I am Ron Hammond and this is why I shoot film
Today’s interviewee is prolific to say the least. Ron Hammond has been actively photographing for over 50 years and exhibiting his work in solo shows for over 25 of them. He has a number of collections on display across the US and has published a handful of books, to boot.
Think you know what to expect from the words and images below? Think again.
Over to you, Ron.
Hi Ron, what’s this picture, then?
RH: Imogen Cunningham once said that her favorite photograph was the one she was going to take tomorrow. This isn’t quite that recent. I was sitting on the grass at Seattle’s Folklife Festival and these two beautiful people, mother and daughter, touched noses lovingly. I asked them to do it again and they did.
Ok, so who are you? (The short version, please)
RH: I’m a Midwesterner (rural Illinois), who was transplanted to Seattle after college to be an engineer for a certain prominent airplane manufacturer.
As a member of that modern nomadic class, I also lived in the mid-south for a couple of years and then western New York for five. I copped an early retirement 20 years ago and have played (not worked) at photography pretty much full-time since then.
While largely self-taught in photography I did study at the Lockport (New York) Art Center, privately with Russell Drisch (Buffalo, NY), Factory for the Visual Arts and Photographic Center NW (both Seattle), privately with Nick Hansen (also Seattle), and at the Coupeville (Washington) Arts Center.
When did you start shooting film and what about now? Why do you shoot film and what drives you to keep shooting?
RH: I bought a 35mm rangefinder camera in Germany in the summer of 1957 while I was playing in a USO tour band for the season. I didn’t have the first clue how to use it but I wanted to take color slides. It is a testimonial to how forgiving Ektachrome 64 was that I got any images at all, as the image above demonstrates!
A few years passed and I continued to take slides whenever my penniless college student budget allowed. Two colleagues at my first workplace were avid black and white photographers. They often brought prints — still damp from the previous evening’s printing — to work and spent their lunch hours waving their arms and declaiming about them. It sounded like so much fun that I wanted to try it, too. One of them loaned me a truly miserable enlarger and I was hooked. I still am.
I maintain that I’m too old a dog to learn new tricks but that’s not entirely accurate, since I’m also pretty handy with Photoshop — for color, I hastily add. I love the craft of black & white darkroom printing and will continue to do it as long as my knees hold out enough to allow me to stand for hours at a time.
When I watched the first print I ever made come up in the developer tray it was magic. So was the print I made yesterday from my favorite deli in Portland Oregon (at the time of writing).
My 60 year old Rolleiflex, my 35+ year old Canon AT-1 SLRs and my not quite so old Mamiya 6 are old friends. When I pick any one of them up, it becomes part of my arm. The “new and improved model every year” pace of digital cameras would drive me crazy were I invested in it. I also like the look produced by the older lenses that havn’t been optimized so highly for sharpness.
Apart from that, well, I also love the look of a beautifully made silver print. I freely admit that there are also beautifully made digital black and white prints – but it’s a different, neither better nor worse, medium.
Silver negatives are pretty nice, too. On the rare occasions when I scan a silver negative I am always dazzled by how much information there is to be found in the tail and the shoulder of the negative – information that simply doesn’t exist in a digital capture. I chose the photograph at the top of the mother and daughter touching noses partly to emphasize that.
I usually carry two cameras and on that day one of them was failing to stop down before releasing the shutter. The negative was four stops overexposed! Even with that much overexposure I was able to make a very satisfactory silver print from it (with a certain amount of darkroom histrionics).
I made the digital copy by scanning the print — not the negative.
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?
RH: I want to get back to doing environmental portraits. I enjoy doing portraits of artists in their studios, musicians with (or playing) their instruments, chefs in their kitchens … I also enjoy chatting up some appealing person at a bus stop and promising to send them a print if I get something I like.
I’ve been printing old negatives a lot for the past two years and I plan to continue doing so in addition to making new negatives. I’m a whole lot better printer than I was (ahem) a while back and am trying to reprint a wide selection of my negatives in a uniform format. That’s going pretty well and I’m having a lot of fun.
Any favorite subject matter?
RH: About the image above: my fantasy is that when this street musician plays a specific tune the cap crawls back over to him so he can retrieve the money.
To my answer…people.
I count myself as a humanist photographer. My heroes are the likes of Helen Levitt, Robert Doisneau, Edoard Boubat, and Willy Ronis. I am much more attracted to everyday life than to spectacular views or momentous events. That said; I’m perfectly willing to take what the world presents me. W. Eugene Smith said (at least it is attributed to him), that: “Hardening of the categories leads to art failure.”
My work organizes itself into loosely-defined, open-ended projects that are seldom finished but often pause at an interesting place for a portfolio, show, or book.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll?
RH: 100 feet of 35mm Ilford HP5+. I guess that’s cheating — sort of like making the last of the three wishes the genie gives you a wish for three more wishes! [EMULSIVE: Fair choice, I’ll let you off]
Ilford HP5+ has wonderful latitude — especially on the underexposed side — you can coax out information way into the tail and the shoulder. Somebody famous said that “Available light is any light that’s available.” and I’m often photographing under, well, difficult circumstances.
My darkroom practice is well calibrated for both Ilford HP5+ and FP4+ but I’ve used a lot more HP5+ so I guess I’m better calibrated, too. I sure wish it was still available in 220 lengths for my Mamiya 6.
You have two minutes to prepare for an assignment. One camera, one lens, two films and no idea of the subject matter. What do you take with you and why?
RH: I’d take my Mamiya 6, its 75mm normal lens and two rolls of Ilford HP5+.
The 6×6 negatives are big enough to be cropped if needed and the lens is the most forgiving I’ve ever owned. Besides that, the out-of-focus areas are beautiful.
I’d also sneak in my sturdy monopod because I’m too impatient to use a tripod in low light. Finally I’d take a two-stop neutral density filter so I could shoot closer to wide open in bright light.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
RH: Honfleur, France on the Normandy coast in the early spring or late fall when the tourists aren’t thick. I’d sit at one of the outside tables as Le Vintage Café and let the parade go by.
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography and how would you set it straight?
RH: In my opinion, the greatest misconception is that digital has made film obsolete. Film and digital are different art forms – acrylic didn’t make oil paints obsolete either. There are some practical issues, too.
Digital has made film for casual use obsolete and that’s fine with me. It is just great that there are way fewer photographs taken on film than on digital since the bulk of those photographs are never getting any further than the memory card or the tablet or the desktop disc drive – instead of never getting any further than a shoebox full of envelopes.
On the other hand, we’re in danger of losing a whole lot of history. Some of the photographs that aren’t getting any further than the memory card will be important — and lost. One of your earlier interviewees mentioned his mental image of his great-grandchildren finding a three-ring binder full of negatives and holding them up to the light to see what the pictures were about.
Think Vivian Maier or E. F. Box (pioneer Idaho photographer rediscovered by accident)…think of the albumen print (above) by a forgotten photographer in 1900 or so.
Try doing that with a memory card.
In your opinion, what is the future of film photography?
RH: I believe it will hang around for a very long time. I doubt that black and white film/darkroom printing will take on the cachet of “alternative process” as long as there are commercially available films and papers.
That said, I am encouraged by the resurgence of interest in alternative processes. I recently saw a delicate, creamy lith print (I didn’t know you could do that with lith) that was so beautiful I’m tempted to try it. I’m hoping that the urge will go away if I ignore it a while longer. In addition to albumen printing the ca 1900 glass plates that I bought at a garage sale, I also made a few albumen prints from my negatives to use up the remaining chemicals. I like the results and I’m glad I did it but I’m not going to do another project in albumen.
I am also encouraged by the number of young photographers who are trying their hands at film photography and darkroom printing. My guess is that doing both digital and film capture will make them better at both.
Thank you very much for allowing me to be part of your series. Nobody ever accused me of not having an opinion. Oh…one last photograph from my “Waiting at Bay D” series.
~ Robert Hammond
For the “misconception” question, Ron starts with:
“In my opinion, the greatest misconception is that digital has made film obsolete. Film and digital are different art forms – acrylic didn’t make oil paints obsolete either. There are some practical issues, too.”
I couldn’t agree more. As I’ve often said in the past, film, digital and other media should all be at the photographic table, and as users of these technologies we should be aware that the growing presence of one should not diminish the value of another. Each has it’s place as the best tool for either the job at hand, required artistic expression, or just plain personal preference.
Ron goes on to talk about some (potentially important) digital photographs never making it out of the memory cards they were recorded on, and being lost. I’m also in total agreement here.
Perhaps people these days print fewer images because they believe that the process of doing so (and the manner in which they are appreciated), is obsolete. I’ll be totally honest, this and little else is what I detest about digital photography – yes, even dialling the HDR setting up to 11. To put it in better terms, I believe that the mode of thinking that comes with the always-on-always-connected world of smartphones and tablets has led us to put a kind of rustic, or backwards lens over a world where we used to keep (and review!) family images in albums, passport sized images in wallets and hang portraits on the wall. This thinking really does need to change.
Leaving our own prints (digital or otherwise) aside for a moment, how many of your friends or family have printed pictures on their walls that didn’t come from weddings or graduations? How many of the photos on their phones (that they no doubt love showing off at every opportunity), actually have a printed counterpart. In fact, how many of those moments exist anywhere but on that device?
Do them a favour, print off a photograph and give it to them.
We’ll be back again very, very soon. Things are pretty busy on the interview front and you’ll be seeing two interviews per week for the foreseeable future!
As ever, keep shooting, folks!
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