Greetings from EMULSIVE HQ. Wedding photography, pet photography and mountain bike racing might be considered conflicting passions to some but today’s interviewee mixes them all together to create a unique mindset and wonderful approach to photography of all kinds.
You may have seen her work at the Redbull Hardline 2018 here on EMULSIVE but if not, say hello to Cat Topham.
Over to you, Cat!
Hi Cat, what’s this picture, then?
CT: I took this when I was on a mission to be a bit more snap happy with film. Up until this point I had been ultra-conservative, didn’t waste a frame. I set out to take a whole roll on this walk we went out on during the Beast from the East. It was bloody cold so it wasn’t a long walk. I shot the whole roll and I nailed almost all of the shots.
It was a good reminder to myself that I can take a photo and I should trust myself a bit more. It’s one of my favourites I’ve ever taken. The composition, lighting etc all just work for me. I look at it and think, yep that’s good. Not sure what other people think but hey ho.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
CT: I guess my number one job right now is mother. It sort of takes over. My son is nearly 4, he’s pretty awesome, although I’m happy to admit he is going to be the only one. I’m not a particularly natural mother, that’s maybe me being a tad harsh on myself but frankly, babies suck, both literally and figuratively speaking, so one was enough.
I try very hard not to make life all about this little man, but somehow looking through my favourite photos to include with this interview he just kept coming up.
Professionally, I take photos of dogs mainly, occasionally cats, a hedgehog once and horses are in the pipeline, it’s a part-time job at the moment (see above) from my home studio that I am very lucky to have in a barn at our house. I’m pretty patient and quite relaxed about most things in life these days (see above and below), so working with animals and quite often slightly bonkers owners is right up my street.
I’m a former soldier with a couple of operational tours under my belt. I worked mainly behind a desk in the job as an intelligence analyst rather than doing what the word ‘soldier’ may bring to mind more traditionally. Still, I have some limited experience in that area, which again much like babies, was frankly enough.
I’m proud of some of the things I achieved during my time and equally unsettled by others but sorry legally I can’t go into it, bummer eh? I joined up at the ripe old age of 24 too, which is relatively old for a recruit, so a lot of the Army discipline went over my head. I always did enough to stay loosely within the rules. In fact, that sentiment applies to pretty much everything I’ve ever done. Loosely within the rules!
Other things worth mentioning are my former careers as a car sales ‘executive’, which I was pretty good at actually, a groom for event horses and a brief stint as a nightclub till cashier. I’m also a keen mountain biker, which filled the hole left by competing on horses that was my obsession as a youth. Bikes have remained my steady passion for the last 10 years or so, I like to take photos too…
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
CT: So haters gonna hate me for this comment, but photography, in general, started for me more professionally than personally. I did a few bike photos just to record some stuff I was doing and I sussed out I had an eye for it, so when I needed a new, flexible post-Army career was also reasonably paid it just fit the bill. Sorry, I never felt any deep need to express myself through the medium or had any artist’s angst or anything like that.
The film thing came when my Dad gave me my Grandfather’s old Canon AV-1 (and his old Super-8 camera). More recently, I mentioned to Dad that I was getting an Olympus XA of some sort for a trip to Chile, (old things are one of the things I find I can talk to my dad about easily, you may have guessed).
He said he thought that’s what Granny used to have and “your sister’s got it”. I got it off her, gave it new light seals and it’s fine. I decided to still get one to take to Chile in case I crashed on it and smashed it to bits! Sarah’s just as sentimental as Dad and she would have been upset had that happened!
A little story to go with the AV-1, Granda was a scientist and an obsessive labeller of everything. You will note the name on the cameras; when I got the AV-1, the battery was also labelled 27/08/82, two days after I was born. It’s probable that some of the first photos taken of me were on this camera, so it’s nice to have it. It also still smells exactly like their house did to me as a kid.
There’s still a label on the bottom of the last roll of film he put through it. Fuji Colour Superior 200 loaded 16/10/00, Exp July 2002. Still using the same battery, so I guess I won’t be changing the new one I treated it to any time soon. No doubt his eye was taken by a digital camera soon after, always up with the tech was Granda West.
Back to the Canon and I felt obliged to shoot a roll through it because I knew it would make my Dad happy. I asked about and Kodak Portra seemed to be the word in film, so I bought a roll and shot some family photos, presented them to my family, got the ‘oh yes lovely’ comments your family always give you and went about my normal digital work-based photography again for a while.
Last year I started a distance learning photography degree, I had some funding from the Army to do something educational and it seemed like as good a thing as any to do. May as well get qualified in some way. It was doing that that prompted the AV-1’s resurrection.
I was researching the history of photography for one of the sections of the course and I just felt like I might be able to understand some of the concepts and things better if I went ‘old skool’. You may have guessed I’m more of a facts than concept sort of person, I’m not finding this art degree easy! So I went for film in an effort to ‘get it’ and that was me hooked really.
Photography became something I wanted to do independently of paid work and iPhone photos of my son. Discovering film also came at a time when I was getting too attached to social media. My husband works away a lot and being on your own with a small child with limited intellectual skills, Facebook can easily become your crutch, but it’s not real is it?
The realness and honesty of film was a sort of saviour and shining light for me at that point. I needed something that cut the ties with society’s desire for instant gratification, and that’s why I still do it. It’s also the separation between work ‘digital’ and ‘personal’ film. I can take photos of my family without getting drawn into the back of the camera to check it looks good. Who cares if the composition and exposure is bang on? What I should be involved in is what my son and husband are doing in that moment, or the thing I’m there to watch or be part of. I don’t feel like I’m watching life through a screen when I shoot on film, if that makes sense.
I’m also a natural geek, I get easily obsessed with things. Film cameras and film fit that bill, oddly more than digital cameras, which, let’s face it, are all largely the same. Film cameras give you stuff to geek out over and lots of extra variables that make an actual difference. I just find it more interesting than megapixels and buffers.
Well, why not? It’s a big smiley face and you can ride on it.
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
CT: This is a hard one to answer. While there are a few names I could give from a professional point of view, from a personal point of view I don’t really have any. I’m not trying to say I have no influences, of course I do, we all do. Nobody is creating totally unique things, especially not these days when we are constantly bombarded by images. I see things I like all the time, little things that I have absolutely no doubt worm their way into the photos I make subconsciously but I really can’t put forward any names.
I’m also primarily a documentary photographer, although since I started using film I’m more likely to set out to create photos more deliberately, I’m mostly recording rather than creating with my camera. So I may have a style influenced by all the people’s photos I’ve seen, admired and whose names I can’t remember but I don’t ever take a (film) photo thinking it would be in a certain way, I just look through the viewfinder and move it around until it looks OK!
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
CT: Digital for work and very occasionally personal – usually because I haven’t got a relevant film or camera for that situation in my film supplies. Film for all my personal photos.
I took this whilst practising with the Olympus XA2 I bought to use on a bike trip to Chile. I needed a simple easy to use but decent quality camera that wouldn’t weigh me down. I wanted to see how it would cope straight into the sun for a silhouette and I’m pretty pleased with this.
It’s my husband at our local bike pump track. We sometimes escape for an hour whilst our son is at playgroup to ride there, as a grown-up you have to go during school hours or you get muscled out by the local kids!
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?
CT: I’d like to cut down the number of fudges I get. It’s not loads, maybe 1 or 2 in every 10 where it’s just crap: nope no charm to that or it’s not quite right but I like it about that one. Delete. I think that’s just practice.
I’m still pretty new to film, just over a year really, so I haven’t settled on a stock I always shoot or a camera. I’m still jumping about because I can so stuff surprises me, maybe I won’t ever settle, maybe I shouldn’t.
I’d also like to be braver, I’m very much a documentary photographer as I’ve mentioned. I sort of hover about waiting for moments and grab them. That’s partly because I like things to be as real as possible and not contrived but I’d like to get better at asking people for their photo. Even when I try to do this I still end up defaulting to letting people do their own thing and capturing, it’s the way I worked as a wedding photographer, unobtrusive, and I’m good at it. It’s hard to step away from something you know you’re good at into the danger zone of ‘might F this up’. So yes be braver.
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I’d love to develop and print too, but realistically that’s my retirement hobby. I haven’t got the time to do it well at the moment so I will probably be wanting to do it in the next 12 months for the next 12 years or so.
This was one of the occasions where I was brave and asked for a photo. It’s early in the morning in Edinburgh. The guy is totally smashed, still out form the night before but as you can see he was totally happy to be photographed!
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
CT: My family are my primary subject matter. My family is my most important thing so it just follows. Besides that, I like street photography, although ironically I’ve done most of this in digital format because it’s been degree-related, so the quick turnaround has always been helpful. I could happily people watch for hours, I like waiting for the moment when it all works visually and pressing the shutter. I also like the way you can find interest in things that pass most people by.
I had a brief dalliance with an abandoned building too for a degree project, I could happily do more of that. It’s an old artist’s studio near me that I often drove past and always wondered about. It was my Dad who actually looked up what it was and it piqued my interest. It belonged to a Serbian designer called Bernatt Klein, who used local fabrics in new ways and really invigorated the at the time dying textile trade in the Borders.
He used colour in really new ways, I liked the building and his story resonated with me on several personal levels. He was ex-Army and had worked in Galashiels the town my Granny is from, so I felt some connection to him. I tried all sorts of fancy things to get what I wanted from the project but in the end, I just shot a tour of the building in a simple and personal way on Fujifilm Pro 400H. I just felt like it deserved film.
The resulting image is actually a composite of an exterior shot and then what’s behind each window actually shown in the space where the window is if that makes sense. It’s what I now see every time I go past the building in my mind’s eye, after walking round it.
I guess what I’m realising writing this is that apart from my family, which is a constant, I’m pretty open to different subject matters and I do jump about a bit.
I took this sat in a French Cafe in London. I just looked up and saw the scene and it fitted so well into my eye for a photo that it got taken. We were in a French-style cafe and from what I can remember that waitress was French. I just felt like I could actually be in Paris in that moment with her stood there smoking.
Annoyingly I can’t find the composite I did anywhere on my hard drives, I just have a print.
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?
CT: I’d take my Nikon F100 and a 50mm lens, Kodak Portra 400 and ILFORD HP5 PLUS. How obvious and dull is all that lot! Reason being all those things just work. They cover most bases with great results.
I’ve got a Hasselblad 500CM, which I love, I’ve promised my husband I will sell it because I don’t really use it enough, I take photos with it just to use it not because I really wanted a photo of that tree. But if I turned up to a toddlers birthday party with it and a roll of some obscure film I’d end up with some crap pictures so if I’m venturing into the unknown it’s old familiar Nikon for me.
One of my I just want to use the camera photos. I love it though, that tree leaps out at you and I looked at it I thought, that’s why people rave about these cameras.
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?
CT: I’d stay here in the Scottish Borders where I live. It’s where all the stuff that matters to me is. I love to travel and see cool stuff but amongst them, places I’ve been or still want to go there’s none where I‘d want to spend the rest of my life. We choose to live here, it’s not where either of us (me or husband) grew up so I’ve sort of already asked myself this question for real and I’m where I want to be.
Film-wise I’d have to go with Portra 400. It’s my favourite so far, HP5 comes a close second, sorry for not coming up with something more interesting!
Peebles and the Scottish Borders is a beautiful place to live. This is the River Tweed in one of the town’s parks during the ‘Beast from the East’ whilst we were knee deep in snow.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
CT: The same answer again really, at home with my family, Portra 400. I’d probably do it and then think I should have done something more adventurous with that but then I’d look at the photos and love them and it would be fine.
I’d still have my digital cameras or even my phone to share adventures with people, or is this like desert island discs? Just don’t leave me with the bloody Bible.
This is probably one of my all-time favourite photos of Rowan.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
CT: That you have to be some kind of hipster cool type to get something out of it. I’m not really very typical, in any way. You can be a mother and a mountain biker who goes and rides in the Andes, a digital photographer and a film photographer with a Hasselblad and a sensible pair of walking shoes because you like the camera and the shoes are comfy.
You don’t have to have jeans that are too short and a tote bag to like film, but if you do then great, fricking rock the shit out of it if it’s what you want to do. Just do it because you like doing it, not because it’s cool, which I think in the most part people do so I’d just want to make that clear.
A comparatively cheap camera and film and yet I still love the colours and feel of the pictures so much more than the ones I take with my much more expensive digital tools.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
CT: So I guess I can say what I would like it to be, I don’t feel informed enough to predict what it actually will be. I’d just like it to stay around for now. From what I’ve read and the podcasts I put on while I’m cooking the tea it seems to be in a bit of a boom at the moment, and while the money’s coming in the products will come out, that’s fab! It’s great seeing the new stuff coming. I’m still a relative newcomer so I guess I’ve never felt the sting of losing my favourite film stock or similar, I’ve got in at a good time.
So I’m keeping my fingers crossed for more of that for now.
I always enjoy reading about the experiences of new film photographers and found Cat’s comment about jumping about across different film stocks to be quite funny – years in, I’m still at it myself!
I’ll be back in a few weeks for the next interview but in the meantime, go check out some of the amazing articles published here on EMULSIVE since the last time you were here.
As ever, keep shooting, folks!
The community needs you. If you’d like to take part in this series of film photographer interviews, please drop us a line or get in touch in the comments. We’re featuring to photographers young and old; famous and obscure, so get in touch and let’s talk.