I am Monika and this is why I shoot film
Finally! That’s all I’m going to say about today’s interview. Well, ok then, if I must.
Pinhole, large format, medium format, 35mm…it seems the only thing we can’t get this amazing photographer and passionate stalwart of the film photography community to do is shoot color film.
Monika, it’s over to you!
Hi Monika, what’s this picture, then?
M: This is the photograph that turned me into a pinhole photographer; a Polaroid 54 of the Ballard Locks, taken with a 4×5 Lensless pinhole camera.
I had bought the pinhole to try and get out of a photographic rut. After spending several years on large format botanical studies and still life, I didn’t like my work, I wasn’t inspired, and I desperately needed creative expression. Martha Casanave’s pinhole work had recently been featured in View Camera Magazine, and I fell in love with it.
When I first got the pinhole, I kept photographing my old subjects and they really didn’t work. Then we moved to Seattle – we visited the Ballard Locks and I played around with photographs of different subjects. I made this photo and immediately knew what I wanted to do with my pinhole photography.
I photographed with pinhole solidly — just one camera, just one film — for several years after this; I learned so much from the experience: I am able to “read” light much better and hone in on key shapes or shadows. I watch the sky all the time now – even if I’m not photographing. And if I determine that the textures in a scene are what are important to me, I pick up my Bronica!
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
M: The inherent difficulty here is that part of life is figuring this very question out, all while I’m growing and changing. Trying to answer this is made more difficult by the knowledge that the way I see myself can be different than the way others see me.
It’s fairly safe to say that I have a creative side and a logical side and that I am seeking to appease them both. I’m married, with two kids and a cat. I love the people in my life, but find working with people exhausting. I am an engineer by profession. I need a lot of time alone, but sometimes struggle with loneliness. My garden brings me joy and calm. I love the writings of Tolkien and Ray Bradbury. I read children’s books (being partial to the horror and sci-fi varieties).
I can be too serious; I don’t feel like a grown up yet.
I am enthusiastic.
I’m a sucker for do-it-yourself projects.
My love of the darkroom runs deep; I become miserable if I go for too long without printing.
I have a saying, derived in the kitchen but perfectly applicable to film photography: It’s not a failure. It’s an experiment that didn’t work out.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
M: My very first camera was a disk camera – but let’s skip on to my first “serious” camera – which was a Pentax K1000 that I got for Christmas in high school.
As I was putting this interview together, I realized that all my film cameras have a story attached to how I acquired them. There are ones that I purchased for a specific reason, and ones that were given to me.
They have a personal history.
I tend to work in projects – a habit that I picked up when my enthusiasm was bigger than my talent and exhibiting was a holy grail. Projects are great for developing an idea but also a trap. With projects, if I fall into a rut with my work, I feel terribly lost.
When I get a new camera, I initially try to keep shooting the same subjects, but it never works out. So I’m forced to try new things until I hit upon a combination that’s exciting. And that’s one of the great things about using film and film cameras – I see the world differently, depending on the camera and film that I’m using. Whereas with a digital camera, what I see is always the same.
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
My love of fine art was instilled in me while growing up in Pennsylvania. My mother was from a family of commercial artists, and was a skilled painter. Trips to museums were always important family outings; we went to a lot of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism exhibits. I love the visual, emotional energy that many of those artists achieved. I don’t recall seeing any photography exhibits at that time.
When I was a teenager, my mother took an introduction to photography course in the arts program at our local college. Seeing her progress through her assignments opened up a whole new world to me, and I fell in love with black and white photography and especially darkroom prints.
Many years ago — as a fledging photographer and printer — I took two workshops from the (now late) photographer Ray McSavaney; he taught me so much in a short amount of time, especially about printing. Best of all, he taught me how to learn from myself.
At the moment, I’m really into Jerry Uelsmann’s work. I love surrealism, and it feels somehow more authentic when it’s produced meticulously by hand than on a computer.
In (my only) high school art class we had to make a collage from texture clippings. That assignment changed how I see the world. When I got the Bronica, I started creating a texture library, with the thought that I‘d do collage from hand colored prints; but it’s such a lot of work, I might never get to it. I haven’t been able to bring myself to cut up my prints! That was the jumping off point for some montage work that I’m playing with.
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
M: We have a digital camera for snap shots, but I rarely use it. It’s good for fast moving kids, terrible lighting, and getting photos quickly to far away family members. I use film cameras exclusively for creative expression.
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?
M: Oh man, I have so much I want to do. My list covers more than 12 months…
In May 2016 there was a terrific opinion piece in the New York Times entitled “The Conflict Zone of Motherhood” that I really connected with. For the longest time, I believed that I needed to escape – briefly – from people to find creative fulfilment. But I’ve reached the point where I want to take photographs of my family that will last – that will tell a story about them at a moment in time and be authentic. I want to do this with self-portraits also. It’s really, really hard for me.
Also last spring, I got a Reality So Subtle 6×6 pinhole camera. The super-wide angle is really hard to get used to. I’m normally an out of doors photographer, but I’ve been using this camera to play around with indoor subjects. I want to see how far I can take this work.
In a completely different vein, I’m working on a hand printed montage project and I want to get better at this type of printing. It’s like a double exposure, but I use two negatives and overlay them on a single print in the darkroom. It’s incredibly challenging, but – there’s something about the creative decision-making that’s deeply gratifying.
I’m toying with the idea to eventually produce a book, in which these surreal images are paired with science fiction stories.
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
I’ve been told that there are a lot of circles in my work, and I’m starting to see that. Also, shadows, variations in light, and reflections get me way more excited than the average non-photographer.
You have 2 minutes to prepare for an unknown assignment. You can take one camera, one lens, two films and you have no idea what you’ll be shooting. What to you take with you and why?
M: I was really stymied by this question until I realized – no one in his right mind would assign me to color work. Or portraits. Or any number of things. It’s going to be pinhole then. I’ll take the terraPin 6×9 – since it takes roll film, I won’t have to worry about fussing with film holders or dust.
[EMULSIVE: in case you’re not aware, this mad 3D printed camera is the brainchild of Todd Schlemmer]
I like how the field of view pairs with landscapes, without being an extreme wide angle. And the larger negative gives me room to crop to 6×6 if the image demands it.
I’m still testing films, but for now I’ll take Ilford Delta 100 Professional and Fuji Acros 100. I know Delta 100 really well – I’ve been using it with pinhole for so long I don’t usually need to meter — and I know how I like to print it. The Acros is more forgiving in low light, and also makes beautiful prints.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location for the rest of your life. What do you take, where do you go and why?
M:Last summer I had a fantastic time photographing in the Snowdonia region of Wales; the landscape combined with interesting skies was wonderful. So I might go wander the coast of the U.K. – cause this is the rest of my life, right?
I’d take the Bronica SQ-A, 80mm lens (it’s really the only one I use) and the terraPin 6×9 pinhole camera. Ilford HP5+ for the Bronie and Delta 100 Professional for the pinhole. With a lightweight tripod, I can manage this gear in a hiking daypack.
Alternatively, I’d just stay in the Pacific Northwest – I really love it here. We have great moody skies, landscapes, and water. I’d add my 4×5 wooden pinhole with Delta 100 Professional sheet film to the above; I really like the field of view that this camera has.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
M: My last roll of film would be Ilford HP5+, loaded in my Bronica SQ-A. I’d use it slooooowly and try to make every image count. I’d make portraits of my family and myself – so that I could make prints that I could pass on to my children.
Hopefully, paper negatives don’t count as “film”? That’s something I can try once the film runs out!
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
M: That it’s a lot of work and not worth the effort. Every so often, someone invariably asks me WHY am I going to the trouble of still using film. There are two things to say about this:
A well-crafted darkroom print makes my heart sing. There’s just nothing like it, even if digital printing has a come a long way. And in the making of a print I feel whole.
It doesn’t have to be a lot of work. We let our kids use our Yashica T4 and some old Fuji film on vacation. The prints looked great.
Look, a 2nd grader can use film.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
M: I’m feeling pretty optimistic, a lot more now than a few years ago. Recently, I was snowshoeing at Mt. Rainier with the Bronica when another hiker stopped to ask me about my camera, “Is that a medium format camera? I hear that film’s making a comeback.”
I see young people out and about with film cameras; and the film community on Twitter is really strong. I do worry about the future of darkroom printing – there are just more obstacles to printing.
With a lot of galleries focused on digitally produced, large color work, there are fewer opportunities to foster an appreciation for handprints of all types.
Monika is one of those people in the Twitter film photography community who is always there, always listening and always offering advice and support.
When I described her as a “passionate stalwart of the film photography community” up top, I wasn’t joking, she really is. Her unwavering support for the medium, the process, and assistance is admirable and seemingly impossible to break.
Along with a few other folks I won’t name here, Monika represents the best of what the community can be. Her passion for the darkroom is infectious and if it hasn’t done so already, it will get you wanting to find out what it’s all about (pitchforks at the ready: as readers will know, I’m not a darkroom printer…yet).
Thank you for stepping up and giving us an insight into you and your work, Monika.
If you find yourself in Yakima, WA between now and April 15th, please head on over to the Larson Gallery’s 40th National Photography Exhibition where you will be able to see three of Monika’s prints on disply. You can find out more here: http://larsongallery.org.
If for some reason you can’t manage to get over to Washington – actually, even if you can – then I would STRONGLY advise you to give Monika a follow on Twitter and if you’re game, join in with #drawATog, which she’s curating with a few folks.
Last but not least, you can see more of Monika’s beautiful photography over on Flickr.
That’s it for another week! If you find yourself stuck for something to do until next week, scroll back up and give Monika’s interview another read. When you’re done, scroll down and check out some of the recent articles here on EMULSIVE. There’s a whole lot to go through.
In the meantime, keep shooting, folks!
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