In my second year of participating in the EMULSIVE Secret Santa, I was fortunate enough to be gifted a box of discontinued Fuji FP-100c colour peel-apart instant film.
For some of you, the mere mention of FP-100c might inspire heart palpitations, be it for the rare and somewhat elusive nature of this beloved, now-discontinued film stock, or because of the ever-increasing rise in price for it. I myself had only ever exposed a single box before now, with which I made photos of a somewhat “ambulatory” nature (random and impromptu personal portraits mainly) on my Mamiya RB67, the final two frames of which were exposed on my Graflex Crown Graphic 4×5 large format camera.
I enjoyed the experience, and though I hoped to use it again — and even kept an eye on boxes that would pop up online here and there — it was something I could never really justify to myself.
I left it on my wish list as just that… a wish.
Luckily for me, my EMULSIVE Secret Santa came through with an amazing gift! The scarcity and expense of the film, plus my desire to do something worthwhile to honour the generosity of my Santa, led me to dedicate it to a long-gestating self-portrait project I’ve wanted to do for a while.
Before the photos…
I want to talk about the nature of the project first, after which I’ll cover why I felt Fuji FP-100c was a suitable medium on which to make it, and of course, my experience with it.
As much as I consider myself primarily a portraitist (at least that’s where my main photographic interests lie — images with the human element), self-portraiture is something I never actively ventured into. Even during the recent bout of confinements over the past two years, it’s something I never really thought about doing. However, being inspired by seeing many people getting into it, as well as coming to terms with my own artistic directions and wanting to be more deliberate with my work, receiving the FP-100c seemed an appropriate time to dive in.
I’d also been thinking a lot following the resurgence of important discussion and increased awareness of social issues related to the Black Lives Matter movement and diversity in general, and wanted to have a body of work that spoke towards my thoughts and personal experiences.
The perception of black men in particular, not just in the eyes of the police but in the eyes of the general public, is something that has been corrupted in many societies by negative stereotypes and negative media spotlight over decades. The title of this work, “Unidentified Black Male“, is a reference to how police describe perpetrators of criminal activity prior to an arrest and, because of the perception of young black men, it is a vague descriptor that places a very specific vision of the type of person being pursued.
I myself have been privy to that experience personally, and thought it would be an interesting starting point for a self-portrait project that was not focused on me as a person, but rather on me as an idea: thatblack men are seen as these scary and mysterious figures that are capable of a variety of monstrous acts.
A perception of them as creatures and caricatures, more than human beings. Some of the ideas are pretty straightforward, while others, such as the invisible man image, are operating on the subtler, more complex level of identity and character.
I didn’t want to go for a mugshot style photograph, but something a bit more formal, which immediately led me to a more studio-style setup
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I experimented with natural light versus artificial light and landed on a mix of both to obtain the look I was going for. Because I would be mostly covering or obscuring my face in some way, and playing with costumes for the various role plays, I wanted the portraits to include some torso and be against a relatively neutral background.
I did a few test frames using my Lomograflok and some Instax Wide Color instant film, but I also decided to do my final test frames on some 4×5 black and white film (Fomapan 100 Classic), as more so than the colour, the contrast was something I really wanted to get right. The irony is not lost on me that I used sheet film as a proof for instant film, which itself used to be used as a throwaway proof.
Now, my choice of FP-100c was for several reasons. First, it gave me a hard limit within which to work to complete the project: 10 frames in a pack, and I gave myself a 2-3 frame safety net to allow for minor adjustments as well as specific concepts potentially not coming out how I envisioned.
As it turned out, I had a pretty decent hit rate and only ended up losing 2 frames: one to adjustment on the first image, and one to a setup that didn’t come out quite as planned. There were roughly 12 different ideas I had for set-ups, and having only 10 frames, knowing that I would likely not have the whole 10 to work with also forced me to decide which of the characters most conveyed the point I was trying to get across.
The perception of black men in particular, not just in the eyes of the police but in the eyes of the general public, is something that has been corrupted by negative stereotypes and negative media spotlight over decades in many societies.
I also liked the idea of the instant photographs being the final print, and how that became a subtle reference to the nature of the police profile photo, but also like a yearbook portrait. Blurring the lines between formal and slightly surreal to emphasise the idea of normal people with normal lives being seen as otherworldly and dangerous. As much as I knew the negatives could be recovered, my objective was to have the instant print be the final and only image from the work. I did bleach the negatives (because why not), losing a few in the process in a failed attempt to bath process and underestimating the power of the bleach I was using (I previously used a different more intricate method, and was trying this two at a time dip and rinse technique for the first time), but with them not being the desired final image they simply serve as an archive.
I myself have been privy to that experience personally, and thought it would be an interesting starting point for a self-portrait project that was not focused on me as a person, but rather me as an idea.
Another advantage, of course, seeing as I made all the photographs in one session, was the ability to see the results straight away. The process of using peel-apart is a very satisfying one, and peeling the image and seeing the final print, is something I’ll always appreciate. Even if I was too focused on the task at hand to really savour those moments, I did record a video of my first peel from the box, which ended up being the first of my safety net to be used up. Having that print in my hand was a crucial part of being able to capture the images in a way that was true to my original vision.
In addition, having all the prints and being able to lay them side-by-side, without first having to scan and or print from a negative, was also a good way to see if the images were all working together as a whole, and just how well the idea was coming across. There’s something to be said about tangibility allowing more appreciation and consideration of any work, but with photography especially it truly is something you cannot replace digitally.
With where I am in my creative practice, and my photography leaning more towards larger format 8×10 and also 4×5, FP-100c is a size (this smaller version, not the 4×5 version) that doesn’t really fit into my workflow nor my artistic interests, however it was a really great experience to be able to formulate, craft and execute a small body of work with real purpose and in a medium that I really do love, instant film.
Using it with my Graflex Crown Graphic was a real treat, and much as I admire photographers like Louis Mendes and Jean Andre Antoine and their street portraits on the format, for the price and the availability of it, I feel like its a film stock that I won’t ever buy again but will likely remain on my wish list, and which, should I ever get the opportunity to use again, will be treated with just as much reverence.
Still, if this happens to be my last ever box, I’m happy I was able to make images that are important to me on it, and to be able to share them with the community, while having it be another stage of my evolution as an artist.
Thanks for reading,
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Published on behalf of a reader who wished to remain anonymous:
Rather than occupying bandwidth and making it so public, I would prefer to « speak » more personally.
It is almost as if the article were in two parts: the story behind the images and the images themselves. Both are strong on their own.
Tony’s work is both humorous and chilling. Image 6 resonated: a comment on the depersonalization and horror of the clan. The image turns that on its head, making the viewer very uncomfortable, challenging them to confront the ugliness of their connection to racism
The series has its roots in a long history of self portraiture. Cindy Sherman comes to mind. Exploring the self by putting on masks (adopting another persona).
The series is a meditation on the « perception » of people who are not « white », in particular « black » people (I am reluctant to use that term) and specifically young « black » males. While skin colour ought to be irrelevant, it is highly charged, used incorrectly to classify and brand as « other ».
Although focused on the young black male, the work goes beyond it. Image 5 immediately comes to the fore, echoing the mask and all that that entails. Again subverting the « war » paint at sporting events. (Grimes video « oblivion »)
The work could stand on its own in a monograph or in a gallery. It is that powerful, demonstrating how the particular can be transcendent.
Tony’s work requires only a title. It is that powerful and resonant.