You don’t have to be crazy to shoot film, but it helps. Richard Malogorski is arguably crazier than most. His passion for large format 360 degree photography has led him to restore his own Cirkut camera, a rotating panoramic camera manufactured in the early 20th century.
Cirkut cameras were popular between around 1910 to the 1930s. They were used mainly for photographing large group portraits such as schools and military groups, which they did by rotating on a turntable as they exposed the film.
Richard however is capturing subjects never previously shot on such cameras. Landscapes are among his favorite subjects, as well as farm workshops, cafes and churches. These interior shots pose an additional challenge of requiring a low shutter speed. (With the Cirkut camera making an exposure of an interior can take up to two hours.)
In some ways Richard is perhaps a man out of time, but we couldn’t be more grateful for this fact. Through his passion for the Cirkut camera he is keeping history alive.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started with photography?
I was born in 1957. My father had a great interest in graphic arts including photography and he had a darkroom, and several cameras and enlargers. He was also interested in watercolor. He was an excellent painter. My very first camera was a Leica IIIf. He also had a Canon rangefinder and also a Minolta Auto cord, which was a medium format twins lens reflex camera. I was able to work in the darkroom at an early age, but my interests were with the great photographers who worked with the large format cameras such as Ansel Adams, Alfred stiglitz, Paul strand, Edward Weston, Elliott Porter, Frederick Evans, and quite a few others.
How did you discover the Cirkut camera and why were you so fascinated by it?
When I began making my large format photographs with the 8x10 inch negatives I sometimes realized that the camera excluded the surroundings. I realized I couldn’t really express what I was looking at if I couldn't include the surrounding areas.
I was aware of Cirkut photography because I had seen prints here and there, and what fascinated me was how they were made. Eventually I found a camera for sale at a camera shop not too far from me and I purchased it. I had to do a lot of work on it to get it into working condition. Originally they wound up like a big clock, but the spring wound motor was all worn out so I had to get it converted to electric. At that time there were still two people who repaired Cirkut cameras, they were Jim Lipari and David Paskin. I had it converted and worked with it a long time like that but I eventually I did my own conversion which works even better, and that is basically how I got started. And of course my desire to include the space around the photograph requires the panoramic format. Also the Cirkut camera has one of the most unusual characteristics and that is the film is so large that every single print is a contact print. If you use a very good lens and focus and everything works perfectly the image quality is incredible because there is no enlargement.
I am also glad to work with something so old. It is certainly a part of history. As far as I know I'm the only one doing this, at least with this particular style - the machine shops, the landscapes, the hardware stores, grocery stores, cafes, etc. This required modification to the camera so that I could use it at very slow speeds because when the camera was made it was mainly used for outdoor use. The slowest shutter speed was only 1/2 second, the fastest was 1/12 second. My camera is set up to go all the way down to 16 seconds and the fastest I can do is one quarter of a second. Of course that is only the exposure for the slit in the shutter which is 3/8 of an inch wide so when I use the slowest speed it takes 16 seconds for the film to advance 3/8 of an inch. Since I have 78 inches of film usually loaded into the camera it can take quite a long time to make an exposure.
What are the biggest challenges that come with the kind of photography you do?
I would say that because the camera is over 100 years old it required quite a bit of restoration. Also I have to find the film, which was difficult. Fortunately Ilford is now providing it but it is expensive. I order it in 100 ft rolls. The film is HP 5 plus, and it is around $500 per roll. I can get 15 photographs out of each roll.
I also had to have gears cut for each lens. Originally the camera came with a triple convertible lens but I wanted to use relatively modern lenses, so I had to have the lenses measured as far as their focal length and then the gears had to be cut. I have quite an assortment of gears. One of the great things about the Cirkut camera is it is a fully rotational panoramic camera, but it is possible to switch lenses. Many of the previous rotational panoramic cameras were fixed focus and fixed lens, but the Cirkut camera was quite flexible in the sense that you could interchange lenses and focus. Of course when I focus I have to decide which gear to use.
The camera did require quite a bit of restoration and innovation on my part to get it to work with electric motors and relatively modern lenses, and to get the film and to attach the leaders, and also to work out the problem of developing the film, printing the film, and washing the prints. And of course mounting, and matting, and framing the prints.
Also the camera is very large, and heavy, and requires a long time to set up for each photograph. It is definitely not point-and-shoot. It takes a long time. In order to work with a Cirkut camera you need to be mechanically inclined and I feel this is probably why I enjoy photographing so many repair shops and machine shops. I like talking to the people who run these places. It's very interesting to talk to them and I know that if you do not have an avid interest in what you are photographing the images can be boring.
Do you have a favorite photo you’ve taken on the Cirkut camera?
Yes, I have several that I like above others. One is titled Cedar Falls. This is one I did right after I got the camera in 1996. It shows a waterfall with a stream. The stream curved around me like a horseshoe so that when the camera rotated the stream appeared straight. It is a full 360 degree photograph. This is something that I have done repeatedly with the camera which is to look for subjects that lend themselves to the rotational aspect of the camera. If I photograph something straight it will appear bent and if I photograph something that is bent towards the camera it will appear straight.
Also I have done quite a few machine shops and repair shops and one of my best is Bohl's Repair, Woodworth, North Dakota. These shops appear chaotic when you first encounter them and it is almost impossible to make a good composition with a standard rectangular format but when a rotation panoramic image is made it creates a visually striking image.
Another good image is titled Golden Valley Church Near Reeder, North Dakota no.1. This was done under unusual weather conditions with an approaching storm and the clouds are very intense. It was done using an aerial mapping film which had an extended red sensitivity and so the sky is quite dark. The great plains area is my favorite region to photograph because of the immense open spaces. This minimizes the distortion that is typical with a fully rotational camera.
What advice would you give to anyone wishing to get into panoramic film photography?
I would suggest using either a swing lens camera such as the widelux, the Noblex or the Horizon. If you are the type of individual that enjoys older cameras, a banquet camera is a good choice. A typical format for such a camera is 12x20 inches and I believe that film is available from Ilford special order but it is expensive. Cirkut cameras are complex and require someone with good mechanical aptitude and a lot of patience.
How much planning goes into each photo you take?
A lot of planning goes into a trip. The film must be rolled up several months in advance because it is on a polyester base. Originally the film was on a cellulose acetate base. This was how Cirkut camera film was provided when it was rolled up by the factory, but polyester film will unwind like a giant watch spring unless it is rolled up several months in advance. After that when I load it into the camera it will feed onto the take-up drum smoothly, otherwise it will just try to unwind inside the camera. This took a long time for me to understand. There's so many technical issues to be solved but I've worked them out over the years. Of course my vehicle needs to be in good condition. It now has 491,000 miles on it. Next year it'll hit 500,000 but it's still doing good. It is a 1994 Toyota pickup truck.
I have to get just a broad general idea of where I'm going to go but lately I've been heading out mainly to the Great Plain States because as I mentioned I seem to have the best luck there. The landscape lands itself very well to the panoramic format but it is a very difficult area to photograph because there's a lot of sky area. In almost any form of photography the skies are the most difficult thing to photograph because the tonalities are quite smooth and any problems with technique shows up rather badly.
I also try to find those old style repair shops and machine shops but they are becoming very very rare. They were a thing mainly of the past when the farms were much smaller. Now the farms are so large that each farm has its own modern shop and they don't really lend themselves very well to the style of photography I do. I also often will make an effort to photograph something and be disappointed in the result but resolve to return either next year or the year after and try again. So sometimes it takes several years to really get it the way I want it. Sometimes I see something and the weather conditions are not proper. The best weather conditions are usually overcast. I will often Mark the Spot using my GPS and then next year or the year after I return to it if I think the weather is more favorable for a good photograph.
Do you have any plans for new photos that you’d like to share with us?
All I can say is that every year I head out for a period of time and use my Cirkut and my 8x10 inch camera. I have some new ideas of where I'd like to photograph. Some of them are actually local to where I live. I have not really changed my style much over the years but just simply refined it. I have been doing a more minimalistic style. As I mentioned before, the repair shops are getting much more difficult to find. I did do one good welding shop this year though in Torrington, Wyoming. It has a clock in the image at each end of the photograph and so it shows the passage of time. It's approximately half an hour from when I start the camera at the left until the clock appears again at the right.
We'd like to thank Richard for sharing his work with us. To see these photos and more in high resolution visit Richard's website. His prints are also sold at the Toledo Museum of Art at the Collectors Corner Gallery.
Want to dip your toes into the world of 360 degree photography? Check out our Spinner 360° Camera.