EMULSIVE interview #211: I am Graham Spinks and this is why I shoot film

Greetings and welcome to this week’s fresh EMULSIVE interview – number 211 to be specific. I have great pleasure in introducing you to the words and work of erstwhile philosopher, Graham Spinks.

It’s over to you, Graham.

Hi Graham, what’s this picture, then?

GS: This photo was taken at the National Trust’s Canons Ashby earlier this year with my Zorki 4. I was with my talented photographer friend Tim (timgreen4477) who had brought along his Olympus 35 RC and we were hoping to make some interesting images in a rather unhelpful light.

I love the look and feel of the Zorki. It so isn’t a Leica. Nothing like-a Leica in fact. It’s a clumsy, roughly engineered brute of a thing. Mine is also a bit smelly and oily. But I love the images it makes. And I also get a buzz from the fact that the Zorkis were built in the repurposed KMZ arms factory. A great example of swords into ploughshares. For many years, these cameras were little ambassadors reminding westerners that there was life behind the Iron Curtain.

Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)

GS: I began life as an academic philosopher and was lucky enough to study for a PhD at the University of Cambridge during the early 1980s. But at some unhappy point, I discovered I had to earn a living so put my energies into developing a career as a commercial writer and building a company.

One of my earliest projects on arriving in Cambridge was taking photos of King’s College Chapel in different light during the autumn of 1980. I quickly realised that the stone of the building never appeared the same colour on any two occasions. A graphic representation of the words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.’

I’m also a Quaker — a group who use the expression ‘the Light’ to identify the spiritual. The new meeting room at Friends House in London (UK Quaker Mission Control) is called The Light and I find this very evocative.

When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?

GS: Film was the only way to take photos when I was growing up so I served my apprenticeship with this medium. We had a darkroom at school where we could develop and print film during hobby hour. It was a wonderful feeling to lock oneself away and escape to the magic of making images — dodging, burning and sloshing smelly chemicals around.

My father lived in a very visual world. I remember him winning an amateur photography competition in the 1960s but being too shy to go up on the stage and collect his prize or take a bow. When he knew he didn’t have long to live, he offered me and my nephew a choice between his Leica IIIa or his Rolleiflex. I very gratefully took the Leica and my nephew took the Rolleiflex.

I was intrigued to find out whether the camera still worked so I bought some film — and I was hooked!

The lens is a little foggy but the mechanism is as crisp as the day it was made. It’s a piece of jewellery – perfectly designed and realised. Every time I hear the shutter of the Leica I remember Dad describing the mechanism as being as light as a butterfly’s wings.

Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?

GS: Well, obviously my father was a major influence.

The earliest collection of photos I still have was taken on a school trip to Russia in 1974. I was learning Russian and we travelled by train through Eastern Europe and then stayed in Moscow and Leningrad. The photos are on colour slides with highly accented blues; I think it was a cheap Boots own-brand film and processing. I’m pretty sure I took them on my Dad’s Voigtlander Vito B which is sitting on the shelf opposite me as I write.

When I won my place at Cambridge my Dad asked me what I would like as a graduation present and I chose a Pentax MX SLR. It was a fantastic gift and accompanied me pretty much everywhere for many years. Who could ever feel lonely when they have a traffic-light style exposure meter for company. My girlfriend at the time (later my wife) was very jealous. I remember finding a second-hand Pentax K1000 in the classified ads and buying it for her. She immediately started taking some great shots and that camera is now rightly recognized as a classic!

Here in Cambridge, we have an annual Open Studios event where artists open their homes and studios to the public. Somebody I visited this year and was very impressed by was Lotte Attwood who takes amazing shots with her Olympus OM1.

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I also love the work of Vanley Burke who was an inspirational guest recently on Desert Island Discs.

When I first came to Cambridge, Lettice Ramsey the widow of the philosopher Frank Ramsey still had her studio and shop in the centre of town. During the 1930s she had created wonderful images of many leading academics and Bloomsbury group members. Her iconic portrait of her husband Frank, generally acknowledged as a short-lived genius took pride of place in the university’s philosophy library.

Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?

GS: A big part of the joy of working with film is that it is unpredictable.

That’s great when you are in the mood for experimenting and inviting serendipity to play a role in your process. However, there are times when I need to be sure I’ve got the material I require for a talk or to support the text in a publication and on those occasions digital makes sense.

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This image was taken during a visit to Quaker communities in Cuba. My objective was to raise funds for humanitarian projects by giving illustrated talks when I returned and I didn’t want there to be any doubt that I had the goods with me!

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?

GS: I’ve recently been experimenting with a variety of different cameras using 35 mm and medium format film.

I love the look, feel and smell of interesting old cameras. They provide an intriguing pathway into the past and a realm of dying skills. I’ve accumulated rather a lot of them as they are all too easy to find on eBay. And once people know you like them, they seem happy to give them to you too, so it looks as though they’ve been breeding round here. Anything after 1960 looks a bit too modern for my taste.

Over the next few months I’m going to give myself two rules:

  • No batteries
  • For every camera that arrives, one has to be moved on.

I’m currently trying to treat eBay as a camera library. The idea is to take a camera out for a limited period, enjoy running a film through it and then send it back. I only struggle with the last part.

I recently heard an interview with David Bailey who I understood to be saying that he first makes the image in his head and then sets about executing it. All the work is done in his brain long before he presses the shutter. Now that’s a very different concept to ‘capturing’ something as it occurs. I’d like to play with that concept a bit using medium format. I’ve recently bought a Zeiss Ikon Nettar folding camera which deserves an outing.

I think the key may be to try to slow right down. Go out for the day with only 12 exposures on a nice lazy, slow film with a tripod and spend time carefully planning a set of photos before getting anywhere near even cocking the shutter.

Or maybe I should get hold of a medium format SLR, I rather fancy a Hasselblad 500CM or a Mamiya RB67 Professional. Gear Acquisition Syndrome rears its ugly head again.

Perhaps I should mention that I’m a great fan of Peggy’s musings on her Camera Go Camera website. It’s super great fun and a more than a bit of an inspiration to me.

Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?

GS: I’m drawn to water and boats — seascapes and rivers. And weather. Which may be just another way of saying interesting light.

This beach photo was taken on the first roll of film I put through my Zeiss Ikon Contina 1a. I hadn’t realised that the inside of the lens was covered in dust and fluff when I loaded the film. But I really like the effect. I later cleaned it out with a cotton bud.

I’m not unhappy when my film photos look as though they were taken yonks ago though I don’t aim for this effect. In this image of St. Ives, the quality of the lens and the extraordinary colour palette of the film create the impression of a day out in the 1970s but I took the shot last summer and the clothes and people are totally 2018.

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Oh yes, and I’m also rather partial to a walled garden. Note how different the colours look when you compare the Kodak Gold film with the Kodak ColorPlus.

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?

GS: Two strategies come to mind.

One response to an unknown assignment is to take the most flexible, adaptable kit you can lay your hands on and accept that you can do a reasonable job whatever turns up. My Zenit 11 would be a reliable companion for that gig.

My preferred response, however, would be to take the most outrageously specialised equipment and then throw a tantrum if it doesn’t meet the bill. I’m a top fan of The Lifeboat Station Project and would love to create Ambrotypes on glass, like those of Jack Lowe. He has a proper camera with a 12×10” glass plate, he gets to drive an ambulance with an onboard dark room, wears an apron and covers his head with a cloth when he takes a photo. And the results are super cool.

Now there’s a role model for you.

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?

GS: My photographs constitute a record of my life as I have lived it so I guess the answer to the question is that I’ll stay where I am thank you.

It’s great to record a visit to a new place — but it wouldn’t be a new place for very long, it would quickly become the place where you live. From a creative point of view, I’m happy taking photos wherever the light is always changing and the sky is different every time you look at it. And that’s pretty much anywhere and everywhere — though perhaps its most obvious when out walking in mountains or near water.

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What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?

GS: I suspect that people see it as being an anachronism.

It’s so easy now to take a technically acceptable photo on your phone or with a digital point and shoot.

But the puritan in me wants to say that the easier something is the less rewarding it becomes. I was shocked to discover recently that a really smart friend of mine who has a super-expensive digital camera has only ever used it on the AUTO setting. He didn’t know what ISO meant!

I helpfully explained it to him in terms of the size of the crystals on the film.

In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?

GS: I hope that film will continue to be popular with artists and especially art students. I’d like to see it become the medium of the young and the experimental.

From a creative point of view, film photography is a completely different medium to digital. There’s no digital substitute for the smell of the darkroom.

Obviously, I have a nostalgic attachment to film and to the lovely mechanical devices that you use to make photos with it. So I would like to believe that this could be shared with the next generation.

But most important is to keep people passionate about the creative potential of such an exciting medium.

Finally, what advice would you give to someone just getting started, or thinking about jumping into film photography?

GS: Enjoy the quirkiness of the equipment, the medium and your images.  The world is a wonderfully messy, fuzzy and nebulous place – not made of tidily aligned pixels.  Film photography gives you the opportunity to reflect that.

~ Graham


A huge thanks to Graham for stepping up and sharing his work. Please do take a minute to find and follow him on Twitter and Flickr.

I’ll be back with another fresh interviewee in a couple of weeks but until then, why not check out some of my past interviewees you may have missed before scrolling back up and checking out Graham’s thoughts and pictures one more time.

~ EM

Your turn

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4 COMMENTS

  1. One of the nicest interviews I’ve read in this series. Mr. Spinks comes across as someone at ease with himself and his art. After 50 years of taking photos, I’ve recently come to the same point in my work. It was comforting to read his interview. Thank you.

  2. Graham’s point about the unpredictability of film really resonates with me. Especially during the ritual of processing film. Temperature, chemistry, agitation, and countless other variables determine the look of the final image. The creation of digital images lack challenge and the beauty of randomness.

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