I am Denise Grays and this is why I shoot film
Today’s interviewee is a stalwart of the Twitter film photography community and I’m so happy to be able to bring her interview to you today. Creator of August 5th’s #DianaDay and all round awesome lady, Denise Grays!
Over to you, Denise…
Hi Denise, what’s this picture, then?
DG: This is a picture of my best friend Megan and me. It was shot with a self-timer. This is just one example of how supportive she is of my photography. Whatever idea I’d come up with for her, she’d say ‘When are we doing it?!’
She’s always encouraged me to do more, experiment, try harder in photography. In this photograph, she’s leaning on me, but most of the time it’s me leaning on her.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
DG: My name is Denise Grays, proud Kansan, avid film waster. I’d always found people and behavior interesting and that led to my degree in Psychology. I was young and idealistic when I pursued social work. I worked with a variety of different populations, from children in foster care to adults with severe and persistent mental illness. I had and still have that drive to help others but that world was not a good fit for me.
I was so relieved to find my way to a place that fits my personality and my desire to improve the quality of life of others. I’m doing my part in that at my city’s public library. I had always enjoyed books and visiting the library and I wondered what took me so long to pursue a library career? I’m so glad I’m here now, at a time in my life when I can truly appreciate how lucky I am.
I am also a lover of music and visual art. I support the local & regional scene by attending shows at venues, galleries, and museums here in town and the surrounding area. I’m determined to get out more. Also, I am very close to my family and friends as they are my fiercest supporters, inspiration and occasional models in my work.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
DG: When I began in the mid-80s, film was it! I was around 11 years old when I picked up my mother’s 110 camera and started shooting my friends at school. Before long I decided I wanted at ‘real’ camera; 35mm film instead of those teeny 110 cartridges. My father took me to Kmart and let me pick out a camera for my 12th birthday. I was so excited! I chose the Kodak S100EF camera, a camera I still own, that still works, and that I still use today.
I spent a lot of my allowance on film and processing at the drug store! I was a bit of a paparazzo at school, I would take candids all the time! In class, at lunch, at recess. It felt really good to capture memories and put my photo album together when I got my prints from the drugstore minilab.
The concept of art never entered my mind at that time. Photography was for remembering moments and just purely fun. I was a rather late adopter of digital photography. In fact, I didn’t get a digital camera until my best friend Megan, after much cajoling about my attachment to film, decided to give me a digital camera for my 31st birthday, nearly 20 years after my first influential photography gift. It was also a Kodak, the Easyshare Z730.
It had some manual controls but was essentially a point and shoot. I would still shoot my friends and family, but this newfound increased control over an image led me to more experimentation and shooting just to see how things would look.
After a couple years, I decided I wanted more control over my images and I was limited again by what the camera I had could do. I went on eBay and bought what I could afford. I purchased a Minolta Maxxum 800si with a 50mm lens for $85 and thus marked my return to film!
Photography’s role in my life has evolved & expanded over the years. In addition to documenting life around me, it has saved my life, added joy to my life, gave me entree into circles I never thought I would. When I was in a particularly dark place emotionally in my life a few years ago, exploring those feelings in my photography helped me process them and gave me courage to keep going. One of the photographs during that period I entered in a juried art show and was selected and exhibited in a gallery locally.
Going to live music shows and shooting the musicians onstage and sharing those photos with them initially on MySpace (what’s MySpace? Haha) helped me establish friendships with musicians in my area and combined two art forms I really love, music and photography.
Music photography is so challenging but so rewarding when you do get ‘the shot’ and can share it with the band. I gained a bit of a reputation locally with my photographs of bands in the scene and I even once answered to the greeting of “Hey Myspace!” at a show.
Most recently, my friends that are in a doom metal band called Snowchild, asked if I would come out to this abandoned house one of them had found online and shoot it possibly for the album cover. I agreed to go, I love a road trip and out of the way locations to shoot. I honestly didn’t think they’d go with anything I’d shoot since they already had a pro photographer along to shoot the location as well, so I felt freed up to experiment. I shot with what they wanted in mind, but ultimately, I believed these shots would just end up being for me.
I shot some expired black and white film and medium format redscale film. I gave the band my disc of scans and after a band meeting they decided to go with one of my redscale images for the cover. Their album will be released on vinyl August 25, 2017. I’m so excited to see my contribution to this effort nice and big on a record album.
Although I’ve taken some breaks from shooting here and there, I don’t believe that I would ever stop shooting completely. I love the way the process of it makes me feel. From the excitement of shopping for unusual film emulsions, to the anticipation of loading up a camera, to the groove I get in while shooting whatever scene catches my attention, to the calm of putting together my photo albums, it just feels right.
How could I ever give that up?
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
DG: My family’s photo albums were my first influence on my photography. I remember looking through them and asking my parents who someone is or what was going on and enjoying the stories they’d tell. I wanted to start an album of my own of family and friends that I could look at and remember fun stories. I have a variety of influences on my photography today.
I am lucky enough to have fallen in with a vibrant, creative, and generous film photography community online. I also love to go to museums.
I have a small collection of photography books that I revisit from time to time. William Eggleston is an influence on me for sure. Making what others may think of as ordinary and making it look intriguing. I enjoy that some of his work is so strange and make me ask questions of the scene he captured and of myself!
I read that he thought of his hometown as ugly and a friend told him to shoot the ugliness. The lesson I get from that and his work is that one should explore home deeply and thoroughly as well as travel to other places. It is helping me see more things to photograph wherever I am.
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
DG: Film and digital cameras are merely tools at our disposal. The choice I make most often is film. I have a few cameras that I know very well and they are not in my way when I am making images. So that drives my choice primarily. But I do use my camera on phone quite often when I just want to capture something quickly and have it available to me right away.
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?
DG: Something I’ve wanted to do for a long time is to go on one of those destination workshops with a film photographer and unlearn my bad habits from being self-taught and becoming stronger technically as well as creatively under the guidance of a master photographer.
So that’s on the list. In the meantime, I’m concentrating on composition.
I am making a conscious effort to work a scene more before pressing the button and not shooting the same way I always have been. It is seriously straining my brain so I think I may be progressing in that regard. I just don’t want all my photos to look the same or like someone else’s. I’d love to be able to look at my work and see dynamic and imaginative compositions.
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
DG: Not just one thing but a few things. I am drawn to old, but not classic, cars and vans. I think it’s because they often go unnoticed because they’re not classic or antique and their oddball beauty goes unappreciated by most.
I also enjoy going to preferably older cemeteries and photographing sculpture and unique headstones. It’s usually quiet and serene there. Shooting the sculpture is my favorite because it’s close to how I would do portraits of living people.
I love shooting portraits of my friends. I think of myself as a mirror and I want to show them how I see them. It’s part of how I show my affection for them.
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?
DG: I would take my Minolta Maxxum 800si and a 50mm lens. It’s the camera I spent the most time with and know my way around and what it can do. Using a 50mm lens is just like looking at the world without a camera up to my face. It isn’t called a normal lens for nothing I suppose.
The two films I’d take would be Tri- X 400 and Portra 160. I would want the speed and flexibility of the Tri-X and if there are people that I need to capture, I’d want Portra for that because it is just lovely for people.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location for the rest of your life. What do you take, were do you go and why?
DG: I would take Portra and go to the Rocky Mountains. I went to Rocky Mountain National Park for the first time a couple of years ago and was in awe. There are so many different terrains and plants and wildlife there. I feel like I’d NEED the rest of my life to explore it all. I’d have to do that in color. All the different seasons and weather and all, it would have to be in my favorite color film, Portra.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
DG: My last roll of film would be Kodak Tri-X 400. I would throw a party with my friends and family there. Music, food, drinks, and revelry captured on Tri-x 400 with a flash, some with slow shutter and rear curtain flash to show the motion, some faster to stop it. I’d want a variety to look back on and smile at that last roll.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
DG: I think many misconceptions about film are based on people not having tried it. They get in their heads about it being slow and costly as a negative thing and I see it as a positive. The modern world moves so quickly and people have shorter attention spans so I find it refreshing and a wonderful change of pace to be slow and deliberate.
The cost, for me anyway, makes me more thoughtful when I shoot, makes me consider if I truly want that photograph, am I taking the photograph in a way that I’ll enjoy the result. I’d say slow down, approach film photography in a different way than you would digital and if you still don’t like it then fine. Use the tool you feel the most skilled and comfortable with.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
DG: I think if film manufacturers manage their expectations on profit, that it’s simply not going to be what it was when they were the only game in town, I think it can still be worth it for them to keep making film, chemicals and paper.
If those of us in the film shooting community keep buying fresh film, chemicals for developing, using labs then it will be around for the foreseeable future.
If we don’t support it, it won’t be here. On the more creative end, I think the future of film photography will continue to be a vibrant, imaginative way to capture and create images.
As younger generations come into it and experiment, it will live on.
~ Denise Grays
I’ve had this idea of writing an article abut the importance of support for pretty much two years now. It started off the back of a conversation on Twitter about the provision of support being just as important, if not more so than the receipt.
I’m not talking about mentorship here. Plainly and simply, I’m talking about providing your fellow humans with support. That’s providing not offering; the two are wildly different and should not be confused. Offering support is very different from providing it.
Denise’s interview made me think of those around me who I lean on and who if anyone suffers with me leaning on them. More importantly, it made me think about the ratio between the two. Am I receiving more than I give? Should I even try to quantify it? What steps can I take to make sure I’m providing support to the people around me and what can I do to discover those around me who need my support but remain silent?
I don’t know the answers to all of these questions but I can tell you that I’m certainly more conscientious about my place in all of the communities I exist in physical and virtual.
Thanks for sparking that thought, Denise.
That’s it for this week. Another photographer is waiting in the wings for next week’s interview but until then, please take a scroll back up the page and have a good read. There’s gold to be found.
Keep shooting, folks!
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