I am Paul Berry and this is why I shoot film
Grab a coffee and a pack of your favorite biscuits, this is going to be a long and interesting read. We’re sitting down with Paul Berry, from the North East of England, to find out what makes him tick.
There’s a lot to cover, so it’s difficult to know how to lead you in…it’s probably best to just let him get on with it, so you can enjoy his words and pictures.
Over to you, Paul.
Hi Paul, what’s this picture then?
This is a street artist in Newcastle. I’ve often heard it said by some quite famous street photographers (who are supposed to know what they’re talking about), that we should never shoot street artists because they’re easy game. Well, my opinion is if it’s on the street and it interests me then I’m going to shoot it, no matter what it is or, who they are. I normally concentrate my shooting on people doing things so I call it ‘Urban Portraiture’ rather than street photography.
This shot was taken on only my second outing with my new Olympus 35RC and an attached red filter. I’ve always wanted one, so as soon as funds allowed, it was mine. I think these little cameras are the Bee’s Knees, they’re compact, they weigh ounces, they sit well in the hands and more importantly, the optics are second to none. Leica, move over, here comes a real camera for a fraction of the cost. Along with the even smaller XA2 they make perfect traveling companions.
So, I took this shot whilst this chap was doing his thing. I metered manually from some lookalike 18% grey flag stones on the ground and got some decent exposures. I rarely shoot colour and I’ve always got a yellow filter on my camera, or in bright conditions, a red one. In the rather bland lighting of the North of England, they make such a difference.
OK, so who are you? (short version please)
I live in Peterlee, a new post-war town in the ancient county of Durham on the North East coast of England and I am now a Christian minister of the gospel. I had two dreams in life, one to be a minister of the gospel and the other to be a professional commercial photographer specialising in portraiture, as you can see, the former is now what I’m doing full time.
The latter came true for me for a short while (almost ten years), until 2015. Life had not led me down the road of professional photography till quite late on. An opportunity came along but as many will tell you it’s not as easy as it seems. It’s very hard work, 10% of which is doing what you enjoy and 90% doing everything else. Like most creative types I hated the ‘everything else’ bit. I thrive on hard work, but not so much on doing stuff I really don’t enjoy.
On top of all that, I came in to it once the digital revolution had taken full grasp and no clients wanted film anymore. This forced a major investment into digital equipment, which I quickly discovered I hated even more. The recession didn’t help of course and up North of England, it hit really hard. Businesses stopped spending virtually overnight, promotional budgets dried up very quickly and it was a difficult time for everyone.
Saying that of course, I always enjoyed the shooting part…the purely photographic side of the work; working with people, creating great commercial portraits and the additional training courses which the business allowed but I really, really did not like the computer side – spending hundreds of hours in software packages, each with their steep learning curves, horrendous quirks, glitches, bugs and endless upgrades…some rather costly.
Over time it all began to erode my enthusiasm. My personal shooting diminished to virtually zero and my “get up and go” got up and went. Eventually I crashed and burned! So earlier this year I made the not so hard decision to close the business. Business I’ve come to appreciate just wasn’t my forte.
We live, we learn! Clock it up to experience and move on.
Now that the necessity of digital is behind me, I’m back to reawakening my love of the craft again, slowly regaining my passion – in recovery mode as it were – and using the film that I love and enjoy to achieve it. Once more, I’m back to the real experience with materials I can touch, smell and feel.
The stuff I love.
One thing the business did do, which is tremendously positive from my perspective, is that it allowed me to invest much more in the cameras that I love which were, on the whole, out of my reach before. With the funds from the business, I bought a Bronica SQAi kit, a Mamiya C330S kit and an Olympus 35RC to add to my already cherished Bronica ETRSi kit.
Out of necessity, I invested in a good scanner (an Epson V850 Pro). Loads of studio lighting and other bits of portrait-oriented kit also found their way into my office too, which could not have been thought of prior to being in the business.
When did you start shooting film?
I have been lugging cameras about for some 40 years, since way back in the eons of time when I was yet but a lad. My father gave me my very first exposure to photography when he passed onto me an old Kodak 66 (the pop out bellows sort), and in my head all the light bulbs flashed on as it were. I fell in love with the design and mechanics of it. The whole idea that pictures could come from this little box began to fascinate me. This would have been some time in the mid 70’s.
The small rural town we live in is sandwiched in between 3 big cities, each being over fifteen miles away, which to a teenager back then may as well have been Australia. Our small town didn’t have a local photographic shop, which made getting hold of black & white film not the easiest thing in the world. This was way before the days of internet shopping.
When I left school in 1980, the unemployment situation in the North was dire and back then universities were rather more difficult to get into than they are these days, so on the advise of my dad I joined the Army. At the training barracks to my delight, I discovered that on-camp they had an ancient darkroom with an equally ancient, veteran gentleman who gave of his time to teach darkroom courses to those who showed an interest.
This was my exposure to proper photography and once again I was instantly hooked. This was a hidden world I had not had access to before and I reveled in the whole experience. The smells, red lights, stinky fingers and the dark magic of printmaking. I was nurturing an even deeper love of the craft of photography, the mechanics of the equipment, the chemical processes of making images, the tactile experience of touch and feel, as I was along with the capturing process…in some ways more so.
I think I could easily be as happy being a darkroom printer as being a photographer.
My Corps was the Royal Engineers and many of my photography escapades had me hurtling down zip lines, straddling the very edges of mobile bridges over rivers and canyons, or dangling on the end of a ropes over some cliff edge, so I didn’t want to buy expensive gear so I bought an old Zenit TTL made from old Russian tank iron with jam jar bottoms for lenses. Unlike the Navy and Air Force back then, the Army didn’t have a dedicated photographic unit that I knew of, so any gear I used for such crazy endeavours was my own. No expensive Nikons here, not out of my pay cheque!
As time went on and my knowledge increased I began to nurture the finer aesthetic points of shooting, I trained up, studied, read books ferociously and shot as much as time would allow. Personally owning huge amounts of gear in the military isn’t very practical. For example, trying to fit say a 10×8 Large Format kit, a huge tripod and hundreds of negatives into a small barrack room locker wouldn’t have been a very good idea, so the smaller outfits had to suffice. Would have been fun to try though!
Shortly after I returned to civilian life, an upgrade was much in need, I opted for a newly created Ricoh KR10 Super, with its groundbreaking and very accurate liquid crystal metering system along with several lenses, filters, flash guns etc, etc. Back ache here I come!
What about now? Why do you shoot film and what drives you to keep shooting?
I shoot film simply because I love and enjoy the entire process. As I’ve mentioned, the tactile experience of the craft, the touchy-feely experience, the smells, the working with real materials and chemicals…I love the time it takes to capture an image, the pre-shot thinking processes, the setting up of the cameras, the consideration of lighting, selection of appropriate filters, working out exposures, the compositional elements and of course choosing a film stock which will deliver the desired result in-keeping with the vision of the shoot etc, all prior to pressing the shutter.
I really dislike computers. I understand that in our changing world they are a necessary element of life, without which life as we know in the West would virtually grind to a halt. I do what I must with them but I avoid them wherever I can. Nothing turns me off photography more than relying on computers, which is the main reason digital just doesn’t float my boat. It is completely reliant on computers, even the cameras are themselves just high-tech smaller computers.
I’m likewise very saddened that our modern communication methods have gone digital too because now even to communicate with our film created images we are forced largely to turn to a digital process like scanning of some sort and then the web to present our work.
Apart from the love of the craft, working with beautiful cameras, the process of making of great images, the creation of beautiful prints (which in itself is my prime driving force!), I cannot but admit that another, equally important to me is to keep film and the complete creative experience alive.
Film in my opinion, largely makes you think more about the creative photographic process and encourages you to think about what you’re doing BEFORE you do it. Due to the very nature of the process, it necessitates into our thinking, theoretical, technical and handling skills which promote better picture taking.
Likewise, film has a cost and time value. Honing the skill of preparation and the skill of imagination at a pre-processing level is something I think that has been largely lost to a large majority of the photography world. Such is the reliance on Photoshop and swanky automated computers (some as previously mentioned with lenses attached to the front of them).
I am somewhat passionate about keeping these older skills alive and I am pleasantly surprised that when I teach photography, many students are amazed at how much of this pre-shutter thinking catapults their creative abilities beyond their conception and enhances their enjoyment of creating wonderful images.
One of the best old world teaching tools available is a simple plastic slide carrier without film in it. Use it for visualising your composition long before the camera is brought out – it’s often my first tutorial.
Sadly, there’s a lot to ‘knowing how’ that escapes many in the digital world.
Of course, there are other enjoyable aspects of chemical photography; the trepidation of getting it right, the anticipation, waiting with baited breath for the first glance at the spool after fixing to spy the first frame…..it’s turned out alright…..Phew!!
Practice and sound working processes help, of course and experience for consistent, reliable results is an absolute.
There’s always that risk element though, which adds to the drama and increased heart attack rates I think. Just a few months ago, in the summer of 2015, I was getting ready to process a roll of HP5+ and even after years of using a dark bag, it got jammed in the spool. The increased time factor, along with my hot hands generated a lot of extra humidity inside the bag. After attempting to change spools a few times I ended up trashing the roll as the bag just got too hot and the film became very sticky. There’s a first time for every mistake. So, now I have a great story piece to tell about WHAT NOT TO DO!
Remember the story of Robert Capa’s Normandy landing films getting ruined by an over enthusiastic lab technician. All but eleven destroyed by over zealous drying; Oops!
I’ve never been a fame junky, nor really a success driven junky but if there was to be any aspiration toward recognition or fame at all which drives me forward, it’s got nothing to do with being successful as such. I would love to be an Ilford recognised photographer working in some sort of partnership to produce images which would promote the craft to a wider audience. There are still things to dream for!
Any favourite subject matter?
My most favourite subject matter is portraiture, I love photographing people. I am completely captivated by the work of Yousef Karsh, Cecil Beaton, Patrick Lichfield and many of the old Hollywood contract photographers such as George Hurrell.
I enjoy studio work, the creation of a classic fine portrait under such conditions is simply magic. I also like informal work too, wandering round the streets of cities and towns photographing real people, doing real things in a real environment; fellow craftsmen, or people working in traditional skills, dockers, carpenters, musicians etc.
When I’m working with people to create portraits using film and old cameras, it gives a sort of kick back advantage because it generates an understanding that the process of capturing images will be slower, at a more leisurely and thoughtful pace rather than in the lickity-split rapid fire pace of modern times. I can talk to people, direct poses, (there’s another lost skill) and not worry about losing the sitters attention because of endlessly checking a camera screen. Film has the wonderful advantage of being so flexible and tolerant; it’s tremendous latitude makes for stress free shooting.
…unless of course you’ve forgotten to load the camera in the first place and wonder why mid shoot you’re onto frame 25 (Bronica’s can’t do that), or some processing catastrophe happens?
I could argue that photography in it’s own right as a process, craft and working skill is my true love, so I’ll photograph anything that captures my imagination at the time and whatever the subject once I have the desire to photograph it. I will work at it till I get a shot I can enjoy.
I also quite enjoy landscape work, macro landscape work and studio still life, too. I have to admit to being a nut about Black & White and often photograph things that will be favoured particularly by black & white film.
I also enjoy landscape work, macro landscape work, studio still life too, the work of Ansel Adams, naturally, Clyde Butcher and Bruce Barnbaum are particular favourites. I have to say with no disrespect to any photographer that I do not particularly follow those who have gone down the digital route, I simply love film and those who continue to use it.
As I mentioned by my first photograph, I also really enjoy what some call street photography but what I prefer to call Urban Portraiture because unlike just shooting interesting things on the street, which I do anyway, I’m very interested in people on the street, living their lives, doing their thing, hanging around, working, etc.
When I could darkroom print I always did so on contrasty paper (Grade 4-5), to create rich, deep blacks and bright whites. I dislike low grade papers that print a range of greys but with no tonal extremes. When scanning, which sadly is a must these days, due to the lack of a darkroom, I replicate these high grade papers as close as possible.
Out of interest, I am looking toward an experiment, shooting a female portrait with Pan F, increasing the ASA to 400 and shooting through a deep Red filter to bring the exposure back down. I want to create some extremely smooth, almost porcelain white skin tones set against darker back drops. Could be interesting?
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll?
Never shoot film again? Is the news of my demise prematurely abroad?
It would have to be Ilford HP5+. It is such wonderful film to work with, so flexible and forgiving. It’s an incredible achievement in modern photographic engineering. Having a working exposure latitude of 400-3200+ ASA, it is an amazing film to work with.
I love grain, like I really love grain, so to me it’s characteristics emulate the finest of picture taking possibilities with the natural elements of what grain may produce being apparent.
Unlike pixels in digital, which are constantly avoided, in film I think grain is a very positive feature when harnessed wisely. It is more beautiful to the eye than the artificial nature of pixels, yet can be enhanced or reduced by varied processing procedures.
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?
Firstly I’d say 2 minutes? You need the chap down the street. I don’t enjoy working like that. If however, they arrived in a Lear Jet and dumped a bag full of £50 notes on my table telling me I was their ‘must have’ shooter, that would undoubtedly sway the balance.
I’d take my Bronica SQAi, my 110mm macro lens and two film backs loaded with Ilford FP4+ and HP5+. The SQAi because it’s virtually idiot proof and there’s not much can go wrong with it. It handles like a dream, it’s very intuitive, the focusing screen is bright with a CdS Chimney on (which also happens to have a meter in it just in case light meters weren’t allowed?) It’s not too bulky, whilst also being very comfortable in the hands. There’s no vertical plane to worry about so no manoeuvring with the elbows to be concerned with should tight spaces prevail.
The 110mm lens because it’s an exemplary mid range focal length, not too wide but not to long either, the glass is crisp, pin sharp and clean. In my opinion, Bronica made some of the best lenses in the world. The focusing and aperture rings themselves are very accessible to the fingers, chunky enough to feel without looking but smooth enough in action to handle relatively quick shooting if that were necessary in the assignment.
Of the two films I would take, I have previously mentioned the characteristics of HP5+. I would take the FP4+ because of its complete reliability under tricky conditions, it is sharp, has excellent contrast and depth qualities whilst being forgiving should exposure difficulties be evident in the shoot.
Of course I’d sneak in a set of filters under the radar! If colour was required, I dare say I’d return the money and fly home.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
Somewhere warm to hot, I hate the cold and I hate the wet. Somewhere where access people and supplies is possible but also remote enough to allow for a whole lot of space.
I’d love to shoot in the wildernesses of California or Australia, maybe in the mountainous regions of Sierra Nevada, or the desert regions of Western Australia or the Northern Territories.
I’ve never been to Oz, so my choice would be the Northern Territories assuming of course money and time weren’t an issue? I’d love to go somewhere where there wasn’t a lamp post, a concrete building, a telegraph pole or evidence of civilisation for hundreds of miles. Discounting of course indigenous peoples who don’t own iPhones or latest trainers…I’d love to photograph them too. Not many of those in California, though?
I would then ring Ilford to let them know where I am and what I’m doing, they’re wonderful people and are always very eager to help promote film and traditional processes. Who knows where that might go?
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film and how would you set it straight.
As you have discovered, I can write for England, so I will attempt to keep this as short as possible by constraining myself to one of the three major points I would debate: perceived cost, perceived time and perceived convenience.
In their own right, these are very valid points. Many people I meet tell me their move to digital was in the main due to these constraints or values.
Let me look then at perceived cost; Firstly, people look at the expense of buying film, having it processed and printed as a costly venture, especially if you turn up with your 10 rolls and want 7”x5” prints from each frame. Likewise, if home brewed, the cost of all the necessary kit and materials.
In turn, the cost for the final images is perceived as considerable and ongoing because the majority of the expense is formally the buying of numerous amounts of 36 exposure film then the latter half of the transaction, the production of the images after they’ve been taken. Film photography gear is comparatively inexpensive and is often a ‘long term’ expense in that once bought, it lasts. So the entertainment of this ongoing and increasing expenditure is very off-putting.
Secondly, the perceived in-expense of digital images is negligible. Once that first digital camera is bought, many look upon their photography as now being FREE, of course not for one moment considering that the bulk of the expenditure of digital is initially, in the buying of that extortionately expensive camera, and then any related equipment necessary to post process an image once it is taken. Much of the necessary related stuff is already on hand in their computers and isn’t counted as an expense of ‘the photography’. Hence the illusion of FREE.
So lets say you’re buying everything you need from scratch over a period of time with a given sum of £600 (about US$850 at the time of writing). With film equipment this will buy you a professional level film camera plus a decent lens and on top of that, a little ongoing cost of dozens of rolls of film plus processing and printing…maybe even some mounting and framing.
How much will that same £600 go if you had to (buy from scratch), all of the necessary equipment to produce you first digital image? The camera (not cheap these days), a complete PC set up, Mac or MacBook, their endless upgrades, hard drives, multiple software packages, cards for the camera, cables, a decent printer, endless ink cartridges, printing paper etc. Anyone, I reckon, would be hard pushed to buy all of the necessary equipment and materials for such a small sum? If they can, please don’t tell me where…..ha!
So, due to the nature of our spending habits and access to already available digital equipment, the expense of film is not weighed equally and is therefore deemed not cost effective. Then of course, time considerations are not considered equally either; processing and printing times at a lab versus hours meddling with images in front of a computer and then time spent messing with prints.
Convenience is always weighed on the merits of the previous two.
I don’t think it is possible to set this straight in any fair minded, rational manner because people in general simply don’t think like this anymore. We live in a convenience orientated, throw away world which is moving faster and faster as we speak, which, bar some great cataclysmic collision from that comet we keep hearing about, isn’t going to slow down anytime soon. We’re now in the realm of iPhone photography…..who needs quality?
If the task was necessary, it would be all about education, demonstration and mass participation, which I would readily involve myself in had I the wealth and resources of say, Bill Gates.
Oops sorry, he’s the digital Kingpin of the world isn’t he?
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
I think film photography has a fantastic future, albeit in a much smaller capacity than traditionally so. A few minutes in a search engine with the term, ‘Photographers who shoot film’ will demonstrate that there are hundreds of professional photographers out there still shooting film and a wealth of professionals turning back to it, many attracting customers with it’s unique aspects.
In the enthusiast’s world there are literally millions of shooters working with film, discovering the beauty of film, turning back to film, stock piling film, experimenting with film, etc. Not without mention the many directors in the movie film industry who have just done that landmark deal Kodak to keep film alive in movie production. This can’t hurt for promoting the unique characteristic of and beauty of film photography.
I think that film is alive and kicking and is still screaming out for an audience of ready participants. We don’t generally ride many horses these days but there are still millions of horses out there and they all still need shoes. Was it not just a few years ago that the news warned us of the end of printed books, yet we see still a worldwide popular preference for them? In like manner, all these photographers who still choose film will need a supply and I think there will be an industry there for many, many years to come that will make it possible to shoot film. Even if eventually that ends up being a Fine Art niche industry?
Anyway, to end, as long as I’m alive I’ll be shooting film. My C330S doesn’t even need batteries, so I’ll be shooting with it till I drop I hope!
It’s heavy though….do they make tripod heads for Zimmer Frames?
~ Paul Berry
We’re always learning and conversing with Paul through the creation of this interview has been no exception.
Personally, there’s so much wonder when I look at images produced by a photographer who really understands their art and how to make the most out of it.
To see Paul’s images and read his words is, in my opinion, one of the best things about organizing this little interview series. Consider his dislike of computers in his process*. Consider that the results we see here came from pre-visualization of the image, exposure and solid darkroom work, rather than a quick level-bump, Photoshop action, or Lightroom preset…
Purity of form and work like this is what keeps me striving to better myself, to continue to learn and to never, ever consider that there’s nothing left for me to explore, or revisit.
Thank you so much for sharing, Paul. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
We’ll be back again soon for the final two interviews in of January 2016 and we’ve got a little surprise planned for the last.
As always, 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.
* Some people seem to have taken an extreme and irrational dislike to the original wording of this sentence. I’d like to say that the context in which “detest” was used should itself diminish your rage. Read the interview again, understand and then accept and respect that others may have a different view from you, framed by a unique experience, which is no less valid than yours.