I am Ashley B Williams and this is why I shoot film
There’s a sense of good will and camaraderie in the film photography community that’s hard to beat. In fact, it’s often hard for me to put it into words…well, a few words at least.
I’m not suggesting that today’s interviewee could talk the hind legs off a donkey but he certainly does a better job than me. Over to your, Ashley!
Hi Ashley, what’s this picture, then?
ABW: Now, this picture you will recognise as my twitter AVI, It was from my very first black and white film. It was also my first proper development having only ever developed a couple of Poundland Agfa Vista in Rodinal. It was just an opportunistic shot of a discarded mirror still wet from a rain shower.
When it came to loading on to the developing reel I discovered my £3 vintage tank only took 24 exposure rolls and there was I was trying to load 36 exposure ILFORD HP5+! I ended up chopping it up, and it took so long, my eyes became aware of how non-light-tight the room was.
I stand developed and tweaked it quite a bit in Lightroom, keen to show off my first proper roll. It never sat well with me – the amount of tweaking it took to get a decent image – then 18 months later, I started learning the art of printing in the darkroom.
This image is a scan of a print from that negative, proving it wasn’t too bad. I have finally forgiven myself.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
ABW: I am Ashley Brown Williams, a 52 year old paranoid living with anxiety and controlling it in my own way. I am your typical late middle aged man saying all those little things my parents said that annoyed me. Grumpyfck sums it up.
A builder of old, now managing a member’s bar. Father of four, part-time husband, part-time hobbyist. The Manchester area was my roots but I now reside in sunny (read warmer and wetter) Plymouth in southern England. I work mainly in black and white medium format film, with 35mm becoming more for family day snap shots. For these I use a hand me down Pentax ME Super.
For my slightly more serious stuff I use my beloved 1936 Zeiss Ikon Ikoflex and formerly my Yashica-Mat 124G. I have a 15 or so other playthings, of which a little Kodak Reflex is really special to me, as my son bought it for me.
Something that I have consciously done since starting this journey 18 months ago has been to do it on a budget. Just about everything involved was either gifted, swapped or rescued or bought from selling other stuff to fund. One of my biggest weaknesses is vintage cameras.
I just love to use, feel and smell them, so my ongoing relationship with Russell Soper a local vintage shop owner and co-conspirator / backer of my 52 camera project has saved me a mint! I have played with so many weird and wonderful cameras I just hope my G.A.S. is cured before it all comes to an end.
You will mostly find me wandering around Plymouth and the nearby coastal routes. On free weekends I like to lose myself on the vast area of Dartmoor, usually with one or two of my girls who are showing an interest in my shenanigans.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
ABW:SHAWN MOZMODE TOLD ME TOO!!! That’s the truth too!
Remember, I am 52, so film was the norm for my era. I got a toy camera mid-70s and just took pics. By the 80s I had my stepdad’s Pentax ME and was still taking shit photos in auto – I used it like today’s youth use phones! By 2003/4 it wasn’t very well and I ended up with my first phone camera while the Pentax languished in a shoe box.
As the kids appeared and grew I picked up a Canon D1100 and slowly got into photography, teaching myself by book and video, shooting in manual and RAW then editing in Lightroom. I started to show off my over saturated bollocks on Twitter and picked up some followers, one of these was Shawn.
He saw a seed of hope…maybe of something. He constantly nagged me, bullied me even, into shooting film (he was nice really!) He talked me into digging out the old Pentax and giving it a go. I can’t thank him enough.
Those first few rolls of Agfa Vista Plus 200 were exciting, I was for the first time implementing manual control on film. I quickly realised however that given family budgets as they are, I would really be pushing my luck at one roll of film a week. Given half decent film plus processing I would be looking at £20 a pop minimum, so I set about looking into home developing.
This brought a new challenge in that black and white was the obvious and easiest starting point…but I had never used it before. Once again, the community – primarily Shawn – supported me through the transition. I stuck to ILFORD HP5+ and Rodinal, working my up from stand development to shorter, more specific methods. This, outside of my passion for vintage has been my main learning curve throughout.
Over the past year, I have tried a few different developers, moved on to spot metering and begin practicing the dark art of the Zone System under Craig Pindell’s watchful eye. The natural order of things was to produce prints at this point as the final piece to the jigsaw.
It may seem like rushing in and my finished images are both basic and average but it made perfect sense to me to learn it all in one full set of stages, as how you expose then develop has such a bearing on how you print. Without that final stage it seemed only half done. It now is just a matter of repeating until I am happy!
I gather this will be never…so here we are today, I’m still churning out bollocks but now it’s on film!
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
ABW: I read a lot of these interviews, although sadly, unlike many of your subjects I didn’t get any formal training, so no lecturer to honour here. Nor have taken an in-depth look into many classic or famous photographers to have been inspired by.
I have however met and conversed with many community members over on Twitter. So many have helped me on my journey and given me great laughs along the way, folks like Sandeep, yourself EM, Monika, Erik, Diz and many more have been so important in my growth.
I need to pick out 2 special peeps though. It will no doubt embarrass them but it has to be done.
First is Shawn. I have already touched on how he reeled me in but in reality it was much more than that. He educated me in so many ways and I would not be here doing this without him. His other clever ruse in those early days was to pass my questions on to other experienced ‘togs, which connected me to others.
In short, his constant support has been invaluable and he’s a total animal, which is my sort of guy!
Second is my oracle, Craig Pindell. He has patiently taught me so much about my workflow, development and that dead system thingy, all done in such a way a numpty like me understands. He never tells me this is THE way to do it but suggests an idea instead, then expands. Also he isn’t afraid to peg me back when I get cocky!
I am a long way from being any sort of photographer but these two have been my mentors…my living legends!
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
ABW: I try to stay away from digital, I have nothing against it, but it I have used it and it is just not for me.
Also I need to be quite selfish. As you well know, I am easily distracted from my goal. I would say I do something film related every day. Repetition is my way of remembering.
What’s your next challenge…your next step? How do you see yourself improving your technique? What aspect of your photography would you like to try and master in the next 12 months?
ABW: The 52 Camera 52 Weeks project I am doing in partnership with my good friend Russell of Soperfect Images has been an amazing experience and takes up a lot of my free time. At time of writing, I still have 18 to go, so haven’t considered any plans much past that.
Let me take a moment to explain this relationship…
Russell was a good, jobbing digital photographer working in Plymouth at sports events and schools etc. He also had a little shop on the Barbican Waterfront selling images and some vintage cameras. A life-changing illness halted his photographic work so he re-invented himself, improving his store to concentrate on cameras of all shapes, types and sizes.
It just so happened that his sister worked at the same school as my wife, so when I decided to rid myself of all my digital gear they suggested Russell. I popped in and we struck a deal for a Yashica 124G. I was like a kid in a sweet shop in his place; it was filled with all sorts of wonderful things.
We got to chatting as you do, and a friendship struck up, meaning it became like a little drop-in centre for me to chat and play. It was during these chats he mentioned the need to film-test some cameras before they went on the shelf and before we knew it somehow the 52 cameras in 52 weeks project was born.
He would give me a different camera every week to learn and shoot with. This gave me an increasing knowledge of many styles, methods and photographic/design pitfalls, while he got film-tested cameras and images to go with them. It is more than that though. We have formed a bond and both get real pleasure from the experience and friendship that has developed..
The other great outcome is that Russell has started to take out cameras himself and is re-learning the craft with a film perspective. I have learned a great deal about my own direction and found myself veering toward the slower type of photography, as well as acquiring some of the 52 cameras for myself. I swapped the Yashica 124G for a Bronica S2A (for its different perspective). I grew to love old folding cameras and after shooting a Kodak Box Brownie 3a, I waited patiently for the right one before being rewarded with a slightly broken, now fixed jumbo box camera I have adapted to give me 6x14cm negatives.
The jewel in my crown though is an R.B. Graflex Series B SLR, a camera that self-destructed before our eyes before any usefulness came from it. I had fallen for it big time…it just hooked me in, so I have spent months now rebuilding this simple yet awkward beast under the watchful eye of Graflex enthusiast Erik Gould.
I can finally say that as I type this, she sits beside me with a roll of FP4+ ready to test. She will, I hope, star as week 52, which is the first week of November!
The project is helping me narrow my wants and needs so for the next 12 months. I want to work more medium format with an eye on large format. I need to polish my work with the Zone System, building towards my target of producing decent prints.
I will continue my passion of old, creaky vintage cameras, which I love immensely.
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
ABW: What? Well I like to try everything, there does seem to be a theme of human interaction with nature as they consume and alter it, also when nature claims it back.
Why? I am surrounded by the sea and moorland so it is there all the time. If I can squeeze in some shallow DoF and a leading line or two then bonus!
You have 2 minutes to prepare for an unknown assignment. You can take one camera, one lens, two films and you have no idea what you’ll be shooting. What to you take with you and why?
ABW: First! No one in their right mind would book me for a gig! But let’s play along, Pentax ME Super with a fast 50mm prime lens and loaded with ILFORD FP4+ with a roll of ILFORD HP5+ in my pocket. I know Penny so well I could relax.
The films need to be safe for me. If they want colour they’d better bring along crayons!
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location for the rest of your life. What do you take, were do you go and why?
ABW: EASY!!! I have known this answer for the longest time: road trip the U S of A.
I would meet all those lovely Twitter people and shoot their choice of film as they like it. What a way to learn!
Walking the city with Shawn plus beers! Large format canyons with Craig; watching him work would be awesome.
Darkroom time with Monika followed by beaches and film chemicals with Diz.
I could duel Graflex’s with Erik Gould and do some studio work with Steve Brokaw…
Sooo many people I want to meet everyone and share time with them all…what a way to see out your days.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
ABW: ILFORD FP4+, it is my favourite film and that is your fault, EM! FP4 Party was a huge step for me.
I grew so much yet still feel so tiny. My Family just doing their thing. I said I am a loner but my family are the exception I can think of nothing more deserving of my last roll…Really? Last roll!
Picking one film to shoot as a last roll is really easy for me. I have grown to love ILFORD FP4+ over and above anything else, and this is fully on your shoulders EM! Shawn encouraged me to give the FP4 Party a go, so I shot that first month as I would any film at the time…I shot it badly, I think. When it came to post week I looked at all the other stuff coming forward and was just blown away by the quality I hadn’t achieved.
I set about studying and practicing, improving with every roll. I tried different developers and finally, following Craig’s suggestion of ILFORD DDX, I found my ideal combination. I think I grew immeasurably over the next few months and by the end of it, I felt I wasn’t too far off the standard.
I will use HP5+ these days and I’m starting to work with Pan F+ to support, but FP4+ is ALWAYS in one camera and in my bag.
I would without question use it for capturing my wife and kids for this final roll. I am by nature a loner and often uncomfortable in groups but they are the exception. I am of an age where I live through my children and recording life for their children is important, I think.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
ABW: I often sit in Russell’s little shop while people pass through, look at the vintage gear and constantly hear comments about not being able to get film for such things.
I simply point to my 52 project on display there and then the shelf of film. It’s all you can do.
They are often really surprised what is possible. Imagine what they would think if they saw some really good stuff.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
ABW: I think it will always be a niche market. Digital is so easy for people who want to just capture moments.
It will survive though. I think there is a growing interest right now which is great.
Products will come and go but I think while communities like ours flourish and keep a demand then good folks like ILFORD and Kodak will continue to support.
We just have to keep shooting and welcoming new people to our party. I know I am happier for it.
~ Ashley B Williams
I remember Ashley’s first steps in the online film photography community in 2016, as well as Shawn’s efforts at providing feedback, constructive critique and generally getting Ashley engaged with the community at large.
When he made the switch to his old Pentax ME, watching his first steps coming back to film was a joy. There was a real sense of the community coming together around him in the spirit of assistance and combined with Ashley’s thirst for knowledge, it made for fun, engaging conversations.
Roll on FP4 Party 2016 and Ashley was there giving it his best, fighting with each roll, improving, developing and making progression frame after frame after frame; all under the watchful eye of the community, a community that was there to offer feedback and advice when asked.
When I talk about the community and the power that it has, most of the time, I’m talking about acts like those that helped support Ashely in his early days and those that still help to provide him support today. If you look at Ashely today, he’s pouring himself back in, providing helps and assistance where he can and roping in others when he thinks it’ll help.
This entire system of support isn’t something that will feed itself and magically appear when we or others need it, we all need to plug in. It needn’t be much, a comment on a shared photograph, some feedback on an article that’s been posted, or the offer of help when a question is posed. Additionally, no matter how large or small your social media circle may be, I will guarantee you that there’s someone out there who could do with your help, support, assurance or experience – mo matter if that experience is a few months or a few decades.
Those acts of providing support to someone else may seem rather one way but the reality is very different. If you open yourself up to the possibility, you may even learn something new yourself.
That’s the power of community.
Thanks again to Ashley for stepping up, I know he was rather nervous at the prospect of it all but I for one am really pleased at the way this interview turned out. If you’re not already connected with him, please go an grab Ashely over on Twitter and when you have a moment, I’d strongly suggest you head on over to Soperfect Images’ website and make sure you pop in to say hello to Russell and probably Ashley if you’re in Plymouth.
We’ll be back with a fresh interviewee next week but in the meantime, please scroll up and have another read!
As ever, keep shooting, folks!
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