Welcome to EMULSIVE interview #195 and film photographer David Jazay, Berlin-based urban and rural photographer.
It’s an interesting read ahead, so I’ll bow out and pass you over to David.
Hi David, what’s this picture, then?
DJ: It is from my long-term project “Dublin Before the Tiger” (1982-1992).
I photographed the 12 individual medium format negatives that make up this 5m wide panorama in 1988, then composited the final image in 2014. The next image shows the high resolution in a large print made of a similar photograph I made 3 years later.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
DJ: I am a Berlin-based photographer and filmmaker, doing long-term projects on urban and rural environments.
I am fascinated with the rich layers of history that these places offer, documenting the changes, and aiming to preserve often overlooked architectural heritage. The liminal, the vernacular, the things that will only be missed once they are gone.
My hope is to serve as a memory maintenance worker or visual historian.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
DJ: When I was sixteen, I started out teaching myself on my dad’s Rolleiflex T, and have since been working in medium format with a variety of cameras.
But I keep doing the majority of my work on the Rolleiflex TLR, which for me still is the swiss army knife of cameras. The world is changing so fast, the living and occupational histories of past generations are being lost so rapidly.
What drives me is make a high-quality record of these places that serve as a testament to the people that built and inhabited them. I often visit and revisit places in search of the right lighting condition, weather and season.
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
DJ: Apart from some more obvious influences, like the Bechers, an early inspiration came from painting, namely the work of the American photorealists: John Baeder, Richard Estes, and Ralph Goings. Keen and appreciative chroniclers of the mundane, the public realm: shop fronts, signage, advertisements, etc. And their unabashed love for bold colour.
A more recent influence was the concept of psychogeography, as practised by Welsh writer and filmmaker Iain Sinclair. His writings, I felt, were validating my often obsessive preoccupation with certain places.
I photograph these places much like one would approach a portrait, to bring out a deeper truth through a set of conscious choices.
So, generally, my artistic decisions about the medium, perspective, and natural lighting, aim to elevate the subject matter, to take it a notch above the purely descriptive, to make the viewer pause, reconsider and appreciate the commonplace.
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
DJ: Yes, in the sense that I scan my negatives, and often composite images from multiple single shots. I prefer the colours and detail that film (mainly Kodak Ektar 100, sometimes Portra 160, or even Velvia 50) gives me, but prefer to do the fine tuning of my images (rectifying, color correction) with the computer before printing the final images on Hahnemühle photo rag.
Another reason I prefer film is that I find composing on ground-glass is the best way to pre-visualise the image. Many of my locations are remote and hard to access (I hike), so I love the reliability of analogue, and there is no need to charge batteries. I sometimes use digital cameras to do sketches of places that I will later return to, to shoot with film.
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?
DJ: I am currently practising to shoot with swing-lens cameras, like the Noblex 6×12, and Horizon 35mm, and want to do street photography with the Noblex.
Having lived in Berlin for 20 years now, I find it quite a challenge to draw inspiration from this fast-changing city, which may seem odd, but it is something I am struggling with.
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
DJ: I guess it would have to be working-class, industrial culture, lived-in environments, the edges of the city where the suburbs meet the countryside, and remote places in their authenticity. Even as a kid, I loved these places, and it just felt natural to return to them with my camera.
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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 do you take with you and why?
DJ: A Rolleiflex 3.5 F (75mm), lightweight tripod, and Kodak Ektar (for its fine grain). This is my go-to rig that I have used for intimate portraits and large panoramas alike. Also, the TLR is extremely non-threatening, people seem to be rather drawn to this antique-looking piece of machinery. And it is lightweight and quick to set up.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location for the rest of your life. What do you take, where do you go and why?
DJ: Right now, I would pick Albania and the rig mentioned above (Rolleiflex and Ektar).
I have only recently discovered the country, and am planning a project on the Vjosa, Europe’s last wild river that is threatened by dam building projects. I would consider it an honour if I could do my bit to protect this beautiful part of Europe for future generations.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
DJ: I would use Fuji Velvia 50, underexpose it somewhat, and convert it to B/W in Lightroom. And do a portrait session for that Rembrandt low-key lighting style that only this combination can achieve. I’ll gladly run the risk of some images coming out too dark. No risk, no fun.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
DJ: Maybe the idea that film photography as is currently fashionable should showcase the “analogue, old-timey” qualities of film, such as graininess, or an over-reliance on alternative processes.
I never much cared for pictorialist tendencies in art photography. However, I believe the beauty of film is that one can use it in so many different ways. Particularly with the stocks available now, there is room for different approaches, and that’s what makes it fun. Also, I don’t hate digital and am curious what the future will bring.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
DJ: I hope it will have a long and interesting future. I am certainly more than happy with the stocks available today, particularly ILFORD’s line, Adox CMS 20 from a small German manufacturer, and of course Kodak and Fuji’s offerings.
Were it not for environmental issues, I would love to have Kodachrome back which was my all-time favourite film.
I wish camera prices wouldn’t be soaring, so that younger photographers will still get a chance to fall in love with medium format film photography.
I’m very much a follower of David’s note, “I often visit and revisit places in search of the right lighting condition, weather and season.”
I have done and continue to do the same for many years now, always looking for that perfect spray of light on a well-known subject. In my mind’s eye I know that one day I’ll be there at the right time with the right mindset but until then, it’s a little like chasing the dragon.
I’ve had a couple of relatively recent conversations about the act of documenting a “place”. Watching it change and develop as the needs and whims of the people that inhabit it change, and the feeling of melancholy when a new phase of development or evolution leads to a seeming loss in its “character”.
I’m getting to grips with how the “character” I perceive is likely something largely of my own creation and that people that come to it at different times and different phases of their lives will create their own to look back on and perhaps lament in future years. Hey, such is life, I guess.
Find David and more of his work on his website and when you’re done, take a scroll back up and check the interview out one more time. It’d be rude not to.
I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with a fresh interviewee but in the meantime, how about checking out Tom Perry’s review of his Olympus IS-5000, Marcus Grandon’s Return to Film, Jelle Vonk’s trip through Rajasthan or if you’re feeling very masochistic, Hamish Gill and my new and utterly terrible podcast. You have been warned.
As ever, keep shooting, folks!
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‘a memory maintenance worker’. I like that.
Great interview . I live in a rural part of the uk where we have almost the opposite situation in that nothing ever changes visually; buildings which are decades, or even centuries, old are being joined by new building projects which generally duplicate the same style. There’s no incentive to document a building today because it will still be there tomorrow…or in 50 years! While it features in thousands of holiday photos, i find it all actually uninspiring and wish for a bit of urban grittiness…but probably urban photographers would shoot roll after roll of great stuff and wonder how i could find it dull