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ENJOY THE VIEW: Although you can find it at most large newsstands, View Camera magazine is one of those specialty publications the average Joe probably will never pick up, much less read. Too bad--in this era of cheap point-and-shoot cameras and digitally manipulated images, it's refreshing to see a publication devoted to superior achievement in the art and craftsmanship of something as common as the photograph.

The view camera, for the uninitiated, is your basic camera obscura of ancient times--a pinhole allowing light into a dark chamber, where it's focused on the wall opposite the hole. But the view camera is also outfitted with a lens, shutter, bellows and ground glass to improve greatly on the basics of focusing, exposure and framing. Unlike its tiny modern cousin the point-and-shoot, the view camera has no auto wind, built-in-flash, light meter or other electronic beeps and blips to idiot-proof the photographic process.

The fruits of the view camera--generally large photographic prints--are best viewed directly, whether in a museum, gallery, or on some collector's wall. Mere reproduction of even a well-executed photograph in a book or calendar invariably fails to do proper justice to the original. Given the constraints of magazine as medium, View Camera nonetheless captures the spirit, if not the essence.

Like so many other things today, the sheer ubiquity of the photograph, and the ease with which anyone can make or obtain one, has, for most people, thoroughly diluted the sense of wonder photography once inspired. But the view camera master--with his unwieldy tripod, oversized lenses, bulky film holders and flapping focusing cloth--is a magician whose work can restore our sense of awe in the seemingly commonplace.

That's because he generally uses a negative much larger than today's standard 35 mm snapshot format; and the apparent clunkiness of his equipment belies the fact that he can, at a few minutes' notice, construct--through lens selection, bellows extension, back and front tilts--precisely the type of camera appropriate to a given situation. As a result, good view camera images are spectacular--sharp, vivid, and at times almost as vast as our imaginations.

Unfortunately, few have the opportunity to stand before the stunning achievements of the view camera masters, although most everyone is, at one time or another, exposed to the pale shadows of their works, which are reproduced here and there.

All of which, we think, points up a larger issue concerning quality.

Each of us generally recognizes high achievement in our individual fields of endeavor; but step outside those areas with which we're of necessity conversant, and we're all pretty much at a loss. In any given area of human achievement, perhaps less than 20 percent of the population has the experience, much less the inclination, to make an educated evaluation of quality. When was the last time you heard anyone compliment a plumber on a bit of clever work, or a bricklayer on his ability to hold to a line?

Sports, with its long history, clearly defined goals and strict procedures, is somewhat the exception to this rule--superior athletic achievement is fairly obvious to anyone of average intelligence with a body of his own.

But when we see a magazine like View Camera, or by chance stumble across an exhibit of large-format works at some out-of-the-way place like the UA Center for Creative Photography, we find ourselves wishing more people--ourselves included--could see as the great photographers see, or at least fully appreciate the sheer visual opportunity they've given us.

TENSIONS BUILDING: The excellent VideoTENSIONS series continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 19, in the UA Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Building, northeast corner of Mountain Avenue and Speedway. This week's screening, VideoPARKS, features the documentary "Claiming Open Spaces," by visiting artist Austin Allen. The film explores African-American culture's clash with the design of the modern American city, and will be followed by a discussion with the artist. All screenings are free, and continue through July 17. Call 621-7352 for information on this and upcoming programs.

COOL BEANS: Bookman's Used Books, 1930 E. Grant Road, plays host to a festive evening of back-lot fun from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, June 20. Tucson author Sue Myal will sign copies of her in-depth guide, Tucson Mexican Restaurants, while live dancers and musicians provide further entertainment. Free eats from Tania's and Lerua's restaurants, and a piñata (kids only, heavy hitters), will also spice up the affair. Call 325-5767 for information.

DRY RUN: Be sure to tune in to Cadillac Desert, the excellent PBS series based on the landmark book of the same name, published some years ago by Marc Reisner. In next week's issue, we'll give you the full story on this fascinating study of how water policy has shaped growth in the Southwest; but don't miss the first installment about the unlikely birth of a little desert burg called Los Angeles, chronicled in "Mulholland's Dream," set to air on Tuesday, June 24, on KUAT, Channel 6. It's the true story on which that classic flick Chinatown was based. It'll leave you anxiously licking those parched, dry lips.

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