Using aerospace aluminum and his father's machine shop, 26-year-old Wettstein
hand builds lightweight 4x5 cameras capable of remarkable detail and color
When New York photographer Kipp Wettstein couldn't find a camera suited to his needs - one that would provide large format resolution with the mobility of a 35mm - he decide to take matters into his own hands, literally.
Starting with solid blocks of aerospace-grade aluminum and a Schneider 72mm XL lens, Wettstein hand-machined a lightweight 4x5 view camera that allowed him to ditch the tripod and go mobile with fantastic detail and color fidelity.
Wettstein, 26, admits he started with no training in building his own cameras, but he's become so successful in the machine shop that his photographer friends Robert Polidori and Martin Schoeller commissioned him to make large-format versions for them.
Wettstein says the idea to build his own cameras first arose while he was working in the photo department of the New Yorker magazine and yearning to shoot more of his own photography. "I felt anchored by my Linhof on a tripod, so it was more just kind of a pursuit of mobility and size than anything," he says. "I knew I wanted to shoot big film and so I started thinking about how to shave down my kit and become more mobile. I butchered an old Toyo 4x5 [view camera] and did some test shoots, then decided to do something more serious."
On his website, www.kippwettstein.com, Wettstein describes the process and shows a series of photos documenting the making of his first three models from start to finish, including a time when he cut his finger on the sharp metal shavings.
"The beauty of the design is that it is built around the elegant form of the image cone produced by the lens," Wettstein explains on his site. "Not only does this design yield an attractive camera but it is extremely accurate. The lens and film planes have a parallel accuracy within the fractions of a millimeter. The designs have no perspective-controlling movements. They are small, lightweight and extremely accurate."
Wettstein says the cameras cost between $5,000 and $9,000 to build, although Polidori, who outfitted his with a gyroscope to take aerial photographs, spent about $12,000. Wettstein says he's open to orders, but he views his role in the process as more of a consultant than a manufacturer. "It's more like having your kitchen remodeled than buying a dishwasher," he says.
Having since given up his job at the New Yorker , Wettstein is now working as a full-time freelancer. When not in the machine shop, Wettstein puts his camera to good use photographing landscapes and man's impact on the environment.
"My motivations are studying our imprint on the landscape … what cultural values come through as we stake our claim," Wettstein says when asked to explain his photography.
Wettstein plans to spend the summer in Colorado manufacturing a few more cameras.
"The one I did for Martin [Schoeller] we jokingly call a 4x5 point-and-shoot, but it quickly became the most complicated camera I've built because he wanted to focus down to portraits. That presented a lot of technical challenges," Wettstein says, before admitting that his skills are improving with each new model he makes.
His first camera weighed six pounds. Schoeller's weighed just three pounds. An 8x10 point-and-shoot may not be far behind.