In our continuing journey to better our skills in the craft of photography, many of us aspire to own and shoot a Rolleiflex. The legendary build, small size, and image quality of these cameras drew me in, like the spiral in a developing tank grabs the film. So much of my work has been shot on 35mm and I wanted a ready medium format alternative that I could use every day. I simply had to have one!
Well, I got my hands on a 1959 Rolleiflex 3.5E. It's gorgeous and packed full of advanced features. The one thing I hadn't properly addressed in my scramble for 120 perfection was the fact that it is 6x6cm, or 2¼” square. Perfectly square. I pushed it to the back of my mind: 'I can always crop. I'll just carry on as usual.' 'Square is no problem'.....
Well, all Instagram is square by default and there are square images everywhere, aren't there? So why does this new format feel so scary to me? Changing aspect ratio is recklessly meddling with how I see the world. This could lead to grotesque compositions and humiliation: misplaced horizons, awkward portraits and meaningless, empty spaces. Oh, the shame!
I've been concentrating furiously on getting my 35mm compositions right. I've followed rules, broken rules and the bright lines in my Leica have been so accurate, I've rarely had to crop anything. Subjects often have space to breathe, or are offset for effect. Things have been going well. But square is instinctively the odd kid in the classroom.
A photojournalist friend pointed out the obvious: that we have two eyes in our head and our natural vision is broad. So why squish a picture? Why no square televisions, computer screens, cinemas, mobile phones? Square format must be for eccentrics and those who have been sniffing developer for too long.
So, I talked to Glyn Davies, a nationally renowned photographer friend who has also lectured and tutored with Hasselblads in the past. He cheerfully pointed at some of his accomplished landscapes in his gallery and simply said 'Look at that – just chop off the sides and it's fine'. He was right, of course. Further research revealed the simple beauty and popularity of 'square'.
So apart from simply 'chopping the sides off', what should I do? Well, placing objects at the centre can help. Shapes work well, so do diagonals from corner to corner. Monochrome works especially well, for some esoteric reason.
So how do I 'get my eye in'? How to I cultivate that same instinct for selecting a subject and framing it like I do with 35mm? I've shot a couple of rolls, but in the meantime I've set my iPhone camera to 1:1 square for practice. It really helps.
I think the main question possibly lies with where does the eye come to rest? The eye seems to have more latitude to wander around a square image, whereas a rectangular frame seems to impose some visual rules on where we feel comfortable to be led.
I'm drawing on the work of Vivian Maier and Joseph Hoflehner, among others, trying to unlock the cryptic code of 'square'. It seems enigmatic to me, whilst the most natural and simple visual equation to others.
My first rolls are back from processing and maybe I'm worrying too much? Nothing too jarring to the eye so far. And will I be able to seamlessly float between aspect ratios as I swap cameras in my bag?
Time will tell and, of course, the whole thing about photography is in meeting challenges to grow and improve in this wonderful craft we have chosen.