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Photo exhibition at John Wayne Airport needed an old-school touch

The contraption that Joel Brown lugs onto San Onofre State Beach is heavy — about 20 pounds, he guesses — and made more unwieldy by the challenge of keeping the camera balanced on spindly tripod legs.

Once the artist has his subject in place, it may be a solid minute before he can actually take the picture. First, Brown drapes a dark cloth over his head and the camera and focuses the shot with metal knobs, after which he slides in the film. With the camera loaded, he stands to the side and pushes a button at the end of a cable. Then, it's back to the dark room at home, where the 8-by-10-inch black-and-white portrait emerges on a silver gelatin print.

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Brown, a Rancho Santa Margarita resident, favors aesthetic quality over convenience. And this fall, all that time has paid off — at a place where, ironically, rushing is often the order of the day.

Twenty of Brown's seaside portraits grace Terminals A, B and C at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana through Oct. 15. The photographer, who bought a 1950s-vintage Deardorff camera and other equipment on eBay, has spent years working on his San Onofre series.

"Pose" is the key word here, because the untitled series doesn't feature any candid action shots. Many of Brown's subjects hold their surfboards as they stand by the ocean, while other beachgoers pose in street clothes or next to their cars. In all cases, the flinty detail of the portraits gives them the deliberate look of an era when a photograph required more money and time than in the iPhone age.

"You probably gave me a different look just because you're in front of that camera, and you know that I'm investing time in photographing you," Brown said. "You're investing your time to give right back to me, so, between the two of us, we're going to come up with something that's probably going to look a little differently than if I was just shooting a motor-drive digital in front of your face."

The Deardorff model Brown purchased may look like a relic, but in fact the Tennessee company still manufactures it. General manager Barry Cochran said L.F. Deardorff & Sons assembles 25 to 30 of the old-fashioned models a year and restores ones, like Brown's, that have weathered the decades.

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