I am #EMULSIVE and this is why I shoot film
Welcome to this week’s EMULSIVE interview!
Today’s interviewee is someone a few of you may have heard of and to be frank, it’s been a bit of headache to put together. So much so in fact, that I enlisted the help of a few friends in the film photography community to help out with posing some additional questions. Thank you Sandeep, Cody and Ben.
Anyway, now you’re here it’s time to hand over for a mildly special extended interview with me…erm, EMULSIVE.
Hi EM, what’s this picture, then?
The short version behind it is this: it was a photograph I took towards the end of my “return to film” roll of film: Fuji Superia X-TRA 400 in a small, cheap, plastic Vivitar wide clone .made by SuperHeadz. The camera is no larger or more expensive than the price of a six pack of Coke in New York or London. The film (purchase, processing and scanning), cost me less than half of that.
It’s my photographic keystone.
It inspired me to begin the journey that’s led to you reading this very sentence. It’s a reminder to me that top-tier equipment doesn’t always out perform the simplest and cheapest.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
EM: I’m EM, food junkie, film photographer, connoisseur of cheap off-brand gummy bears and creator of EMULSIVE. As my bio says I’m a bit of a film photography freak. I like trying to get film to do things it quite frankly has no business doing, then I tell people about it.
I’m trying to share what I’ve learned about film photography and encouraging the rest of the community to do the same. We’re all in this together, so why on earth wouldn’t we share what we know? I’m forever beating the drum of knowledge transfer and it feels like a few folks have started tapping their toes to the beat.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
EM: I technically started shooting film as a child, probably aged around seven or eight years old. I found a 110 camera in a pack of Kellogg’s Cornflakes, convinced my mother to buy some film and shot a couple of cartidges. I can’t remember what I photographed but one thing really stuck with me…intense disappointment.
A little later in my pre-teens, I had a couple of fixed focus cameras. I think one was a plastic Practica and have no idea about the other. Neither were anything special and the results were nothing that ignited any kind of passion. You see, taking photos was something “other people did”. I just stood (or sat) awkwardly, tried not to pull a stupid face and then carried on doing whatever it was that I was doing – usually digging a hole in the garden or something equally unconstructive.
In my late teens or early 20’s, I picked up a mid-range Canon point and shoot and had a bit of fun with it for a few years. I was taking mostly candid photos of friends and what can be best described as “snaps”. It went on holiday with me and whilst I really enjoyed having something small and light in my pocket to record my surroundings, it didn’t really do anything for me.
Jump forward 10 years and I’d owned and lost a couple of digital cameras, I’d played about with the mid to high-end DSLRs of the time but I had things to do and photography wasn’t one of them.
I really started exploring photography when two things happened – almost simultaneously. First, a girl I was seeing, happened to mention a Lomography Baby Fisheye camera in passing conversation. Second, a good friend asked if I was interested in buying a “plastic fantastic” camera to mess around with.
This particular friend was (and still is) a hybrid photographer. Firmly rooted in film but shooting digital for his day job. He understands the benefits of each medium and walks a fine line between both. He not only opened my eyes to the world of film photography and GAS but also to the analogue/digital debate and how utterly pointless it is – you may be pleased to know that I will be ranting about this later on.
A week or so after getting my hands on my very own Plastic Fantastic, I began shooting my first roll of 35mm film in over half a lifetime. Oh, I got the Fisheye too, after a bit of a delay. The girl has since become Mrs EM and has remained a steadfast supporter of this mad journey I’m on. Although the floors of our home may be littered with odd cuts of developed film and backing paper, she continues to help nudge me along and keeps me pointed in the right direlection. I’m forever thankful of that.
Why do I keep shooting film you ask? That’s easy, it’s part of me now. I feel naked without a film camera on my person. I’ve tried and failed to explain what it feels like a number of times and this is about as close as I can get without sounding like a hippy:
I feel like I exist to capture the world around me with seven senses; sight, sound, taste, touch, smell and film.
It may sound silly or overly dramatic (it does read that way), but I’m not really bothered about that. It’s the best way I have to describe who I am.
Seeing a one of my photographs as a print or on a screen evokes a very strong recall. I can tell you where I was, the time of day, the sights and smells outside of the frame, how I was feeling and who (if anyone) I was with.
That’s something I was never able to do with digital, given the type of photographs I’m prone to take.
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
EM: I had little exposure to photography outside my family’s albums when growing up. Photography to me was something transactional: a recording of the moment meant for nothing else than capture and storage.
I didn’t know any big photographers and I didn’t recognise many famous photographs.
When I rediscovered film photography, my initial inspiration was my surroundings and I recorded them with a measure and a half of wild abandon.
My method of documenting my environment wasn’t what one might call “normal”, as it was largely focused on aspects of whole scenes, as opposed to a wider, more traditional approach. It’s something that came naturally and when I have an SLR with me, I still mostly shoot in the same way.
The photographer I mentioned in the previous section was my biggest photographic influence when starting out. It’s from him that I learned the beauty of subject isolation, a love of fat grain and of course, the burning need for lens flare so inappropriate it swallows up the entire frame.
Thank you, Mr T. This is for you:
My situation has changed immeasurably over the past few years and thanks to EMULSIVE, I now have hundreds of talented photographers to look up to and draw inspiration from.
Sharing your own work and the work of others you find interesting, amusing and enlightening is what keeps me on my toes. It can often be like drinking from a firehose but I package, compartmentalise and file away much of what I come across because of you all, and I use what I can to keep driving me to be a better photographer.
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
EM: Kind of…not really.
I use my phone to capture the things around me I want to share with immediate friends and family. I use film for everything else.
I have the luxury of making that choice, as I’m not under any pressure to delivery my photography in a speedy manner. It’s done when it’s done.
I still have the burned out husks of a few digital cameras I converted for full spectrum use but never use. They’re not burned out really, I just like to think of them that way. I was also recently lent a Ricoh GXR to mess about it. As I suspected, I played with it for a week and haven’t used it again since – even though it’s been in my bag nearly every day.
As I’ve said before, digital and analogue photography both have their place but in my life at least, there’s nothing that would be added to what I do by introducing a dedicated digital camera into the mix.
Trust me, I’ve tried and failed.
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?
EM: Simple: darkroom printing. My goals and challenges for 2016 were to explore large format photography and start scanning my own negatives. I managed to begin the large format bit but I only started scanning my own film at the beginning of 2017. I still have all my colour negative and slide film (aside from 4×5) scanned by labs, mostly because I deeply trust their work and in some ways, they understand my preference better than I do.
I occasionally print my work digitally and have had some photographs darkroom printed on my behalf but I have yet to step into a darkroom to print for myself. That needs to change over the next 12 months.
I’m hoping to take part in black and white and colour darkroom printing courses later this year as part of a deeper experiment in alternative processes – platinotypes, callitypes, salt prints, wet plate and dry plate. I’ll be gorging on a buffet of techniques later and deciding whichs one to go back to for a second helping soon thereafter.
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
EM: I’m an opportunistic photographer at best and as such, it’s had to pin down a favourite subject matter.
I’m definitely more of a “things” than “people” photographer and if there’s one thing that seems to be a theme, it’s texture. It can be almost anything and almost anywhere, from the grandly spectacular to the boringly mundane.
Bricks, wood, rust, paint, grass, leaves, the dirtier and grimier the better. I especially like mixing textures, trying to capture contextual as well as photographic contrast in the same frame if I can.
I also love playing with shallow depth of fields and whilst I’ve spent nearly a year with a rangefinder as my primary 35mm camera, I’m slowly moving back to my roots; an SLR and fast lenses that focus very close.
If you could bring back just one discontinued film stock, which one would it be and why? One film for the rest of your life… which?
EM: No question: Kodak AEROCHROME. It was limited-use to begin with and since its primary customer has now switched to digital, there’s practically zero chance of this film ever coming back. I was introduced to this film by way of Richard Mosse’s work in 2011. It blew my mind. I had to find out about it and more importantly, I had to shoot it.
It took me three years to muster the courage to do both and since then I’ve had both amazing flashes of happiness and crashes of despair because of it. As you can probably understand, I’m still getting used to shooting it and slowly learning what works and what doesn’t.
Call me crazy but I’ve seriously considered getting my hands on a thermal camera to help me out on this front.
I’m planning to try my next roll with a few non-standard filters (non-standard for this film, that is). I want to see if it’s possible to make this film perform like a normal colour film stock, or black and white infrared film. I’m told the latter is possible but whether I want to waste a roll on what’s essentially a frivolous test is another question.
I don’t ever see myself getting tired of this film. It has the potential to be incredibly sharp, is as forgiving as Fuji’s Provia 100F (which is pretty damned flexible for a slide film), and the intensity of the IR effect can be controlled with appropriate exposure and filters.
You have one frame left, what is it?
EM: I’d like to go back to Yellowstone National Park and spend a few days scouting a location. I’d hike about, deciding on a handful of locations and then return to each my final frame of AEROCHROME in 4×5 sheet form. I’d check the conditions and move on to the next location as needed. Hopefully the day would result in me shooting that final frame, at which point I’d get myself to the nearest E6 lab and wait while it was processed.
I shot a roll in Yellowstone in the summer of 2016 but sadly most of it was wasted due to a malfunction with my 6×12 film back*. The photograph below was one of only four that came out on a roll of six frames and whilst it could be cropped to 6×9 from the 6×12+ form you see here, I still kind of like it.
If Yellowstone was not an option for whatever reason then I’d have no choice but to settle for a quick trip up to the International Space Station. I’d shoot my final frame of the Earth with the sun in a sensible position behind me. Of course, I wouldn’t pay for this particular option and I’d need some help befriending a billionaire or two but that’s beside the point.
If by some miracle I ended up taking this shot, I would probably never have it developed.
Better to imagine what could have been than suffer the ignominy of defeat.
* Minimal user error combined with poor build quality and seemingly zero thought given to its actual use.
Do you ever do vacation trips that are just for photos? Name a place you would like to return and take proper photographs of.
EM: Ever so occasionally but on the whole, I tend to mix photography in with other planned trips.
There are a few places I would love to return to and shoot on film but the one that stands out is Wadi Rum in Jordan. I’m fascinated by the place, the people and the region’s pivotal role in much of the politics and troubles of these past 50 or so years.
When I was younger I would devour anything about or by T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell. and I fell in love with the place watching Lawrence of Arabia as a child. It’s irksome to see Bell sidelined as “the female Lawrence of Arabia”. The truth is somewhat more complicated but anyway, this is about photography, so…
I would go back to spend a few days with a group of Zalabia nomads I had the pleasure of meeting (and exchanging phone numbers with!) a few years ago. As anyone who has been there will tell you, the location is truly epic. Epic in the traditional sense and not the “OMG, that was like, really EPIC…I can’t even…” sense.
The nomads have undergone some huge social changes over the past decade. Signs of putting down permanent structures and giving up the nomadic life were already present when I was last there. I’d like to find the people I met and see how much their lives and livelihoods have changed these past few years.
When you go out on a shoot what comes first second and third in your thought process and preparation out of location, camera and film stock? Does your film choice for example direct the theme and camera(s) for the day?
EM: I’m not normally rigid with my day-to-day choices – I’m an opportunistic photographer, remember? – but I do go through a selection process.
My first thought is nearly always about weather and how it will affect both the film I take and the locations I’ll be shooting in. Once I’ve decided on which films to pack, it’s normally an easy choice to select formats and then gear based on what I want to do with the film and what I’m doing that day.
There are days when I wake up wanting to shoot a particular camera. This normally means I have a theme in mind (although I have to chip away at it to figure out what that is). In these cases, the camera and theme dictate the film.
When going out specifically to shoot, I often find myself with the idea that I absolutely must shoot a particular film stock in a particular way. I put together a kit list around that. It’s a fuzzy process that goes a little something like this:
- What film stock(s) am I shooting and which format(s)?
- Where can I go to make the most the stock and will the weather comply?
- Am I able to shoot close-up?
- How much time will I have?
- What other gear will I be carrying?
For photography-specific outings I try not to pack too much, as it can get both heavy and frustrating. I try to find a balance between opportunity and ability. What I mean by that is carrying too much gear dilutes my focus, as I’m liable to think more about how I can make best use of the cameras I’ve packed, rather than letting the environment decide the shot for me. Better balance increases my keeper rate.
Finally, I will typically carry two formats with me when out and about. I select my formats based on complimentary characteristics and shooting style, as well as the films I’m shooting. For example, if I’m on a city break I might carry my Hasselblad with an extension tube along with a point and shoot. One would be used low down and close up, the other for catching people doing their thing in the street.
If you had to nail it down to one main aspect, what do you think is driving the the resurgence in film photography? Why film, more than the cliche, what makes it worth it?
EM: To answer the first part, it’s simple, really: 1 and 0. Over the past 15 years or so we have been taught that the choice between film and digital is a binary one. We have been told that film is dead because digital provides all of the features and conveniences this modern life needs. Film is unnecessary and those not wanting to let it go are luddites.
There are numerous valid motivations behind switching to digital from film. Pro photographers cottoned on first and were able to absorb the costs. Why? Because digital really did help them find efficiencies in their workflow. The tech-curious were next and then when the technology hit that sweet spot of price/performance, it grabbed the consumers, too. Savvy marketing and slow incumbent vendors sped things along nicely.
What the digital exodus didn’t do was to sway those photographers who still had a use case for film. It may have shaken some but for those fully invested in the analogue process as an expression of their art, film has stayed the course. Digital wasn’t a choice that needed to be made because it wasn’t creatively apt or to put it another way, they felt they didn’t need to make the choice.
The “resurgence of film” is in my opinion consumers, professionals and artists realising that the choice of photographic medium and therefore expression doesn’t have to be binary; and that mediums can be mixed much in the same way as choices in music, or appreciation of other art forms. I didn’t stop listening to classical music is just because electronic music came along. I still read physical books and newspapers, and often consume the same content on a screen. Film and digital photography can and should coexist.
On a personal level I appreciate the tactility of film photography and understand that the process itself is a means to making me more mindful of what I do. Whilst people coming back to film (or coming to film for the first time), may have different reasons for doing so – railing against the pace of today’s world, perhaps? – the fact is that many of them will stay because of the process and the effect it has on them, rather than their end results.
To answer the second part of the question, when I take a photograph on film, I’m using light to affect a physical medium. I’m literally stealing light in order to leave behind a fingerprint of the conditions present at the time and place I made the exposure. I have to understand the light, the medium and the camera in order to lock down part of a process which will result in my obtaining the visualised result.
In short, I believe the physical nature of the medium gives me a better connection to the image I’m taking.
The film photography process, be it traditional or hybrid, is one which can demand a great deal of forethought and understanding. The effort that can go into taking a photograph on film makes the end result something of worth to me. It’s not to say that I expend a great deal of thought and energy in shooting every single frame, no. The point is that I can but don’t necessarily have to.
When I shoot digital everything is taken care of for me, from focus to metering, even down to what the camera *thinks* the photo should look like.
With film, I choose a stock to get a specific look. With digital I shoot a camera to get a set of functionality and then define the look I want in post production.
Where does your passion for building a community come from, when did you (and why) decide to become EMULSIVE?
EM: I consider myself to be a poor teacher but avid sharer of what I’ve learned. I find a hands-on approach to learning helps massively to bed-in theory. There really is no substitute for doing.
I’ve written about the origins of EMULSIVE before but allow me to partially repeat myself. EMULSIVE started out as a platform for me to share my work and what little I know about film photography. Bereaving the viewer of my identity felt like a good way to make any feedback solely focused on my content and devoid of social, political, religious or racial influence. To me it was about spreading a message of advocating the film medium and not at all about the individual behind it.
EMULsion is emotIVE.
Things developed pretty fast from that first idea (back at the beginning of 2015, I think), and I decided that what I really wanted was to launch head first into creating a platform that not only advocated film but also served as a soapbox for featuring the work of others like me – active photograhpers without a voice.
That initial aspect of sharing my work and the knowledge I had gathered came about mostly as a result of frustration. I’d expended a sizeable effort trying to do things people said shouldn’t be done, were supposedly impossible or ill-advised. I wanted to create a place for all those people left out in the cold with unanswered questions and forum posts. I wanted to share my results, show people what could be achieved, and how to do it themselves.
The community aspect naturally came about as a result of trying to build something with knowledge transfer at its heart. There’s more joy and satisfaction in sharing what you know than in keeping it to yourself. People see people sharing, take an interest and get inspired to do the same.
On a personal level, I love seeing people share their own work under the flag of being inspired by this or that thing they read or heard about through EMULSIVE. It’s a huge motivational factor for both me and the folks who have contributed their words and images.
Speaking of knowledge transfer, a great recent example of its effect was FP4Party 2016. Seeing the progression in the work of so many when focused on a single task was been humbling. The community interacted at a pace that’s hard to keep up with and so much was shared and evolved over the four months of it’s 2016 run. It’s plain to see how styles and techniques have been developed and sharpened across the board with that fun little project and it’s continuing with TMAXparty and hopefully with the other film parties that are planned for 2017 and beyond.
With regards to film photography at least, a rising tide DOES lift all ships.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
EM: Remember I said I’d be having a rant a bit later? Later is now. To me, the biggest misconception about film photography – by a country mile – is that it is somehow better than digital or vice versa.
It pisses me off to no end when I hear photographers say things like, “Fuck digital“, “Film photographers are luddites“, “Film is for hipsters“, etc. Seriously? Please get over yourselves and go take some photographs. That’s what it’s about after all, right?
This may be news to some but very few people outside of the photography community care about cameras, brands and formats. As long as a camera can do what’s required of it by the person using it at the time, “normal” people simply don’t care.
Film, digital, film format, sensor type, generation, aspherical lenses, bonded plastic components……YAWN.
The only people that get pent up and put out in film vs digital (or other such pointless debates), are those who have forgotten what the debate should be all about: respecting choice and intended result.
It’s the photographers choice to use what they want to get the result they desire.
If you choose to shoot digital, then great. If you choose to shoot film, then fantastic. It’s your choice, not anyone elses. If anyone else tries to batter you into being convinced otherwise they should be politely told (by you) to go and fuck themselves.
If your photographic need demands something your chosen medium can’t do to your satisfaction (or the satisfaction of your customer), then go and find one that will. Even better, take a leaf out of Carver Mead, or Thomas Edison’s books and go make something that does what you envisaged.
The last thing that you should be doing is bitching about someone else’s choice, or supporting the aforementioned bitching by letting others drone on. Walk on. You have better things to do and should be paying attention to what you’re doing, not wasting time and energy on something you have no control over.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
2016 saw quite a few bad days for film. More film stocks were discontinued by Fuji, Kodak saw some pretty terrible supply chain issues and Voigtlander announced the end of the Bessa series of rangefinders…
At the same time we saw hope coming from FILM Ferrania’s updates, Bergger announced they’d be releasing a new film stock, the (not so grumpy) Bellamy Hunt released JCH Streetpan and Lomography continued fighting the good fight with new hardware. Oh, and Fuji surprised everyone by releasing Instax Mini Monochrome and announcing Instax Square.
By the time 2017 rolled around, I was already feeling pretty upbeat about the outlook for film and then Kodak did the unthinkable. They announced they were bringing back EKTACHROME.
What?! Great news!
A month later FILM Ferrania announced FERRANIA P30, a resurrection of the 1970’s formula of their legendary motion picture stock. Bergger announced availability of Pancro 400 in 135 and 120 format a short while after that, Lomography announced F2/400 and Bellamy Hunt announced not only a second run of JCH Streetpan but also that it would be arriving later this year in 120 format.
PHEW! Five announcements in less than three months? Stick a fork in me, I’m done.
Let’s not forget ars imago’s lab box, which has smashed it’s Kickstarter goal and also fulfillment by CineStill of their medium and large format rewards from last year’s Kickstarter campaign. This year has gotten off to an amazing start and I hope to see more of the same as we near the expected release date of Instax Square (April/May 2017). What the second half of this year has to offer is anyone’s guess but there’s already been enough announced to make 2017 a great year for film.
Of course, film is only one half of the equation and what we really need are cameras.
Whilst the offerings from Lomography, Jollylook (Kickstarter) and Holga (yes, they’re back) are great, they offer little in the way of a middle ground when you think that the only other new film cameras available today from major vendors are either expensive 4x5s or Leicas.
I’d love to see someone, anyone come back into the game with a reasonably priced 35mm or 120 film camera.
Pentax/Ricoh, Canon, Nikon, I’m looking at you.
Thanks for reading, folks. If you’re expecting a long and drawn out commentary, think again.
All I want to do is to thank you all for reading and supporting EMULSIVE over the past ~20 months and to send a message to all of the ~130 interviewees that have come before me. This was hard. Thank you for putting up with me and my questions!
Normal service will be resumed next week but in the meantime, please…
…keep shooting, folks!
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