I am Dave Mackay and this is why I shoot film
I’m incredibly happy to be able to bring you all David Mackay as today’s EMULSIVE interviewee. After 22 years serving in the British Army, Dave took off in a completely different direction and recently graduated from university as a mature student (more on that later).
Today, were lucky enough to be privy to some of Dave’s wonderful work, coming from 35mm, medium format and large format film.
That’s enough from me, time to hand over to the man himself…
Hi Dave, what’s this picture, then?
DM: This is a shot from back in March (2016). I feel it encapsulates many of the reasons I shoot film. Some very close friends asked me to document the funeral of their child. Difficult circumstances for all concerned but I totally understand why they requested it.
This shot in particular is of a moment in time that they hopefully never repeat but one that will mean a lot to them in years to come. Particularly their daughter who will undoubtedly have questions to ask. It also means a lot to me. Capturing the day was tough but I know I have given them something that will help them deal with their grief, both presently and in the future. I shot two rolls of film that day. One 120 black and white and a roll of 35mm colour at the wake, the negatives are priceless in my view. I did shoot some digital images but the physicality of the negatives and very nature of the single images captured on film is something that sits well with me. That’s the case for all of my film work.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
DM: My name is Dave Mackay. I am an ex-soldier who served a full 22 year career in the British Army, although not as a military photographer. I recently graduated from a full time degree at the University of South Wales with a 1st Class Honours degree in Photography for Fashion and Advertising. At 43 years old I am embarking on a career in a totally different field and the adventure is just beginning. I am married to my partner of 25 years with two young children. She is very supportive to say the least.
When did you start shooting film and what about now? What drives you to keep shooting?
DM: I started shooting film when I was 15 years old. My grandmother bought me a Praktica BMS with all the lenses for my birthday. At the time buying and developing film soaked up all my (parent’s) spare cash but I got through Ilford black and white film and Colorama stock at an alarming rate. Learning how film reacted to light and how I could influence it formed the basis of my passion at that early stage. I also learned to visualise the final image before committing to the shot, something that I think is very important. Particularly now I have more control over the development and post production/printing process. Back then I shot the images, put the film into the lab and got a set of small prints in return. Now I know I can push/pull with the chemistry and exploit the latitude that film offers. Knowing that the initial negative will yield detail not immediately apparent is something I have learned in the past few years.
I made the regrettable decision a few years ago to trade all of that Praktica gear in to get a few pounds towards a new digital flash. I went some way to negating that regret recently and purchased a BMS and a 50mm prime lens. I put a roll through it now and again for old times sake. This shot is from the first roll I put through, my brother and his wife the day they moved into their first home.
I joined the Army in 1992 and continued to shoot film until mid 1997. At that point my career kind of got busy due to the odd conflict and I slowed down a little taking pictures. I didn’t start again really until 2006 when I bought a DSLR. I did dabble in a bit of underwater work to tie in with my scuba diving and have a set of negatives from the Red Sea in 2004. I also have a few frames from the TT Races in 2000 but that’s about it.
This is a scan of a print I have from my time in the Balkans in the early 90’s. Soldiers relaxing on the Adriatic coast just north of Dubrovnik during R&R. I have never publicly displayed my images from my time in the military so I suppose this is a first.
Jump to 2013 and I reached the end of my contract with the military. I decided that my family was now my priority and I needed to be around. The opportunity to study photography presented itself so I took it. After a long period of not shooting much film I have used university projects to push myself. Over the last three years my film work has progressed to a point where my shooting ratio between film and digital has swung. I only shoot digital when the situation requires and will always choose film if I can.
I have made the progression from the 35mm frame all the way through medium format digital and film to shooting my most recent project on 5×4 colour film. I have bought cameras to shoot specific projects and ended up keeping them. I returned to my home town to shoot a book project in 2014 (see: Not So New), and the camera for that was selected based on the year of manufacture as well as format to fit the project.
The mindset required to shoot with film, particularly the larger formats is something that I feel has changed my images for the better. Combined with the academic work that I have had to produce I really am forced to think about my final output before I expose the frame. Even composition has become more of factor due to the change in frame ratios. That said some situations require a certain amount of vision to capture on film and I’m sure we all know the Leibovitz quote, which I totally relate to. I spend a lot of my time trying to read situations and anticipate when best to take a shot when I’m shooting with film. Most of the time it works.
Rattling off frames and producing a contact sheet with similar images for edit is not something I do often, if at all. I may, at a push, bracket a similar frame if I’m using 35mm. This has started to pay off with my digital work and I generate far fewer images but still reach the same outcome. By definition that has decreased my workload whenever I shoot digitally.
Having young children means I have made a point of shooting images to document family life. I think as I get older the importance of family images grows. I have started collating images from my own childhood shot by my parents, as well as printing and producing a comprehensive family album of our own. Film plays a huge part in that process as the uncertainty and temporary nature of digital images is something that concerns me and I know I’m not the only one, having spoken to one of my lecturers.
Who/what influenced your photography when you first started and who continues to influence you today?
Photographically I never felt influenced during my initial years making pictures. I just did what I did and tried to capture what I found interesting. Trying to transfer what I saw with my eye to film was the biggest challenge. The prints of misty layers of english countryside never seemed to match what I saw at 6AM on a cold autumn morning.
It wasn’t until the decision was made to pursue a career in photography that I started to look at why I made images the way I do and who might be having an input on my thought process.
I’m sure that without realising it I have been influenced by images over the years. Even if I had no clue who had made them. My final dissertation was based around the sub-conscious and the advertising image.
The whole higher education process was an eye opener. I quickly learned that nothing’s totally original and that if you go deep enough and far enough back then you’ll always find an influence, sometimes not necessarily a photographic one.
The first thing I found was that I saw shades of the work of other artists in images I’d already made. Phillip-Lorca diCorcia appealed to me and I made the effort to see his work in exhibitions. Martin Parr’s early colour work made an impression. Not just because of the fact that it was colour but also the content. His Last Resort images reminded me of my childhood and started to shape the way I shot family images.
The more I read the more I discovered. I’m a patriotic military man so Beaton and McCullin were instantly on my radar. Although some of McCullin’s social documentary work in the North of England was more interesting than his war work to me. I like the idea of photographing real people in their own environment, where they are more comfortable, so even if portraits are staged to a degree there is a sense of reality in the image.
My non-portrait work takes many forms but a big influence has been the New Topographics movement. Baltz, Shore and the likes of Alec Soth all inspire me to create images that sometimes don’t quite conform with the traditional idea of a landscape. Soth’s portrait work and long term projects have been of interest as I have two ongoing projects that have a longevity element to them.
Finally perhaps a little obvious but Avedon and Lindbergh feature for portraiture. In particular Lindbergh’s editorial and advertising images strike a cord, not only an artist but a working photographer. Something to aspire to.
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?
DM: To be brutally honest my next challenge is to earn a living with my cameras, my business brain is still developing so I have a lot to learn. If I can do it using film I will be a happy man but I’m not so naive to think that it will be easy, or even achievable.
I chose to start working with large format film so that I could produce images of a certain quality. To achieve the same with a digital camera isn’t financially viable for me currently so I will continue to shoot projects on my Toyo. I am currently in the planning stages of a collaboration with an artist who paints and sketches. The intention is to travel to Africa and document the more personal side of the anti-poaching teams.
I intend shooting portraits as well as documentary work and to achieve a series of environmental portraits on large format film is my ultimate goal. I have a lot of test shooting to do with location lighting and different film stock to prove it’s feasible but improving in that area is a priority. I also intend to try my hand at capturing images directly onto photographic paper thanks to articles I’ve read on EMULSIVE. Tin types and wet plate work would be nice too but finding time and funds will be a limiting factor there.
The other area I am trying to make progress in is developing. Due to losing the university facilities I have made a point of learning to develop my own large format black and white in a Paterson tank and also the smaller format C41. The only thing remaining is to develop my large format C41 successfully. Ultimately I will use a lab for any work I need to guarantee but having the ability to home develop my large format for personal projects helps enormously.
Any favourite subject matter?
DM: I enjoy taking pictures of people, the whole point of shooting my latest project on large format was to get to know the subject before I took their portrait – At The Bottom of a Well. I knew some of the sitters prior to beginning the project but by the end of series I knew them a whole lot better. The ability to communicate without hiding behind a camera is crucial, not just verbally, eye contact and facial expression are important.
If I shoot in the street with the Hasselblad it creates communication just by its existence. In my eyes the connection between photographer and subject can only add to the final images. Unless of course that connection isn’t desired. If it is required I use film not only as a means of recording the image but as a tool to help create the image. It’s a talking point.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll and why?
DM: If I could shoot only one more roll of film I think it would be Ilford HP5+. I started on it so why not finish on it. Predictable and flexible it gives me a warm fuzzy feeling when it’s in the back of the Hasselblad. Although I am experimenting with Kodak Tri-X 400 at the minute ,so that may feature in future.
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?
DM: To follow on from that, I would always take the 500C/M, a 50mm lens with a roll of HP5 and a roll of Portra 400. There’s no mention of it but I’d be cheeky and take the film in two backs if I could. That way I could swap if the situation changed. Not relying on any electronics means that capturing images, even without a light meter, is always possible. It’s my workhorse for film work and film I know well.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
DM: If I had an unlimited supply of film then I would take a crate of Kodak Portra 160 5×4 and jump on a plane straight to Afghanistan. Having spent 18 months of my life there I have seen both the horror and the beauty of the place.
I’d like to go back there as a photographer and capture both the landscape and the people on film. I have digital images but taking the time to produce negatives and see the country from a slightly different angle would be rewarding, if somewhat dangerous. I would even make the effort to track down the Afghan people I have worked with and photograph them.
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography and how would you set it straight?
DM: I think the misconception question gets answered over and over in a similar way but for me proving that film does not produce inferior images is important.
People are so used to the clean, sterile and super sharp digital image that the impression film images are not up to standard is often a concern when I tell people I’m taking their picture on film. A frequent reaction I get is disbelief that an image has been shot on film, particularly the medium format. I make a point sometimes of showing large format images at full size on a screen to highlight not only the quality but also the attraction of shooting film.
A film image has a different feel and the nuances of different stock and process all become part of that. Perhaps the slightly older generation who actually remember film as the norm are more likely to have memories of images that weren’t so good. You know the ones, the little sticker from the lab telling you that you messed up. I’ve got one somewhere from the early 90’s. A shot from Croatia, from the same roll as the previous Balkans image.
Put simply, this is a landscape image from my latest project and I have a large print mounted on aluminium dibond. I don’t think it would be the same if it was a digital image, plus I own the only negative in existence.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
DM: The future of film photography?
Our Children. At four years old I am already trying to instil the importance of images in my son. He takes an active role in my shooting and developing. His fascination with how light creates the image on the film and the subsequent chemistry in the kitchen sink enthuses me to teach him. Hopefully he will continue to show interest as he gets older. If nothing else a healthy respect for the still image and its value will remain with him.
Realistically, I think the combination of analogue capture and development followed by a digital scan and post process is probably the most likely long term solution for myself and many others. It’s good to see community darkrooms appearing though and personally I am either going to build my own or find a local facility to keep my skills up on the printing side.
Like anything, I feel that as long as there is demand then film will continue. I bought into the Film Ferrania Kickstarter, so hopefully that will be a success story and keep production going for a few years. Although it may seem like I favour certain brands, I have all sorts in the fridge.
Fair play to those who work hard to keep the medium going, thank you all.
Keep shooting folks.
~ David Mackay
OUTRO and LINKS
Let me ask a question: how many of you who no longer live in your home towns have thought about going back to documenting it? I’ll be honest, until this interview, it was something Id never considered. That’s changed somewhat.
On a personal level, many of the photographs I take are of interesting objects, scenes, the way light plays with a surface, or tricks the eye. I’ve never thought about going back to where I grew up, it never crossed my mind.
In some ways, this kind of project is perfect. Sure, we may consider the subject matter so ordinary (to us), that the prospect of capturing it on film seems almost pointless but approaching the idea from the perspective of documentation puts enough of a spin on things to make it a tempting idea.
For me, the idea of going back to where I was born and grew up; and recording life there as it is today is an attractive prospect. I understand that the idea of not documenting where you grew up – where you may still live! – might seem a little strange to some but I guess its a very personal thing.
I for one will definitely be going back.
A massive thanks to Dave for sticking his neck out and showing us his work and words. I sincerely wish you all the best for you new life.
You can find Dave over on Twitter and Instagram, or over at his website: dave-mackay.co.uk. I’d also suggest heading over to Dave’s Blurb site to find out more about his book mentioned above, Not so new.
Keep an eye out for another interview next week but in the meantime, keep shooting, folks!
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