I am Chuck Baker and this is why I shoot film
Today we’re speaking with Chuck Baker, whom some of you will know as the
mad genius brains behind the The Brownie Camera page. What you may not know however, is that Chuck is also an accomplished fine art photographer, whose work can be found at Chuck Baker Photography. Better seen for itself, rather than described poorly by yours truly.
Let’s have a look at what Chuck has to say…
Hi Chuck, what’s this picture, then?
CB: I was making a proof sheet (instead of scanning to proof), to quickly see if there was anything on this roll to print. While in the developer I could see that the proof was not exposed long enough, pulled it out, and tossed it in a tray I use for trash to dump after a print session.
Being RC paper, it quickly dried except for the middle where the developer pooled. When I turned the lights on after processing the next corrected proof sheet I noticed this in the tray and immediately turned the lights out and tossed it in the stop and fixed it. This was the result and I rather liked it. I have it framed and hanging as a reminder to sometimes loosen up and embrace the unexpected.
OK, so who are you? (the short version, please)
CB: My name is Chuck Baker, born and raised in the Boston area. During the 1980s and 1990s I worked as an editorial photographer for a monthly magazine with freelance clients on the side. In 1999 I moved to The Netherlands because of love. I was fortunate enough to be able to stay home, raise my two kids and make a living doing what I like doing. I am currently a freelance product photographer and e-commerce webmaster with clients in Europe and the US.
As I “gracefully” age, much more of my thought and energy is being used for art and photographic investigations. I love using and applying new and historic cameras, processes, emulsions, camera/optic building and manipulation, and just about anything else that can be used to capture and keep light.
My online presence as The Brownie Camera Guy, owner and operator of The Brownie Camera Page, created in 1994, has been fun and educational. Managing The Brownie Camera Guy’s Blog and The Alternative Photographer curated newspaper extends past my comfort zone and helps keep the blood flowing. Passion focuses my attention on fine-art nearly every day, either shooting or post-shooting. I have a killer darkroom with awesome sound and currently exhibit often.
When did you start shooting film?
CB: Right around 1960. I was about 8 years old when my Mom – who was an avid photographer – gave me her original Kodak developing kit. That kit started my processing of film and contact printing, I made a little basement darkroom with it. We had a family Brownie Hawkeye Flash Model Camera and I started shooting my own images then.
What about now? Why do you shoot film and what drives you to keep shooting?
CB: I think of film as a tool in the arsenal. Normally, when out and about, I will see something that I’d like to shoot. I make a mental note or I write a note to myself. I try seeing a final image in my mind and work backwards. This usually means that I’ll use a specific camera and a specific film along with pre-thinking what processing and printing materials and techniques to use for that end. A certain film quality will let me achieve what it is I’m trying to get. This also applies to film format, some subjects need subminiature while others need 20” x 24”.
With that said, my shoot bag always includes variations including different films, a few cameras and filters. This allows me to change up while I’m on a shoot, if conditions or my intentions change.
When going to shoot a subject I have not seen, I’ll take a variety of cameras and films that I think will work.
What drives me to shoot film is easy to answer, it’s an important element in the creative photographic process for me. What drives me to keep shooting in general is not as easy to answer. Maybe the singular nature of shooting; that it’s something I do alone and for myself.
Sometimes, when I’m making images I enter a zone that’s like a cocoon that shuts out the buzz of the world, the camera and film become an extension of my body, I’m at a heightened level of awareness and it just feels right. My need to do it has grown stronger with age and continues to grow. Why I have this need in the first place is a mystery to me.
Any favourite subject matter?
CB: It changes but currently I’m drawn to abandoned places or things and darker subjects.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll?
CB: That’s easy, Rollei IR400 Infrared film. I like higher contrast films and this film, using a red filter or without filters, produces awesome B&W results while keeping good midtowns and shadow detail.
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?
CB: Assuming it’s a paid assignment, the camera would be a Bronica ERTsi with a 75mm lens. This is the camera I made my living with until switching over to digital. It’s basically indestructible and produces breathtaking results. Though I personally prefer the 40mm, the 75mm lens not being wide-angle works better for a paid assignment.
I’d bring one roll of Kodak TMAX 400 and a roll of Kodak Portra 400 Professional Print Film. One B&W, one color and both fine grain and sharp for 400 speed.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
CB: I like to go and immerse myself in the story of the place while trying to photograph it. My last photography-specific trip was in May 2015 for 5 days at the Auschwitz camps in Poland.
My next shoot trip will be to the Borinage coal mining and industrial region of Belgium. I’ve been through the area quite a few times and now it’s time to concentrate on shooting it for a week or so.
Finally, what do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography and how would you set it straight?
CB: I think many people think it’s terrifically hard to use, which it isn’t. For those people who won’t take the step, it’s OK, get a digital and make photographs.
For those people who want to go the extra photography mile and have imaging mean something in their life on a deeper level, I think that film is a must. Not only does it demand seeing with eyes wide open because of the finite nature of using film up, but when processing film and prints the benefits translated when using Photoshop become crystal clear.
When I talk to those who say they’re “serious” about imaging, but that film is just too hard or unimportant, my response is usually: stop being lazy. Things worth pursuing don’t come easy and expressive photography is a perfect example of that.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
CB: My answer to this has changed over the past couple of years. 5 years ago I had a dismal outlook on the future of film. With Kodak virtually dropping the photography side of their business, I was in a sort of panic mode and started buying and deep-freezing all sorts and brands of film in large quantities.
However, that turned into an opportunity for me to find, try and use films from other companies that I had not yet used. Recently, with new film producing companies starting up, my outlook is quite positive about the future of obtaining film.
As far as the future of film photography, as with most art techniques that seemingly have been replaced, there will always be photographers who need to work in this medium for their art.
It’s sometimes quite hard to put together outro content for these interviews. On the one hand I want to say something insightful (and witty), on the other I have to resist the temptation to wax lyrical about the images I see while putting the interview together.
With Chuck, it’s doubly so. We’ve had a few subjects these past few weeks who really are masters of their art. Chuck seems as comfortable working with his Bronica, as his does with his Brownies (flipped lenses, or not!) Hand on heart, it’s an inspiration to hear and see the what happens when you mix decades of experience with unflinching passion.
On a personal note, I’m really looking forward to seeing more of Chuck’s recent “dark” work and will probably steal his “…loosen up and embrace the unexpected” line for myself.
You can see much, much more on Chuck’s website and Flickr; and don’t forget about the huge body of work that is The Brownie Camera Page and the The Brownie Camera’s Youtube channel (a great resource if you want to find out more about these cameras before satisfying your GAS).
That’s us done for now. We’ll be back again very soon…possibly with a little change to the running order!
Keep shooting, folks.
EMULSIVE needs you. If you’d like to take part in this series of film photographer interviews, please drop us a line, or get in touch in the comments. We’re featuring to photographers young and old; famous and obscure, so get in touch and let’s talk.