I am Seth Harwood and this is why I shoot film
We grabbed some time to bring you the thoughts and images of Seth Harwood, South Dakotan and night shooter extraordinaire.
There’s plenty of stunning work for you to absorb below, so without further ado, it’s over to Seth.
Hi Seth, what’s this picture, then?
SH: This is one of my favorite scenes I’ve come across so far and it was really the tipping point for my choice to shoot film.
This is one of the photographs that really set in motion my MFA thesis work, as well as reinforced my desire to photograph the vehicular landscape at night on film. I was out scouting for material while making the switch to color film and saw this amazing old hearse bathing in the neon light.
There’s this underlying narrative and mystery to this scene that I love, and I feel that the quality of film really ties it all together. Plus the dynamic range of film is just outstanding; film does a remarkable job of capturing everything from the brightest details in the neon to the darkest details.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
SH: I am a landscape photographer born and raised in the American Midwest. Right now I’m currently working my way towards an MFA in Photography. My hope is to eventually become a professor of photography and utilize my passion for film photography to help inspire others to follow their own passions in life.
When did you start shooting film and about now? Why do you shoot film and what drives you to keep shooting?
SH: My first experience actually developing and getting into a darkroom was in high school. I took a Black and White film photography class and had an amazing teacher who let me really run with it. Then a while after that I got my first DSLR and started feeding my desire to photograph the night. Digital was a great way to learn the art of photographing after dark. But I eventually felt that tug towards film again.
I wanted a medium that I felt was actually speaking the same language as the subject matter I was interested in depicting. Now I almost exclusively work in film.
The real catalyst for my passion of color film though came from a college professor/mentor. He knew I was kicking around the idea of switching to film and gave me the push I needed to get started. He gave me the task of shooting and developing 500 medium format color negatives over three months, and I did it. I retrofitted my bathroom into an ad hoc darkroom and developed all my film in the sink.
The excitement I felt that summer with every new roll of film that came out was fantastic. Film was/is just an awesome liberating experience for me. With film, it’s about the medium itself, it sort of takes on a spiritual quality for me that’s just not there when working through pixels.
I really favor the medium format. I like how it slows me down. I have to take in what I’m looking at and be very deliberate with every click of the shutter. This idea of slowing down and being more methodical is a lot of why I appreciate film so much. Every photo has to count. Also there’s a bit of a poetic quality to film. The light that burned the image onto that film, that’s the actual light that touched the scene at the time I photographed it, and I think that’s just a beautiful concept in itself.
Film also has a bit of a spiritual quality to it that I can’t quite put to words, like each image has its own personality. Every image is unique, especially when it is developed by hand. As I work the film it takes on qualities that reflect my presence at the time of capture, as well as my presence throughout the developing process. Film is truly an extension of the photographer.
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?
SH: I feel like the next step for me is refining my ability to show narrative throughout my work. I look at photographic series like Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places, Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi, or Darren Almond’s Full Moon and there is such an amazing and apparent narrative to their work, and that’s something I want to accomplish in my own work.
Then I also am beginning the process of teaching myself alternative processes. I’m beginning with the simpler ones, such as Cyanotypes, Van Dyke, and Salt prints, but I would also love to learn the Wet Plate Collodion or Daguerreotype processes. I am very fond of the kinesthetic processes, whether it be film or alternative processes, so the more I can experience and practice the better.
Any favorite subject matter?
SH: I’m from a small town in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The rural road culture of the American Midwest has really left an impression on me. I love the vehicular landscape as well as anything that’s got that old Americana vibe; old run down motels lined with neon, 24hr liquor drive-throughs, run down gas stations, etc.
Then my dad was a repo man for ten years and our yard was basically a salvage yard, lots of old broke down vehicles to play on, and that absolutely reflects on what I enjoy photographing now.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll?
SH: I use Kodak’s 120 Portra 400 and I’ll stick with it to the end. The color is just always so beautiful and the contrast I can get is amazing. Kodak’s Portra is the winner in my opinion.
You have 2 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?
SH: I’d take my Bronica ETRSi, my 50mm prime, and a roll of Kodak Portra 400 and a roll of Kodak Tri-X 400. This is honestly the only setup I ever use anyways. I like to keep it simple; if I bring extra lenses I am worried about which lens to use, not what’s happening in front of the lens.
I’m very familiar with my Bronica set up. I have been through a lot with it and I know I’d be able to focus on the assignment and not have to worry about my familiarity with the camera.
As for film I always try to have a roll of color and a roll of black and white available. Some scenes are more about form and might work better in black and white, while other scenes might be all about the interaction of color, so I try to be prepared.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
SH: Where wouldn’t I go!
I would throw my bag in the back of my truck and take off down the highway and visit every small town in the American Midwest I could. I have always felt inspired by Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi.
He drove up and down the Mississippi documenting what he saw along that way and I think that sounds like one of the most awesome experiences ever. I’d love to do my own version of that.
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography and how would you set it straight?
SH: I feel like people assume that since digital is advancing so fast that film is no longer relevant, and I don’t really agree with that. Film is, in my mind, about the message behind the medium.
Film is about finding yourself in the process, embracing the uniqueness of working with film, and creating a photograph that is truly one of a kind.
Film is about slowing down, and being extremely deliberate, something that I think is extremely important to remember in our fast paced modern society. I believe everyone who has the opportunity should take a film photography class.
Film teaches you things about yourself that you wouldn’t figure out with a DSLR. It’s a very enlightening and meditative process.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
SH: I feel like film is making a resurgence. Within the millennial generation the idea of returning to the more hands on processes is really a popular one and film is no exception.
I’ve seen so many articles on the internet that are talking about the best cameras to get back into film, or even websites like EMULSIVE with your Film series, film is definitely rising again.
Film took a dive in the early 2000’s but I feel like the luster of digital is fading and the more mystical qualities of film are bringing people back to it.
~ Seth Harwood
“I feel like people assume that since digital is advancing so fast that film is no longer relevant, and I don’t really agree with that.”
This is a sentiment that’s been echoed a lot by interviewees in recent weeks and one I see being mentioned again and again by our future roster of film photographers (be patient, there’s a great line-up waiting in the wings).
To take a slightly defensive stance, if film was no longer relevant then why would so many software vendors and camera manufacturers be falling over themselves to bring out ever-realistic and accurate representations of film stocks (both dead and alive)? Two vendors whose business is built solely on this premise spring to mind…
Anyway, I digress. Whilst we may not be at the (film) sales levels of a decade or two ago, film as a medium continues to be relevant as a method of artistic expression and professional documentation in ways that digital has not matched. As I’ve said before, digital photography has its (very well deserved) place in many arenas where film is either impractical, inconvenient, or down right pointless. That said, if the medium really was irrelevant, why would a sizeable portion of architectural and (high level) archive copy work (art and antiquities in particular) be done on medium and large format film, as opposed to a digital medium?
I’ve no desire to start a flame war but for me, film is more relevant than it has ever been.
As film photographers, it is my belief that we no longer take film for granted — as it was when it was the only photographic choice.
We rejoice that it is still with us because it allows us to create original work where the only thing manipulated is light itself and the physical process of realisation
We use it because it is a step apart from digital, where individual skill is often handed over to an image processor, 100-plus-point-multi-phase-autofocus and after-the-fact depth of field.
That’s my two cents. What do you think?
We’re nearly done but before the inevitable sign-off, please take a moment to check out Seth’s website and @sethharwoodphotography, where you’ll find more of his beautiful work. We’ll also be following up very soon with details of Seth’s first ever solo gallery show, which is coming up in May!
Thanks for reading and please tune back in for our next interview this week. It’ll be out in a couple of days.
As ever, keep shooting, folks!
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