I am John Nanian and this is why I shoot film
You’ll forgive the week’s break after interview 100, I hope. Well, break over and back to normal here are EMULSIVE HQ – no rest for the wicked.
It’s proving quite tough to introduce today’s interviewee. He has nearly three decades of experience as a professional photographer, he teaches, and is a prolific documentarian (with work archived in the Library of Congress). He makes his own emulsion, developer, colors prints,makes cameras…well, there so much more to tell but I think it’s probably best to shut up and let the man speak for himself.
It’s over to John Nanian.
Hi John, what’s this picture, then?
JN: This is a tinted retina print. It is a photograph of a railing and weeds made with an old “Graflex 3A SLR” (“post card format”). I put a sheet of old expired, glossy RC photo paper inside the camera like I would normally do for a paper negative. Instead of exposing for a few seconds and developing the negative and fixing it, I left the shutter open for a few hours. Eventually, the image appeared on the sheet of paper, and I scanned it. I left it as a negative and I added colors using PhotoShop. I’m not the best “colorist” . I don’t really color between the lines, I never studied / don’t know the first thing about “color theory” and according to the “dot tests” I am also sort of color blind ( mild red-green ), but I have fun.
The “retina print” one of the first photographic processes. It was discovered by Nicéphore Niépce, the inventor of photography, and involves a very long exposure and light sensitive emulsion. An image appears on the paper but isn’t really able to be “fixed”. Over time, even in a dark drawer, the picture degrades. Making photographs this way wasn’t really commercially viable and he wasn’t really able to take his discovery very far. He must have known he was onto something big, and he partnered with Louis-Jaques-Mandé Daguerre and helped invent the Daguerreotype. He didn’t get much credit for helping Daguerre, who licensed the quick, and dangerous image-making process and became rich. I make retina prints, the same way Niépce made them, but I use a scanner to keep my prints from degrading.
Making these photographs is a simple process that can be done with ANY camera, or even a refrigerator box with a lens. I haven’t used a refrigerator box, but I have made box cameras and barrel lenses. I think the biggest camera I made took 2 sheets of 11×14 paper ( 22×14” print ), the smallest was about 2×3”. In addition to making these images in-camera, sometimes I contact print large format or sheets of roll film negatives, in a contact frame or I make photograms just putting things onto of photo paper and the sun; I call these things “sun prints”.
While some people have devised ways to “fix” these types of images by soaking the exposed paper in alkaline baths and then developing and fixing them, I look at retina and sun prints as being ephemeral, and it is one of the reasons I like making them. Like anything in life, it can be as complicated or as simple as you want it to be. Sometimes I keep it simple and just capture and invert an image made on regular old photo paper, or even film, other times I use hand coated “stuff” (glass, paper or metal plates) or soak the paper in developer just to see what happens.
I really never know what to expect, and often times I am surprised. It’s this mystery, not having any idea what will appear, and that keeps me doing them. While I like the convenience of scanners and computers and digital media, there isn’t the same sort of “not knowing until the end” as there is with chemical photography, and combine waiting two or twelve hour exposure, and you have a retina print.
Ok so who are you? (the short version, please)
JN: I’m a Freelance Photographer living outside of Providence, Rhode Island. I do documentary work. My background is in Architectural History and Cultural Resources Management. I have an interest in history, people, the built (and unbuilt) environment, and recording it on film and paper.
I have done editorial/newspaper photography, events, weddings and even things for the Guinness Book of World Records. Some my work is in Archives (HABS) and public libraries (books/folios). Since the 1980s I’ve made portraits of strangers, documented a whole city block before it was razed, and for 7 years I documented nearly all the city squares where I lived in Somerville, Massachusetts.
I figure if in “the future” somebody wanted to know what Brookline, or Union Square or the Holmes Block looked like they might not know to go to some stuffy historical society / gallery or archive, maybe they will go to their local library. I learned bookbinding when I was a Boy Scout, and really like the book / folio format: It’s simple.
My personal work and professional work are almost the same. I document what’s around me, make portraits of shopkeepers, buildings, vacant areas, the coastline; but I am a little more free-wheeling. Instead of using Kodak T-MAX 100 carefully processed in Sprint Film Developer and exposed on a Toyo view camera with a tripod and sharp Schneider lens exposed at f/22, I might use expired film or expired paper, perhaps something hand coated and shot in a Cyclone #3 (120 year old box camera), hand held for 10 or 15 seconds and processed in a pitch black developer made out of coffee.
For most of my personal work, I am more interested in the feeling of an image rather than the perfect image. If there are scratches, or fog, or vignetting, I don’t really mind; I don’t really think perfection exists.
When did you start shooting film and what about now what drives you to keep shooting?
JN: I was born in 1965 and when I was a about 5 years old, I got a Mickey Mouse camera. By the time I was in high school I had a Pentax K1000, and was taking Photography classes. We had a darkroom in our basement so I could do it on my own too, and for my high school senior project I made a photography book.
In college I continued, taking 7 semesters of classes including 2 directed studies–designed my own curriculum.
I made another photography book, I taught myself how to make dry plates and hand coated glass internegatives. Basically, since I was about 15, I never really stopped making photographs, experimenting on my own, or working with people involved with making photographs or artwork as their assistant or lab person, fellow gallery owner, or art teacher’s guest.
I try to keep my mind and eyes open. I keep shooting because I love the idea of making things from scratch, and there is nothing quite like seeing an image appear. It’s a magic trick I never get tired of.
Any favorite subject matter?
JN: Favorite subject matter is kind of a tricky question for me. I really just love tinkering with the photographic process, I don’t really have a favorite subject matter.
I am kind of spread out all over the place, I like photographing local ruins, the coast, even un-noticed/un-loved-stuff. I just enjoy making images using light and light sensitive materials whether it is silver based or iron based, on film, plastic, paper, glass, metal, with or without a camera (I have even printed trash found on the street ), I’m not too picky.
My pursuits and mindset about photography have changed a lot over the years. When my kids were really young and I didn’t really have a ton of time on my hands. I wanted to spend time out and about with a camera, or in the darkroom, but I couldn’t. I started photographed out the window of the car, and figuring out a way to process my film without having to be there. I ended up with hundreds of rolls of processed film.
Back then I hated the idea of scanning and using photoshop, so I would sometimes stay up late at night printing, but that got kind of old because I had to be awake and alert the next day, which is kind of hard when you are half asleep. Needless to say I sort of became caught between two worlds, the film and paper one and the “electric” one.
Eventually, I started making cyanotypes and sunprints. When the kids were doing their homework on the kitchen table, I would bring in a cyanotype photogram I just made on the back porch. I’d run down to the basement and rinse it off, and then half bleach the blue out of it with mixture of water and waterlogged sodium carbonate. I’d have the damp, small, greenish, yellow, blue print, put it on the kitchen table and start adding colors using crayons and watercolors.
One thing lead to another. I started to just put photo paper in a camera and leave the lens open for a hour or two to see what would happen, or with photo paper I’d make contact prints in the sun with a negatives in a contact frame / under glass, or make photograms out of stuff lying around.
Images appeared but vanished if fixed and turned black if developed. I read about what people did with solar graphs or lumen prints since this process was similar, but different enough that I came up empty. I met someone who had a way of fixing his solar graphs I do it once in a while, but to be honest, I mostly scan them.
These days I do more things in color. I make tri-chromes and hand tint/colorized black and white images. I’m not quite sure where I am going with all of this, but it is kind of fun just meandering aimlessly and tinkering.
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 to master in the next 12 months?
JN: When I was a college student I dabbled with making emulsion from scratch. It was the pre-internet 80s. and there wasn’t even a blind man to lead me. While I didn’t totally fail I found Liquid Light, and it made my life easier.
In the past few years, I’ve become a fan of Denise Ross and her website, thelightfarm.com and thanks to her, I have started to make silver gelatin emulsion again. She has a website (and book!) full of all the information I wish I had 20 years ago.
Making photo emulsion is not very hard, it can be messy, and a lot of fun. In the next 12 months I’d love to only use emulsion I make from scratch and nothing else. I would like to see how far I can push something totally hand made.
You have 2 minutes to prepare for an assignment. One camera one lens 2 films and no idea of the subject matter, what do you take and why?
JN: I would take a Pentax ME Super and a stock 50mm f/2 lens. I would be happy with Ilford HP5+ and HP4+.
I’d take that camera because it feels very comfortable in my hands, the lens is sharp when it has to be and has nice out of focus area. I’d use those films because they can take some abuse if I mess up. The films don’t block up too badly if they are over exposed a little bit, and it seems they like every developer they are dunked in.
If I could take a tripod and a Lumedyne flash I’d be all-set. You never know if you need extra light and the Lumedyne is bright, portable and has about 200 flashes in it when it is charged. I hate using a hotshoe, I’d use a extra long PC cord and set the light up someplace away from the camera.
You never use film again, what’s your last roll and why?
JN: I think I would like to use a roll of Kodak T-MAX 100. It could be expired from the bottom of a drawer; I’d be OK with that. It is a great film that can be under and over exposed a whole bunch. I’d stand develop it in for about 35 minutes in Caffenol C and a shake of brownish/expired Dektol. There is something beautiful that happens when this film is pushed to the edge.
The fog and grain, imperfections and grit appear and really give the images a textural layer that can’t be made any other way. If I was given a few sheets of 4×5 instead of a roll of film I would over expose it three or four stops, but instead of stand developing the sheets, I would shuffle them for about 20 minutes in the same developer.
I’d make bulletproof negatives and contact print them on RC paper with a really bright light.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. where do you go?
JN: I wouldn’t go far, I’m not one for exotic locations. I’d probably rent a storefront and photograph every person I can, from the youngest to the oldest with a giant camera.
People are so used to cell phone or DSLR snapshots, it would be nice to do the other extreme. Slow, deliberate portrait photography by available light, the hood over the head of the photographer. Who knows, it might get others hooked on film too.
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography, and how would you set them straight?
JN: I think people’s greatest misconception about film photography is that it is difficult, or out of date, or you have to photograph landscapes or something “traditional” to do it.
People don’t realize none of that is true. I don’t know how I would set them straight other than showing them how easy and fun it is, and how you can make great photographs, even without a camera or darkroom.
In your opinion, what is the future of film photography?
JN: I am not sure what the future of film photography is…
I think there will always be companies that sell photographic materials, just like there are still companies that sell “buggy whips”. I think that while cellphones have replaced what used to be the point and shoot or 35mm market, people turn to film when they want something more that the purely digital medium can’t supply them.
Some might gravitate to lo-fidelity plastic cameras or pinhole, while others will be more interested in how much resolution they can capture and spend their days and nights with large format cameras uber-sharp or rare/collectable lenses.
Still others are the folks who will find interests in older processes. Advances in printing has created people who will blend the two mediums and make traditional chemical prints with digital negatives. There are folks making tri colored 11×14 platinum prints with computer enlarged 35mm black and white negatives.
Maybe I am just an optimist, but I think that the times ahead will be kind of interesting.
~ John Nanian
John is a man of many surprises. When I was first pointed his way by friend of EMULSIVE and past interviewee Erik Gould, I checked out John’s website and some of his Historic American Buildings Survey / Historic American Engineering Record (HABS/HAER) work at the Library of Congress. There so much to see and I hadn’t expected such variety from what I had expected to be technical documentary work.
To the point: I hadn’t expected the work John submitted for this interview to be such a departure from what I’d already seen – departure being a complete understatement.
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times before on these pages, something wonderful happens to photographers of a certain cut as they *ahem* grow in experience. I’m not sure if it’s to do with some form of latent creative aspect to their personalities, or if this is something we all have forward to look forward to but it seems to me that it might be a bit of both – with a bit of something else.
We all enjoy play, some more than others. Whilst photographic beginnings might be full of messing around and seeing what works with exposures, development, lenses and light, that phase of our development isn’t something that we all take with us throughout our photographic lives.
Through these interviews and conversations with photographers over the past few years, it seems to me that what you and I might call “serious” photographers – those most intensely engaged in certain types of work for the sake of their professional livelihood – are the ones most likely to “suffer” from this artistic affliction.
Could it be that the need (or desire) to remain serious and focused actually creates the need for a more abstract outpouring? It’s my belief that we are all artists after all in one way or another some of us doodle, paint and draw, some sculpt, some take photographs, or express themselves in countless other ways. Some of us are able to explore these aspects of our personality on a daily basis but what happens when a creative expression becomes work?
I might be on totally the wrong track but what I do know is that I’m personally going to lump John in with Roger Ballen, Andrea Taurisano, Michael Jackson and Chuck Baker, as people who for me demonstrate a special duality in their photographic output. Don’t change, John.
Well there you go, that’s interview 101 done. Thanks very much for reading and please leave your thoughts in the comments. As an aside, the interview format will be developing slightly over the coming months and I’m inviting your feedback for questions you’d like posed to future (and prior!) interviewees.
Feel free to leave a note in the comments below but I will be asking formally in a post over the coming days.
That’s all from me for now and as ever, 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.