Tell us a bit about yourself: who are you? how and when did you start shooting film?
I'm originally from North East London, in England. I'm a child of the 1950's and was actually born in the same part of town as Don McCullin, the British war photographer who is famed for having his Nikon F camera take a bullet from a Vietnamese soldier instead of it killing him. As a child I was always drawing and probably understood perspective and "vanishing points" before I could do math at school.
When I was about ten or maybe eleven years old I was shown how to shoot, develop and print by both my Father and one of his brothers, who was a member of the British Royal Photographic Society. Back in the late 1960's nearly all enthusiast photography was black and white and I recall that I could only ever get one roll of color film for every ten or so of FP4 which was the main film I used back then. Not FP4+ mind you. Oh no! Plain old FP4.
In the early and mid 1970's I went to art school to study the classic British art qualification of that era called the "Diploma In Art and Design", which has since been overtaken by the Higher National Diploma qualification. I part funded my studies by working for a music equipment hire company. Some of my most endearing memories of that period are a mix of painting, drawing, and setting up large sound systems for concerts. I was also "involved" at one point with the "Counter Culture" people of the West London and Portobello Road scenes at the time. The proto-punk and progressive music things were where I come from in this regard.
I had a great time at college and it really did open my eyes to many different aspects of the world of the arts and also introduced me to art practice. I furthered my academic career and have a Bachelor of Science degree too.
While at college, I learnt that I was actually really good at electronics and I also got an introduction to computers. This of course, was in the era when computers meant mainframe systems with punched cards, magnetic tapes whizzing round and men in white lab coats holding clip boards all in air conditioned computer rooms. I was actually able to spend a couple of years at parties impressing everyone with stories of computers and robots and such. Ah yes. The days of just saying that you were a computer programmer and all the ladies would swoon over you are long gone now! As a result, I have worked for several computer manufacturers and in the 1990's also taught Information Technology at university level.
After all this, I can say that I have added immigrant to my resume. The change of century in the year 2000 saw me in a divorce and changing from being British to American; I married my Texan and settled in the USA. Now as a Citizen of the USA, I find myself in North Texas and I'm now on the I.T. staff of a major regional university. Photography is still a part of my life and even with getting into digital in about 2001 I have always shot using film.
So, an artist trapped in an engineer's body! (or, is it the other way around?) What made you stick with film after trying your hand at digital?
I found that while digital has great potential, 15 years ago the realization of that potential was nowhere near what I was able to get with film. A basic scan from a 35mm negative would way outclass anything from the digital cameras of the first five years of this century. Even today, my poor old Nikon D7000 while by far and away an easier and more convenient camera to use, still produces images that need significant post processing to end up close to my 35mm film results, even if they are smaller image files. I should explain that by post processing I mean the same kinds of things I used to do in the darkroom; contrast adjustment, cropping, a little bit of dodging and burning and for color some balancing to remove any color cast. Even though I have Photoshop, I don't do too much else with it.
Oh yes, and then there is my one exception that I do digitally that was never done in the darkroom for me; HDR. I run a group on Facebook called "Vomit Inducing HDR" which is dedicated to those of us that want to post our truly appalling examples of over processed HDR. It's a bit of a joke, but then there are just so many examples out there that it makes my eyes hurt sometimes.
Back to today, and the film story is that in about 2010 I uncovered my old film gear and started shooting with it again. This was about the time I realized that I didn't actually want to spend $3,000 or more every 12 to 18 months on the latest DSLR body. I was actually about to buy a Nikon D7000 but held back and just kept on shooting film. I finally gave in and got an old D7000 that was used as a backup body by a photographer I knew about a year back. Its a good camera, don't get me wrong on this, and while I have used it extensively over the last year to do the few photographic things that demanded digital (a corporate event for example), it delivers nowhere near the results of any of my film gear.
I have been working with 120 film for a few years too and my Bronica ETRSi outfit which is made up of a late model body, three lenses, two 120 film backs, waist level and prism finders, delivers scans that are limited only by my scanner. The 60MP results are truly both eye popping and large enough to print on a 48" large format printer and not see any grain at all. Sure I could do that with top end digital like Phase One gear for example, but the Bronica kit cost me less than $400.
I don't think there are many 50MP or higher digital cameras out there for that kind of price, do you?
Not a single one! But, in the end, film is one of many choices for a medium. Besides the technical advantages of that time, what other qualities of it did you find attractive or suitable for your work?
While film is certainly "just" way of recording visual information, it is one that comes with a lot of history to it. There is a lot of deep knowledge and experience of how film and the associated processes work out there. The language of the darkroom is seen in many places in the digital world too. I mentioned Photoshop before, and a great example of what I am saying is that there are many tools and an entire language inside Photoshop that is used to describe just how these tools work. They are all direct analogs for the darkroom tools of the same names; Dodge, Burn etc. I also believe that film is not "just" another medium. Different films come with distinct 'personalities' and respond in particular ways when used in various circumstances and lighting conditions. As a result of knowing these 'personalities' and how to use them in particular situations means they become a distinct part of the creative process that none of my DSLRs seem to be able to reproduce.
You mentioned earlier that you had formal arts education. How did that shape your artistic vision? What are those aspects of the arts that were revealed to you?
As for my art education, it certainly was an interesting part of my life. Not just the power of youth as it has been called, but the realization that it is a business, just like any other, was a hard one to come to terms with. Most people don't realize that there are different employers, different career paths, different approaches to the same tasks. Most people who are not involved in the arts have this view of the starving artist, painting away in some large loft dressed in Bohemian outfits and wearing berets. None of that could be further from the truth. It's all very hard work and you need to spend a few years learning the tricks of the trade and how to make a career of it all. It is very a long and steep ladder to climb with lots of lose or broken rungs to fall from before you even get close to the point where you can be considered a success.
My "vision", for what its worth, is a simple one. If a piece works somehow, then its a success. As an artist, the more I can sell it for, then the more justification I get. You have to pay the bills, after all. At the age of 19 or so, I was shaping up to be a pretty good copyist. Able to look at a work of one artist and reproduce it fairly well in pen or paint. That taught me the basics of design and how a work is put together. Perspective, composition, color, brush or penmanship, and all the things that go to make a painting "good" are the same for photography too. All this from the era when abstract works were all the rage.
I finished my art school career with a 5 foot square cubist style canvas. A visual deconstruction of a young lady in the class as it happens. Only when it was "done" did I realize that I could have got better results using a more three dimensional approach to it... This is the key to why I am not a painter or "artist" today. I would never have a body of work to sell, to make a living from. I often feel that once done, a work is never actually finished. All my portrait photography looks back to that one large canvas. I am never finished and want to shoot another frame. Adjust the position of either the subject or of me. Change the light. What is there that is newly revealed? How can I capture it now? A classic of the contact sheet problem. Choose which one frame is the one frame for publication or display. But How? The founder of the FSC, Cameron knows my problem with editing. I have plenty of work, but I can't quite come to say "This one is finished". I am famous for opening up a copy of an image and tinkering. I just can't leave well enough alone.
You obviously shoot with a purpose. Is that purpose a preconceived idea or a spur of the moment?
Actually its both. I am very happy to just wander round somewhere taking random pictures of whatever catches my attention. There are as many things to photograph that are "just there" for me as there are things that I am looking out for that relate to a project.
There will as you say, also often be a purpose to what I am doing. I have one project right now that relates to how we treat our local environment. I have been making a few images of trash and the problem of how it doesn't decompose in the immediate area round my home. I will often look for something that talks to the theme.
I have one image I really like that has been sitting on a bench for a few years now and I keep meaning to get it framed but not so far. Must get it done. I really must.
Now, about the editing process, when you're looking out at stuff for a project you probably have a set idea of what the project should look like and part from there. How about those random pictures? Is there a gap between what you find interesting at the moment of shooting and the moment you edit? Lots of people talk about an emotional detachment that comes from the time between shooting and developing. What's your take on that?
Always! It would be silly to pretend that the gap between the act of recording an image, by which I mean taking the photograph and then the editing process can be a long time. I'll often find a new aspect in an image long after the day it was taken that is entirely different from the one I had in mind on the day. This applies to the random images shot on the spur of the moment as well as the deliberate images made specifically for a project.
I also find the entire process of editing a really stressful one. Yes, I am talking about trying to arrive at what makes a good series of images. I guess I am just used to working on single images at a time and need more experience of something like putting a book or an exhibition wall together. I just don't do it enough to feel confident.
Like many photographers, once the technical stuff was more or less mastered, I became very aware that the hard stuff begins. It's got nothing to do with exposure, developing, or any of the "how to" kind of stuff, but the subject matter. Making an image that has meaning or stirs an emotion. That's the real challenge. That's when the "artistic self-doubt" and all those kinds of things leap out and act like the little devils they are.
In that regard, the artistic side of it, is there a particular influence from someone whose work you look up to in terms of where you want to be in your photography?
I am a big fan of landscape and environmental work. The FSC's very own Nils Karlson makes images that always stop me in my tracks and is very emotional for me to view. Sometimes a simple collection of colors arranged in a basic way does the job and he sure knows how to do it. I wish that I had the chance to get even remotely close to making work that has that level of feeling in it.
Then there is Nobuyuki Kobayashi who's work is incredibly engaging. The thing that gets me is the amazing detail that hides away in his work. The larger I see his prints, the more I see. Of course the approach to composition that he uses is one I'd also love to emulate. Perhaps when I can retire and concentrate more on photography. Oh, the dream.