At times, it seems like photographers like to capture everything. We see the world differently. We cherish the banal as much as the dramatic, and it can all feel quite valuable and precious in a photograph. In the age of digital photography, it’s easy to forego the diligent pursuit of the decisive moment and just continually hit the button and pick favorites later.
But it wasn’t always so.
“The regret of letting a good photograph pass is not something I can live with.”
Take an evening stroll down a busy Harlem street, and you may run into such a photographer. Dean “Chooch” Landry moved to New York City as a teenage touring musician. As he shifted into the visual arts, he fell in love with the process of creating large-format images. Neighborhood portraits and night scenes became his focus, and he created a balance between artistic pursuits and social interaction with his new neighbors.
In a modern setting, Dean’s 100-year-old beast of a camera would seem out of place. The Auto Graflex bears more resemblance to a camping lantern than most modern cameras, and it begs for attention from the uninitiated. The streets of New York have been a rallying point for budding street photographers and documentarians for generations, but the cumbersome, early single-lens reflex camera doesn’t always lend itself well to the modern urban environment.
Enter The Race of Gentlemen (TROG): a period-correct beach-racing extravaganza dedicated to 1920s- and ’30s-style hot rods, where Dean’s camera was right at home — and so was Dean. At a young age, his father brought him into the racing world, and young Chooch was surrounded by cars and motorcycles early on. Armed with his camera and his sensibility tuned to racing subjects, his images from TROG quickly drew attention as he gave more authentic depth to the scenes on the beach. He found a home within the camaraderie of TROG, and his photographs are some of the most honest and visually delightful that the event has ever seen.
Of all the obstacles to making these photographs, deciding which image to take would seem to be the most critical; there is only so much film one can prep and carry for a single day of shooting. Every image taken is another image he cannot take in the future. Dean typically carries enough preloaded film to make 35 images per day and tends to travel with the gear needed to empty the film holders and reload if necessary. “It’s a sweaty and slow process,” he says, “but a necessary evil, I guess.” The sacrifice seems worth it to get just a couple more shots as the light gets better, because, as Dean admits, “The regret of letting a good photograph pass is not something I can live with.”
Dean’s process is a delicate balance of preparation and a gamble, and one that requires muscle memory, instinct, and a couple of extra donor cameras for parts. Not unlike the vintage motorcycles in front of his lens, the camera itself requires constant upkeep to function properly and reliably. At approximately 100 years old, the camera requires hard-to-find parts, cleaning, re-oiling, and calibration with normal usage. But those quirks and leaks and happy accidents can also bring a sense of unpredictable joy not found in modern camera equipment, despite the best efforts of image editing software and the latest apps.
Beyond the world of cars and motorcycles, Dean still enjoys the city streets and portraits, and the world of the traveling musician remains close to his heart. He may not be sleeping in a tour van anymore, but he still dreams of getting Willie Nelson in front of his Auto Graflex someday.