In the Czech Republic people give each other gifts on Christmas Eve. From early morning the day is full of activity and anticipation. Children can barely shut their eyes the night before. And what a day for grown-ups: decorate the tree, set up the Nativity scene, clean up, cook, clean up again, set the table with candles and festive plates, dress up and finally everybody gathers around the table. “Watch out for bones,” mom warns. And then the Christmas bell starts ringing and it is time to see if there are gifts under the tree. And with bellies full of soup, fish and potato salad, we enter the living room. The room is dark, only the Christmas tree is lit-up, glowing on a quiet winter night, shining light on the colorful packages underneath. The eyes of the little ones widen as they see the tree for the first time. For it was decorated in secret only that morning. Even the older ones are charmed. So eager to open all their presents, yet they pause for a moment. The tree is sparkling. The night is still. It is Christmas night. It is magic.
For the past couple months I have been using a new camera. It is a large format view camera, a beautiful tool with a graceful name: Deirdorff. It is made out of metal and wood that folds onto itself into a smaller portable box. Making an image with a Deirdorff is a slow process. First you open the camera, set it up on a tripod and adjust all the knobs and buttons. They get so tight when the weather is cold. Then with your fingers freezing you slide in the lens and screw the shutter release, measure your exposure with an external meter (no built-in meter in this beauty!) and compose your image. Finally, you take the dark cloth out of the bag, pull it over your head, tuck it in tight and look at the composed scene on the ground glass. The image is up side down but you don’t take notice. For a moment you forget the real scene in front of you. The illusion becomes the reality, the dark cloth separates you from the real world like a theatre curtain divides a stage from an audience. You fine tune the focus and the image comes to life. It is sharp and clear. The highlights are sparkling. It is magic.
So perhaps for the same reasons Czechs spend Christmas Eves in frantic activity, I carry the heavy view camera around. And the sturdy tripod to support it. Oh how many things can go wrong. A light leak the other day, a negative was not fully in. And ups, a double exposure. And how many times have I set up, focused and composed only to see the sun rays disappear behind heavy clouds and not appear again. But when you crawl under the black cloth and all you see is the image glowing in the dark, it is magic.