I am Dean Bennici and this is why I shoot film
It’s difficult to understate Dean Bennici’s importance to the world of color infrared photography. When I say difficult, what I mean is that it’s impossible.
Dean is singlehandedly responsible for bringing the world Kodak AEROCHROME in 120 and 4×5 formats – having cut down, or bulk loaded every roll and sheet in existence…and that’s without even referring to his immense body of work.
With that said, it’s probably best for me to hand over to the man himself. Over to you, Dean.
Hi Dean, what’s this picture, then?
DB: This is a portrait taken with Kodak AEROCHOME colof infrared film.
I am drawn to color infrared (CIR) film for its versatility and of course its beauty. The film is sensitive to ultraviolet, visible and infrared light; and the color shifts are determined by the amount and direction of infrared light, as well as the materials being photographed.
Being familiar with the way infrared light reacts with the subject matter allows you to paint a scene by combining and subtracting specific materials within a shot. This very exciting prospect has me hooked. When using this film, blacks, blues and greens usually photograph as red. Red, orange and pink photograph as yellow, etc., but it’s not always the case.
Some materials retain their color, such as leather and fur. Juggling with materials and color can be simple or it can be an in depth process. There are also other ways to influence the color scheme such as bringing a plant into the scene. Even though the plant is out of frame, it can still change the whole color palette. Influencing the color palette can be both fun and challenging. In this portrait, I used veils to balance colors and knock down some of the excess infrared light.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
DB: I’m a portrait photographer specializing in color infrared film.
I’m a 53 years old native to Pasadena, California who has been living for the past 20 years in Europe. My background includes a BS in Industrial Engineering from California State University Long Beach.
I’ve dedicated the last ~10 years to making Kodak AEROCHROME color infrared film available to the public as its only distributor. I am proud to say that I have supplied many outstanding artists, enthusiasts and hobbyists around the world. Mert & Marcus, Richard Mosse, Anton Corbijn, Jacob Appelbaum, Robert Polidori, and many others have since worked with my AEROCHROME stock. So far I’ve managed to hand cut and hand roll over 130,000 rolls in 120 format and many 1000s of film sheets.
Having amassed a huge body of photo work, I decided to produced 35 large Diasec prints and toured Europe from 2010 to 2014. The Diasec format works brilliantly with CIR images. It’s almost like the format was made for it. I plan on continuing with touring after this break in order to produce a bit more work.
When did you start shooting film and what about now, what drives you to keep shooting?
DB: About 8 years ago; a friend of mine had just made an outstanding record and needed some unique photo art for it. While looking for a solution, I stumbled upon Kodak EKTACHROME INFRARED 35mm color infrared film. Unfortunately, I was too late. The film had been discontinued.
This led me to the idea of cutting Aerochrome and eventually introducing it to the market. I needed to shoot photos to use as examples in the hope of getting people interested, but I had only started as a photographer a year before, so everything was new, not just infrared.
I guess that was my luck actually, because to me, it was all one learning process. Photography to me means IR photography.
I still shoot, because there is no end to the versatility of infrared film. For me, it’s not about red trees anymore. It’s about making a lovely shot that doesn’t necessarily look infrared, but could not be achieved with any other film or technique.
The combination of knowing that I cannot exhaust what Infrared light has to offer and finding something exciting in a person’s character that I want to catch on film is what keeps driving me to shoot film.
I am just starting to really understand infrared after having shot probably 2000 rolls. It’s a mountain of a challenge and I’m always intrigued. It’s like trying to catch the devil.
Any favorite subject matter?
DB: I like making portraits of ordinary people that I think have something and then toying with the infrared light to try and get something unique or unusual. Sometimes I flash the film or roll it in the sun. I may wrap the film emulsion in plastic wrap and then shoot. I once shot through a bunch of oatmeal and it came out nicely, I thought.
I only started with landscapes by request. People do like landscapes. I always argue that a portrait is a kind of landscape. Maybe you understand.
It was through landscapes though that I discovered so very much about this film and infrared light in general, so I guess moving into landscapes was an obvious progression.
What’s the next challenge, the next step? What aspect of your photography and process do you see yourself developing over the coming 12 months?
DB: What I have been working on lately is trying to get the typical infrared look out of my shots. I want to further evaluate other noteworthy aspects of the film chemistry and also the wonderful curve. When you look at a photo with no infrared reflectance, there is a completely different aesthetic. I guess one would be hard-pressed to tell what film or medium it was captured on.
I have a few things planned for the very near future. One being a book on the Aerochrome project. I will detail everyone and anyone that has made a significant contribution to the facilitation of color infrared photography over the decades. Starting with Karl Ferris and ending with me.
I have long referred to Karl as the Godfather of infrared. He recently responded with “If I am the Godfather, then you are the Godson.” A compliment that I humbly repeat to everyone I meet. I have some amazing entries for this book.
Other than that, I plan to do some mosaic photos from the many, many small scraps of Aerochrome that I have stored. I will lay them out and shoot large format. Then just put little the puzzles together.
Finally, I shot about an hour and a half of Aerochrome 16mm footage that I do plan to finish cutting. It’s a bizarre chronicle of the artists I know. Sadly, it’s very low fi which I think disqualifies it for mainstream appeal. But for Aerochrome fans, it is an interesting insight the film’s versatility.
I find it extremely painful working with stock that never was intended for this kind of photography, but it needed to be done and fate picked me.
What’s next? I can’t really say until I am there. I definitely have not exhausted everything infrared has to offer. I guess the next thing to fully understand is exactly how the angle of light plays into it. If I shoot the sky at one angle, it’s pitch black, but from another angle, light blue and yet from another pink or magenta.
If you have a grasp on things like the quality, quantity and angle of light, material reflection and absorption, color shift, filter usage, exposure times, flashing, then I suppose you may eventually get bored.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll?
Do you really need to ask? Kodak AEROCHROME 120, expiration date Nov. 2011.
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?
DB: I will take my Pentax 67 with the 45mm lens, because its rugged and easy to use in difficult situations. Film-wise, I’d take one roll of AEROCHROME and one roll of Kodak High Speed Infrared (HIE), both in 120. I’d also take a red filter, orange filer, yellow filter and IR filter.
Since I do not know the subject matter, these 2 rolls assure me I will get something interesting.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
DB: Since they would be portraits, location isn’t really very important. I pride myself on squeezing something out of even the worst location. Just frame close, which is what I usually prefer to do anyway.
I like the challenge of a not so interesting location. It makes me want to get more out of the subject and not rely of a spectacular backdrop. I have often been asked why I don’t do more nudes. I have done my share, but again, I want the work to have merit without having to resort to any gimmicks or spectacles other than the infrared composition.
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography and how would you set it straight?
DB: The greatest misconception is that you can recreate it digitally. Just the digital interface alone does not allow for the kind of process that takes place with analog equipment.
This is especially true with infrared photography, but also with any film photography. The blind assumptions I make regarding the light and shadow often lead me to places I would never had thought to go if I was shooting digitally.
Certainly, I would not have opted to keep that excess lens flare which made a huge sunburst over the ocean and turned an average shot into magic. Some people look at my work and discredit it saying they can reproduce it digitally. They may be able copy the look, but it’s a bit arrogant to suggest that they could invent it.
It is a product of a kind of blind assumption coupled with a play on light that is supplied by nature. Some people call it film photography.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
DB: I hate to be negative, but I think as soon as the chemicals run out, it is over for film. It may hang on in Hollywood for a little while longer, but then it really will be the end. It has been nice though. We have millions of glorious, timeless analog photos to relish for eternity, right?
~ Dean Bennici
Well…I’m not really sure what to say. That’s a first.
If you hadn’t come across Dean, or his work before reading this, I hope you’ll spend some time getting to know more over at Dean’s website: bennici.net.
As regular readers will be aware, I normally cap these interviews off with a few thoughts (related or not), to the interviewee’s words and photographs. For the first time, I honestly have nothing to add. It’s frustrating but trust me, that’s a good thing.
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