that stuff, you never really know if it’s going to work. I do love the look that a lot of people do when they shoot expired film with the colors shifting, or with half the picture missing, but for the stuff that I was doing, I wanted my frame to look somewhat complete and I was having a hard time with that with packfilm. But for the Instax film, you know it’s going to work because it is a new film. Even so, I personally didn’t really have any interest in shooting instant film, that just wasn’t anything I was really inspired to do. But using this back, the more I shot with it, the more I wanted to shoot with it. That’s funny because shooting Instant film with my 4x5 kind of felt like the antithesis of why I got into large-format in the first place. I liked the idea of slowing everything down, but all of a sudden I press two buttons and two minutes later, I have the picture –– totally opposite of what I was used to.
One of the frustrations I’ve always had with Instant film cameras is that their optics can, at times, be lacking and produce kind of blurry instant photos – which is fine and fun to do for family snapshots of course. But I always had a hard time producing my vision with those cameras, so Instant film was never really the medium I would have chosen to reach my photographic vision. But the idea that you can now use Instax on my 4x5 camera with the lenses I have or want to try is fun and unique. I never thought I could experience that and it has definitely changed my way of thinking in terms of using Instant film in general.
What was your first impression of the LomoGraflok back when you tested it out?
At first, I was intimidated. It came with two different parts, so in terms of the workflow with the spacer and the back, it was new to me and felt like a lot. But I quickly got used to it, got it right and it was great. Having the picture come out right away is just such a different experience from what I was used to.
The idea that you’re able to look at that picture right away is really cool. It’s a lot less forgiving, you have to really nail your exposure, which is another lesson I learned. So that was an interesting experience and it was a lot of fun.
Where are you thinking of like using it for work or for your personal photography?
There's' definitely the fun, artistic use of it, which I tried to do. But there’s also a practical application in it, in that you can preview shots if you’re doing an actual shoot and want to test composition and exposure, to make sure you’re actually nailing the shot. Anything that can help you avoid coming out of the darkroom with bad negatives is great.
I definitely see using it for my personal photography and I could also see using it for work. The thing with my work is that I do a lot of handheld, so it would be tricky, but if I’m able to use a tripod, then for sure.
And also, if you're ever taking a portrait of a lawmaker, or anyone for that matter, you don't have that many opportunities to do it, so you want to make sure you get it right. I could see a situation where having an instant preview of what the frame will look like would be helpful.
During this whole pandemic there are definitely moments where you're kind of creatively stuck and you try to look for ways to broaden your horizons. I've been trying to think outside the box and think of different ways to be creative and this has been such a great way to do that. I mean, I don't typically shoot color and it's been fun to be able to flex different creative muscles, particularly with this back.
To follow more of Frank's work, head over to his Instagram.