I defected from digital three days ago with the purchase of my first film camera; a Hasselblad Xpan. My decision to move to film was arrived at slowly, although reading some of the posts on 35mmc in the last few weeks might have given me the final push I needed. So in return, I decided that I would like to contribute and get involved as I have much to learn.
I am halfway through my first roll of film as I write this, so this is something of an ode to my first two years in photography and explains why I felt the need to switch to film. This post contains digital photography. But if that doesn’t put you off then please read on!
Embarking my photography Adventure
Encouraged by a friend, I decided to embark on my little photography adventure two years ago. I was familiar with photography through my career as an advertising art director, often working with commercial photographers to create images for campaigns. However, my main motivation was just to do something pure and creative for myself rather than for a brand. I had encountered Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’, Josef Koudelka’s ‘Gypsies’ and William Eggleston’s ‘Guide’ as a young art student. All ground trembling experiences for me at the time. I had always had this kind of photography at the back of my mind and I was excited to find out what kind of photographs I would take.
After a bit of research, I decided to ditch the SLR route and buy a pocketable camera that I could carry around at all times. I was busy and would not have much time to go out and specifically take photographs. I settled on a Ricoh GR Digital; compact, with a good quality lens and a manual operation option with which to learn the basics. I made a conscious decision to eschew technical photography manuals and magazines and stock up on inspirational photography monographs. After all Robert Frank wouldn’t have had a subscription to ‘Amateur Photographer’ now would he? I began to amass a collection of coffee table tomes by snapping up bargains on eBay and Amazon. If I was ever stuck for ideas I would just go to my ‘library’ and emerge inspired.
When I was a fledgeling art director someone gave me some great advice: ‘copy the greats until you understand what you are doing, then you will eventually find your own way’ – That’s exactly what I did and it worked. After a few years of struggling, I was able to fluently generate my own ideas and execute them in original ways.
I didn’t set out with such lofty intentions with my photography. I just wanted to start my photographic adventure and have some fun along the way. But as I discovered that is exactly what happened anyway. The shots I thought were interesting all seemed to resemble the style of a famous photographer I had seen before. Funny and a little frustrating at times but not unduly worrying as I’ve been here before. It’s all part of the journey.
So with my tongue firmly in my cheek, here’s a walk through a few of the highlights of my first two years with a camera…
My ‘Tony Ray Jones’
I saw the dog out of the corner of my eye and snapped. This scene was in a local village that was dressed with vintage signs for a period TV series that was being shot that week. When I saw the sign I thought I had a winner. Now of course, looking at this ‘quirky English’ photo two years later I realise it’s ‘school of Tony Ray Jones’. Not too worry though. Far better photographers than I have come under his influence too…
My ‘Martin Parr’
Pick up a copy of Martin Parr’s early work ‘The Non-Conformists’ and you will see Tony Ray Jones’s influence writ large. It contains Parr’s charming early black and white work before he moved to colour and developed his own distinctive style.
It’s easy to see Martin Parr’s influence in this photograph I took by a New York landmark. At the time I remembered I liked how the man’s body language echoed that of the statue. Now it just looks like a reject from ‘Small World’ Martin Parr’s satire on tourism. Doh!
My ‘Elliot Erwitt’
I spied this unequal pairing at a train station in Paris. A witty ‘visual one-liner’ I thought to myself as I reviewed the photo over a coffee. A few weeks later somebody told me it reminded them of an Elliot Erwitt. I looked him up. Wow. They probably meant a badly cropped, over processed, copy of an Elliot Erwitt.
My ‘William Eggleston’
No prizes for guessing this one. Can anyone who takes a colour image like this escape his influence?
My ‘Josef Koudelka’
I initially walked right past this scene on a street in France, looking for gentler fare. But the irony of the barefoot sleeper by the shoe shop was too much to resist and I went back. I applied the Tri-X filter in Silver Effex to it when I got back home. Picking up my copy of ‘Exiles’ I realised that I had created something in the style of Koudelka.
My ‘Lee Friedlander’
The Statue partially obscured by the complex foliage screams ‘American Monument’ by Lee Friedlander. Which is only fair as I’m constantly inspired by his work.
My ‘other Lee Friedlander’
Its on the street, it has complex reflections, it’s in black and white. Yep, It’s another ‘Friedlander’. I have a lot of these in my portfolio!
My ‘Luigi Ghirri’
A wonky version of Luigi Ghirri’s well-known image from the 1970’s with books instead of hats. Of course, Ghirri’s hats work better than my books, they have more grace and wit. I hadn’t seen his photograph at the time I took this; but the bonus is i’m now a huge fan of his work.
My ‘Robert Frank’
I shot this in ‘Robert Frank mode’ I know his work so well it’s hard to avoid sometimes. It’s an image I’m still fond of. I like the glamour of the dress juxtaposed against the dark terraced houses and the litter in the foreground. I shot quickly for the ‘feel’ of the image then applied a filter to increase the grain and give it a ‘film-like’ appearance. If had not have seen ‘The Americans’ all those years ago I perhaps would never have turned my lens on this scene. Or indeed been moved picked up a camera.
Of course, all the photographers above had early influences to inspire them too, before moving on to find their own unique style. I can only hope that sooner or later I stumble across mine too. We all need initial inspiration and a point to start from and I’ve had great fun creating these images.
For a while, I thought I would just progress in this manner using digital photography. But I began to feel that there was no quality to what I was doing. I was aimlessly snapping and sometimes immediately discarding the images I would see on the back of the Ricoh’s screen. I liked some of the images I was shooting but I couldn’t ever achieve the final look that I desired. I was lost in processing, tired of navigating menus, SD cards and charging batteries. My enthusiasm began to dry up until I realised that I needed to shoot on Tri-X rather than apply the Tri-X filter to a jpg file. I needed to introduce an element of chance and magic into my photography. The wonderful images in the books I had been studying were shot on film. There was a disconnect between what I wanted and the equipment and methods I was using to try and achieve it. I also needed to gain some real photographic knowledge that I was not getting from shooting digital.
Moving to film seems like a big commitment and a steep learning curve but I’ve never felt so excited about my photography. I’m going to the same places I did with a digital camera and I’m seeing shots I just didn’t see before. With a finite number of shots on my roll of film, I feel myself slowing down, considering whether it’s worth releasing the shutter for the image in my frame lines. If I do press the shutter I know that moment is over and I’m on to my next shot. Not reviewing the image on a screen moments afterwards. I find myself more aware of light conditions and yesterday I even googled ‘hyperfocal focusing’. It feels like the start of a new adventure and I’ve not even shot my first roll yet.