I am Jamelle Bouie and this is why I shoot film
Today we’re sitting down with film photographer Jamelle Bouie. He’s a relative newcomer to film and some say can be found writing bits and pieces as Chief Political Correspondent for Slate and Political Analyst CBS – I’ve been assured it’s just a vicious rumor.
Over to you Jamelle.
Hi Jamelle, what’s this picture then?
I’m pretty sure this is from the first roll of film I put through my Fuji GA645, last fall, when I started to dabble in medium format. It’s the Washington Monument, from the right side of the Lincoln Memorial.
It was a clear, beautiful day, and I happened to grab the snap while no one was walking through. I’m not sure it’s the greatest photo, and it’s a bit cliché, but I like it quite a bit. Enough, in fact, to have a print made for my office.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
JB: I am a political writer and, er, pundit who took up photography as a hobby in college, and has recently moved to shooting film almost exclusively.
I don’t have any particular photographic goal as much as I enjoy the process of shooting photos, improving my skills, and having an outlet for my creativity that isn’t related to my job.
When did you start shooting film and what about now? What drives you to keep shooting.
JB: I’m still new to shooting film, with less than a year of experience, thus far. I’m young enough that my first camera (period) was digital, and my subsequent more “serious” cameras were digital as well. It wasn’t until my fianceé’s mother gave me a film SLR (she collects them) that I had ever used film. But I fell in love.
From the cameras as objects to the deliberation that went into each shot, film immediately appealed to my sensibilities. I still own a digital camera (for when I’m reporting “on the trail”), but my personal work is film, and will stay film.
Obviously, the aesthetics of film play into this—it looks great in a way that I’ve never been able to capture through digital shooting. The larger draw, however, is that there’s just so much to learn.
Photographers used film for the vast majority of the medium’s existence, and in the present age, that is a treasure trove of history, information, and wisdom that is waiting for anyone who wants to explore it. I have organized much of my life around learning, and in a real sense, shooting film helps me learn.
Any favorite subject matter?
JB: I love taking pictures of people, but I’m a bit shy when it comes to strangers. But the fact that I love photos of people—and street photography more broadly—means I’m working to push myself out of my comfort zone, capturing the moment as I see it, and even asking people for photos when that is appropriate.
For street photography, I tend to shoot black and white in 35mm. For my travel photography—pictures of objects, architecture, nature, etc.—I tend to shoot color in medium format.
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?
JB: I am not sure that I have set any challenges for myself, per se. There are aspects of photography that I certainly want to improve on. I want to get much better at eye-balling an exposure, to become less reliant on light meters, in the camera or otherwise. And I am terrible at gauging distance, so I picked up a Lomo LC-A to practice zone focusing.
As far as mastery goes, I mostly want to get better at approaching people for photos on the street. I like street portraits quite a bit, and that’s the only way to do it (barring some kind of ridiculous zoom lens).
You can never use film again, what’s your last roll?
JB: Easy. My last roll is Kodak Portra 400. I think, in my soul, I’m a black and white film person. But boy, I love Portra. And I love it in medium format. It was one of the first rolls of film I ever bought, and it would definitely be my last.
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?
JB: Camera: Fuji GA645, which is fixed-lens, so the second question is answered. Film: A roll of Tri-X 400 and a roll of Portra 400.
The Fuji is my medium format camera, and for this mystery assignment, I’d like to use something that’s quick, easy to use, and could capture as much detail as possible.
As for the film? The cliché is that Tri-X is a reporter’s film, and I am a reporter. It just seems appropriate. And sometimes, you need to capture color, and there, Portra does the job.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
JB: This is a tough question, but I think I grab some Velvia 50 (it’s expensive and I’m taking the parameters of this question seriously), the Fuji GA645, and I venture out into the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, from the summer into the late fall.
It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, with vibrant colors that compliment slide film, and Velvia in particular. I’d pack a tripod too, of course.
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography and how would you set it straight?
JB: In my experience, people believe that it is very difficult—that somehow shooting film requires an exceptional amount of experience. But that’s just not true. People of all skill levels have been shooting film for decades, and in its final years as the dominant format for hobbyist and consumer photography, film cameras grew increasingly sophisticated.
Learning the basics of photography and shooting film is easy. What’s hard is the waiting, the fact that you can’t just shoot with wild abandon—that you have to compose photos and think about the image. It runs counter to the prevailing approach to picture taking, and I can imagine why folks might find it difficult.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
JB: This is a tough question! Looking at the economics of film, the medium has already gone through the worst—a major contraction that essentially wiped the slate clean, shrinking film stocks and all but ending production of film cameras.
But! That had an unexpected effect: With consumers using digital cameras (or now, cell phones), the only people left using film were hobbyists. Enthusiasts. And as we’ve seen with a variety of markets, from vinyl records and bicycles to board games and bespoke clothing, enthusiasts can provide the base for healthy, vibrant businesses. Which is what seems to be happening, as new companies like Cinestill enter the fray, and classic ones like Ilford and Kodak continue to put out films and products.
What’s more, a whole new generation of “digital native” photographers (people like me) are discovering film for the first time, and falling in love. We are a small minority of all young photographers, yes, but we’re passionate and eager to support new products (and provide some churn and demand for the used camera market).
We’ll likely never see a flowering of film photography again—those days are gone. But, like its analog counterparts in music, I think film will live on as something for the geeks and nerds and discerning professionals of the photography world. If nothing else, I intended to keep shooting film for as long as someone is making it.
~ Jamelle Bouie
Is it me or have there been more new film photographers gracing these pages of late?
It’s heartening to see and I hope to have the opportunity to speak with moreof you in the months to come.
On to Jamelle. One particular comment of note is:
“What’s more, a whole new generation of “digital native” photographers (people like me) are discovering film for the first time, and falling in love. We are a small minority of all young photographers, yes, but we’re passionate and eager to support new products (and provide some churn and demand for the used camera market).”
I think the questions we as film photographers really need to be asking ourselves aren’t ones of new film stock availability and new film camera gear but ones more focused on what we can do to encourage new entrants to the film photography community. Without fresh blood, fresh passion and drive for the medium we risk stagnating and “drying the pool”, for want of a better term.
Sure. Those of us with children can make introductions there but that’s pretty easy, no? Why not step out of your shell and give someone that’s not an easy target (or captive audience!) a try? It’s something I freely admit I need to focus more on but I’m happy to say that I lent out two film cameras last year to Jamelle’s “native digital” photographers last year and haven’t looked back. With small acts of kindness and generosity we can all help to spread the reach and with any luck, inspire more to enter the fray.
That’s all for now. Please take the time to give Jamelle a follow on Twitter and head on over to his website, jamellebouie.net. I’d also highly recommend reading some of Jamelle’s writings over at Slate. Great stuff.
Interviews 91 and 92 will be out next week but in the meantime, keep shooting, folks!
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