It was episode 272 of the Sunny 16 podcast entitled “Blue Magic Tree” that kicked off 2022 and on which Graeme Jago proclaimed the year to be “Twenty Twenty Do”. The spirit of the proclamation was to do with inspiring us all to rise from the ashes of a pandemic and be creative. To help with the inspiration, the hosts suggested monthly themes that everyone could use to keep their creative momentum going throughout the year. “Blue”, “Magic” and “Tree” were three of those themes and so as you might be able to tell, the themes included opportunities for both literal and abstract interpretation. I decided to participate and to try and keep it going for the whole year.
I had posed a question previously in a Facebook group about participation in community events – asking members why they did or didn’t participate. The answers, as you might imagine, were varied. Some of the people who frequently participate enjoy the camaraderie. Others enjoy the challenge and like to see what is possible within the constraints of whatever the event is built around. Amongst those who do not participate, reasons included time constraints and a preference for particular cameras and films. In other words, with a limited amount of time and resources for photography, they wanted to dedicate what time they did have to those tools and techniques that they enjoy, which is completely understandable. My own personal history in this area is that I have often participated in various events and it has almost always been for the social aspect. It is fun to chat with fellow participants and also inspiring to hear about their approach. So it is with all of this in mind that I resolved to embrace the spirit of “Twenty Twenty Do”.
Sherry Christensen from the Embrace the Grain podcast started a project a few years ago called the “Frugal Film Project”. This is similar to some other community initiatives where the main objective is to stick to a certain budget. The format has varied over the years. Sometimes films or cameras or both were used for one stretch during the year and then changed. Perhaps black and white during the duller months and color during spring and autumn. The parameters for 2022 was one camera under $75 USD and one film for the year.
I had been leaning towards 120 heavily during that time anyway and wondered what sort of medium format camera I might be able to get for $75. Of course Holga and other similar cameras came to mind. Ultimately I found a folder which is a type of camera I had never used. Specifically it was a Kodak 66. It offered a little more manual control than some of the well known “plastic fantastics”. Although I had mostly been shooting 400 speed films to that point, given the camera, I decided to go with Foma 100 which at the time I was able to get for $4.79 a roll. One of the shutter speeds on the camera is 1/75 and with apertures of f16 and f22 available (in addition to living in an area with bright sunlit days throughout most of the year), I imagined that this combination would allow me to make suitable images.
While the general guidelines were enough of a challenge, I decided to give myself two additional goals. First, I would limit myself to the four images each month that I liked the best. They might not be the four that most people might consider the best objectively, just the four I liked the best. Curation is sometimes a struggle for me as I imagine it is for many, so forcing myself to pick four every month made me think about the images both in terms of what I wanted to photograph beforehand and which ones I liked best after the fact. In examining the images I also noticed some tendencies in my photography – for example I tend to shoot objects from the left more often than straight-on or from the right. I don’t know why, but that was a sort of revelation.
The other goal I gave myself was to make prints of the four images each month. I enjoy getting in the darkroom, so it’s not as though I needed extra motivation there. But it can be easy to get busy with other things in life and suddenly you realize you haven’t made any prints in months. So this afforded me a reason to prioritize it. Each month I made at least four prints for the project, but always ended up making more prints from other negatives so it ended up being a great addition for me. Having a print as an end goal in mind also influenced the images I made as I went along. I wasn’t just randomly snapping away, I was trying to deliberately consider subjects that might be fun to try and translate in the darkroom (with varying levels of success I should say). Finally, with this goal in mind, I purchased a portfolio that would hold 48 prints so now I also have a nice personal memento.
I should also mention that for the monthly themes set by Sunny 16, I gave myself additional goals there as well. To the degree possible, I wanted to try and utilize tools or techniques that were less familiar to me. In other words, although there wasn’t a specific budget for example, I didn’t just want to shoot everything using a 400 speed film in an SLR as I might normally do. While I can’t say that I adhered to this goal perfectly, I did take the opportunity to shoot more Polaroid, to pull out my cyanotype chemicals, to try a long-exposure zoom burst and to scan some old 110 negatives and even an old MRI. One surprise was that initially I expected to struggle with the more conceptual themes, but in actuality it was freeing to consider the idea to be whatever resonance it had for me. On the contrary, I struggled more than expected on some of the more straightforward themes like the aforementioned “tree”. What I expected to be one of the easier assignments had me frozen through analysis paralysis. A Flickr album of my humble efforts can be found here.
As you may have deduced by now, I listen to several podcast related to film photography. Another one that has a history of organizing community events is Matt Loves Cameras by Matt Murray. One of the competitions he ran in the year was around panoramic cameras. Specifically the low-budget, fixed focus variety that do not require batteries. Matt not only organizes competitions, but has put together zines at the end to include submissions. For the pano competition, I picked up an Ansco Pix Panorama that I used with a roll of APX 400 (in hindsight, a slower speed film might have been advisable, but it all turned out well).
Some of the events I participated in were smaller one-time events. When I was a guest of Sherry and her co-host Jake Rose on Embrace the Grain, I proposed a challenge for listeners to recreate an album cover. This resulted in several fun entries including one from Jack Bulkey recreating Sgt. Pepper’s and featuring various members of the film community. Sherry and Jake also often suggest monthly topics on their Facebook group page that have everyone using a specific film, camera-type, or perhaps focal length lens. I took part in several of these throughout the year as well. The Sunny 16 podcast also has an affiliated Discord channel that several listeners are active on. During the summer we had a print swap which was really fun. Although members are spread throughout the world, a couple of the people who were matched actually lived quite close to one another and met up for their exchange at a local pub.
Of course not all community events revolve around podcasts. There are two Polaroid weeks every year – spring and autumn. While I did not post as much as many participants, I did make an effort to shoot during the weeks. A new community event for this year is Photo Print Day which Jim Mortram created as a way for people to exchange prints at an affordable price while also raising funds for charity. While this was proposed earlier in the year to take place in September, he actually organized one in addition to that in March to support organizations providing assistance in the Ukraine war effort. I bought a print and a zine as part of both events and sold a print during the Ukraine event. For Worldwide Pinhole Day, I took the opportunity to use two formats that I haven’t been as active with – pinhole and large format. I used the Ilford Obscura to make some images on the day.
There are other notable community events that I wasn’t able to actively participate in but enjoyed seeing the output from – there are three 127 Days that celebrate 4×4 imagery, there is a cyanotype day, and there is Holga week. Matt Murray also held an Xpro competition for those who enjoy cross-processing film. An event that pops up occasionally on Twitter is fp4party which celebrates that fine film. A type of community event that saw a resurgence this year is the photowalk. While there are many that I missed out on, one I was able to participate in was held in Dayton, Tennessee by another podcast I enjoy, the Uncle Jonesy’s Camera Podcast hosted by Kevin Lane and Wayne Setser. I participated in another photowalk at Piedmont Park in Atlanta for the soft launch of the new films offered by Atlanta Film Co in July.
So what did I learn from a year of projects and community events (aside from that I have a preference for standing to the left of things as I photograph them)? Am I a better photographer? Probably not. As others have mentioned and as seems intuitive to some, using one film and one camera all year as is the case for the Frugal Film Project is an excellent way to really get to know a camera and film. The themes set forth by all of these events are helpful to shake us out of our occasional tendencies which I think helps us grow. I hope so at least.
The arguments put forth that I mentioned in the beginning from folks who do not regularly participate in community events are valid. Photography is often a solo pursuit. It is a thing that many of us do “by ourselves” (alone) and “for ourselves” (expressing our own creative ideas, not the ideas of others). So while that isn’t everyone’s philosophy, I can empathize with that point of view. Similarly, the end results of these events are often posted on social media and people have multiple views around that as well – “not a good platform for viewing images”, “do not trust the companies running the platforms”, “the algorithms aren’t showing me what I want to see”, “too many advertisements” – are just a few observations people have made over the years. It is difficult to argue with those sentiments and I would not attempt to convince anyone who isn’t already comfortable with social media to join just for the sake of community event participation. As the year went on I did notice that the majority of images I took for myself, I kept to myself. The majority of images I shared online were images I made for one or another of these community events. That is not an approach I am suggesting for others so much as just another observation that came out of this exercise. The takeaway for me on the subject is just to say that although photography is largely a solo activity that I do for myself, there is a very significant social aspect to photography for me. Would I still engage in photography if I couldn’t share my enthusiasm for it with other likeminded folks? Probably. But it certainly is more fun and makes for a richer experience this way I think.
So as the calendar turns towards another year, let me use this as an opportunity to encourage each of you to set a goal for 2023. Seek out a community event during the year to participate in. Ask questions from other participants about how they went about it. Share your approach and your results. It is more fun for everyone when people are actively involved. And if an event doesn’t exist that interests you, create your own!
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope it may have helped encourage you to get out and create. I am bsanfordjr on Instagram, Twitter and Flickr and you can listen to me chats with various creative people on the Music and Photography podcast on the Sunny 16 Presents feed.
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