I am Chris Maliga and this is why I shoot film
Chris Maliga’s work has been displayed up and down the US. His work is haunting, can be claustrophobic and often leaves the viewer with a feeling of an image half seen or absorbed. There’s always something that makes you want to take a second look.
Over to you, Chris.
Hi Chris, what’s this picture, then?
CM: This is a self-portrait, a 40-second exposure taken in 8 degree weather back in 2011. My work involves a high level of physical exertion, which is one of the primary reasons I work in analog. It’s important that I’m crafting something with my own hands at every stage of the process.
Part of the concept behind this series is that being in seclusion in nature allows me to confront deep-seated anxieties and discomfort. I simultaneously expose myself and the sheet of film to the elements at work in the environment.
In this case, the negative actually wound up extremely dense, meaning the print itself was labor-intensive to produce. I had to expose the paper for a full five minutes with a #5 filter to get it to come out right.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
CM: I’m something of an obsessive. My art practice is heavily driven by the narrative of my own psychological history, which I won’t delve too deeply into here.
When I’m not busy being an artist, I spend a lot of time reading (mostly horror), writing, and wandering the streets of Boston, where I live.
I’m also highly interested in history. By day, I work as the Studio Manager for Photography at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts. It gives me the luxury of devoting both my personal and professional life to photography.
When did you start shooting film and what about now? What drives you to keep shooting?
CM: When I was a child, I always had a point-and-shoot 35mm camera that I played around with. It’s just something that I grew up with.
When I went to college for photography I learned how to use a view camera and never really looked back.
This was about the time that digital technology was really becoming impressive, but I never made the transition. For me, the experience of working in the darkroom is an essential part of being a photographer.
Every year I teach a pinhole photography workshop up on the Maine coast. When I see the attendees put all kinds of effort into turning a simple household object into a working camera, and when we hover over a tray and watch the initial images emerge on the paper, it reminds me of everything that’s inspiring about the medium. There’s a fundamental, chemical action at work that you can’t help but feel moved by.
For my own work, this is crucial. The negative absorbs the effects of the weather, and this is clearly evident in certain images.
The film went through the same experience that I did in making the photograph. I think physical labor is highly important in creating artwork. There’s also a love for the physical object – the same reason that when I read, I need an actual book in my hands.
The print is the ultimate objective for me.
I’m also interested in the unexpected things that happen when you’re working with film. I work with multiple exposure and timed self-portraiture; techniques that involve manipulating the image in ways that I can’t see while I’m in the field. I have to deal with a high level of uncertainty about just what the image will look like.
There’s something about having to care for that image for a while before I even know what it looks like, and the exhilaration that comes with knowing it might not come out at all. Anything could happen to it between the time it’s loaded in the holder and when it’s actually processed.
What’s the next challenge…your next step? How do you see improving your technique, or what aspect of your photography would you like to try and master in the next 12 months?
CM: I just concluded a solo exhibition of my work from the past five years, so I’m at a point of reflection right now.
I have a new project in the works that will involve me digging into the platinum-palladium and gum bichromate processes. It’s work that’s been on the back-burner for a while and has involved a lot of traveling, so I’m looking forward to finally making use of the photographs.
As long as I’ve been working with the 8×10 format, I’ve been wanting to delve into alternative process. I’d say the biggest challenge in the coming year for me will be getting the hang of these new ways (for me) of printing while not short-changing my other, ongoing work.
Any favorite subject matter?
CM: Myself, and the natural world, clearly.
But even then, my interest in nature has more to do with it being an illustrative setting for my experiences and struggles, than it does with addressing anything about the land itself. I’ve devoted myself to these deeply personal exercises, and in all honesty I don’t have much interest in photographing anything else.
I have to deal with my own psychology and my own body on a daily basis, so the work helps me come to terms with that. The way I deal with those things with my photography changes somewhat from project to project, but psychology is always lurking behind what I do.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll?
CM: Well, I use sheet film for all of my major projects now, so I probably wouldn’t do much with one last roll. I’ve been using Ilford FP4+ exclusively for my main body of work. If I had just one box of it left, I’d take it to the most remote, extreme location I could possibly reach and do my best to to capture it. That would give me tons of anxiety, but I tend to make my best work when I have to overcome that kind of pressure.
You have 2 minutes to prepare for an assignment. One camera, one lens, two films and no idea of the subject matter. What to you take with you and why?
CM: My 8×10 camera with its 240mm Nikkor W lens, Ilford FP4+ and Bergger Pancro 400.
It’s not ideal for every kind of subject matter, but it’s what I use the most, and know how to handle the best. Those two films will take care of pretty much any lighting circumstances, and are my favorites to use. Maybe I’d be in a tough spot if the assignment turned out to be photographing a football game or something, but I’ve learned how to work quickly and flexibly, even with a cumbersome setup.
It’d be an interesting challenge. I’ve shot one wedding, and it was using a 4×5 camera with Ilford FP4+ and a taped-on Vivitar lens. I think when people hire me to photograph something, they pretty much know what they’re getting themselves into.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
CM: St. Helena Island. I want to retire there, like Napoleon except voluntarily. If I didn’t have to worry about restocking on film, I feel like I could just disappear there and photograph endlessly.
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography and how would you set it straight?
CM: That no one uses it anymore. Or that Ansel Adams is the only person who ever bothered with a view camera. Or that it’s too much work.
These are the things that people who aren’t photographers seem to have in their heads whenever I mention what I do, or if someone sees me out in the field with my equipment. This is another reason I like to mention that pinhole workshop: I’m teaching people who are, for the most part, not photographers. Once they see how accessible the darkroom really is, it changes the conversation. Suddenly people are thinking about possibilities, and trying out different things.
It’s frustrating when people try to tell me that there’s no reason to be in the darkroom anymore.
I just can’t imagine telling a painter not to bother painting because they can just take a picture of what they’re trying to depict. But that’s what it feels like when someone says I should just go digital. When you’re an artist, you have to decide which medium is the right one for your work and learn it fully. You don’t get to decide that someone else’s chosen medium isn’t valid because it uses older technology.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
CM: It seems relatively bright at the moment. Companies like Bergger and Ilford are feeling confident enough to release new types of film and darkroom paper, which was not the case a decade ago.
There are ways that digital technology has been really beneficial to the analog world, such as the ability to make calibrated digital negatives for some of the trickier printing processes.
I’m worried that the cost of materials will keep climbing, which is probably the biggest barrier to entry in the world of analog photography. There are reasons for optimism, but the collapse of Agfa and Kodak’s recent troubles should serve as a reminder that we can’t take anything for granted.
I guess the only way to guarantee a future for film photography is to keep using it, and keep the enthusiasm for it alive. I appreciate what sites like this are doing to celebrate the world of film.
~ Chris Maliga
Thank you, Chris.
I’d like to focus on one of Chris’s comments in particular:
“I just can’t imagine telling a painter not to bother painting because they can just take a picture of what they’re trying to depict. But that’s what it feels like when someone says I should just go digital. When you’re an artist, you have to decide which medium is the right one for your work and learn it fully. You don’t get to decide that someone else’s chosen medium isn’t valid because it uses older technology.”
Can we all now collectively move on from the digital vs film debate and just agree that we shoot what we shoot because of either preference, desire, or that fact that it best suits what we want to achieve? Cone on, now…make an orderly line and get walking.
I’ve come back to Chris’ images time and time again this past month. Most striking for me is “Eventide” – it took me a couple of views to realise that there’s a mountain range in the distance.
The feeling I get from Chris’ work is probably best described as one of trying to focus on something just as I wake up. The mind does a slow double take as the eyes focus and refocus. Unsure of what was just witnessed, a third or fourth attempt is made, the eyes finally resolve the subject and a sense of certainty is delivered to the consciousness.
Except that I’m often mentally stuck on that first or second glance, not quite being able to see everything and having to come back again to be sure…it’s wonderful.
Please take a few moments to scroll back up and have another look at Chris’ images. I guarantee you’ll see something there you didn’t the first time. Once you’re done, head on over to his website where you can see even more of his dense, ghostly and altogether intense work.
We’ll be back again very soon with another film photographer (was there ever any doubt?!), but in the meantime and for the sake of all our futures as film photographers, keep shooting, folks!
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