EMULSIVE interview #212: I am Alys Tomlinson and this is why I shoot film

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Welcome to the latest EMULSIVE interview, featuring none other than Alys Tomlinson, Sony World Photography Awards, Photographer of the Year 2018. There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’ll let Alys crack on.

Over to you, Alys!



Hi Alys, what’s this picture, then?

AT: This was the first portrait I took for my project Ex-Voto. The project explores Christian pilgrimage sites in Europe and this was taken in Lourdes, France. It’s of a young man called Markus, who volunteers for the Order of Malta organisation. It’s significant as it felt like a real ‘breakthrough’ moment in the project.

Up until that point, I’d been working in medium format colour. The images didn’t have the timelessness or mystery that I’d hoped to capture. Once I changed my approach to shooting in large format and b/w, everything slowed down and fell into place. I remember getting back the contacts from this trip and finally feeling excited about the images. I took two pictures of him – I had a feeling he’d blinked in the first one, and I was right! This is the second shot.

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

AT: I’ve been working as a photographer for around 15 years, but I’m also a netball-loving perfectionist, who is fiercely independent and very committed to my work. Photography merges my rational, practical brain with the creative part.

My projects are often research-led, taking me to new places I wouldn’t otherwise experience. I’m away quite a lot for work, but I live in north London, right next to the Arsenal football stadium.

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

AT: My Dad gave me a 35mm Pentax when I was a teenager. I would roam around Brighton, taking pictures in local parks, on the seafront, at the races. I’m driven by a curiosity to explore and a desire to tell stories that might otherwise be overlooked. Every time I start a project, it feels like a new adventure.

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

AT: I was influenced by film and cinematography from a young age. I’ve always loved documentary film and I watch a lot of work by female, documentary filmmakers. Photographers that I admire include Vanessa Winship, Andrea Modica, August Sander, Sally Mann and American photographers such as Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore and Diane Arbus.


I also try to read as much as I can, so other influences come through books, such as Raymond Carver’s short stories. The photos from the series ‘Dead Time’ were first inspired by a David Lynch film.

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

AT: Commercial jobs require fast turnover times, so I have to be flexible and most clients now expect digital. I use the best tool for the job or project. Nearly all my personal work is shot on film and I’ve collected a few different cameras over the years. I have a vegetable drawer in my fridge full of film!

Film challenges me to work in a different way – I shoot less and I think more. For example, I might shoot 1500 images in one day on a commercial shoot. If I spend a day exploring with my large format camera, I’ll spend a lot of time wandering, but I’ll often just take one or two shots.

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?

AT: I would like to experiment with 10×8, although I am put off by the cost of the film and developing (I’m not good enough or confident enough to do that myself). But I’m also aware that it’s easy to get caught up thinking “if only…”. For instance, “if only I had that camera/lens, I would take great photos.” No! I remember thinking when I was a struggling student, “if only I could afford a medium format camera, my work would be so much better.” I thought with an MF camera, you could take a picture of a chair and it would just look amazing.

Now I have more experience, I realise that a strong idea and emotional connection to the subject is what makes a powerful image. I use the format as a tool to enhance my approach and direct my thinking, but a brilliant piece of kit doesn’t make a brilliant photographer. I shot the whole of Ex-Voto on one, cheap old 5×4 and a single lens, carrying around the camera in a battered old wheelie suitcase. I didn’t look very professional, but that didn’t matter.

It was what was in my head and how I was trying to express it, that was more important.

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

AT: I’m always drawn to portraits and the individual’s relationship to their environment. Themes of belonging and identity seem to be consistent in my work and recently I’ve been trying to tackle (in my own, small way) some of life’s big issues, such as faith, love, life and death.

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?

AT: My trusty Bronica with 75mm lens and 160 and 400 Porta film. It’s a versatile, reliable, lightweight camera, but takes beautiful images. The f/2.8 lens produces lovely depth of field. I used it for most of my assignments, pre-digital.


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?

AT: I would go somewhere I can be inspired by the landscape and lose myself in nature – but still be able to get my city fix. I was thinking of a classic US road trip (if a country counts as one location), but that is a bit predictable…so, I think instead I’d relocate to Sicily. It has great weather, amazing food and really interesting traditions and rituals still practiced today.

I’d take a load of 5×4 black and white film, a notebook and my new, lightweight Chamonix camera. I’d also learn Italian…or try to…

You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?

AT: Aggh. Please don’t say that! It would be a box of 5×4 black and white sheet film. It’s the medium that I love at the moment. I would probably photograph my family. They may not all be that keen at first, but I would definitely win them over and it seems like a fitting way to end my film career.

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

AT: That it’s prohibitively expensive (you can still find some good deals at labs and cheap darkroom hire), that its days are numbered and that the future is digital. There is room for both. I also believe it’s very hard to emulate the depth, tones and richness of film photography in digital form.

I think a lot of people think they can stick a filter on a digital file and it’ll look like film. Some photographers do get very close and, if they do it well, it’s increasingly hard to tell, but I feel that there’s nearly always a different look and feel to film photography.

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

AT: I still see loads of students using film, which is encouraging. As long as they keep making it, I think photographers will continue to shoot film. On the flipside, I despair when I see degrees in digital photography, where schools and universities have got rid of their darkrooms.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I still see photography as a skill and a craft that takes many years to master. Film photography is exciting and unpredictable. Digital will never be able to match that.

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

AT: I think every person interested in photography should shoot film and print images in a traditional darkroom at some point. Standing in the red hue of the darkroom and seeing an image take shape before your eyes, is truly a magical experience. You can get some great deals on secondhand film cameras, so go out there, have fun and experiment.


~ Alys


A huge thanks to Alys for stepping up. There are numerous wonderful thoughts I could pick on for this little sign-off and after a little thought, I’d like to focus on this one: “It was what was in my head and how I was trying to express it, that was more important.”

I’ll admit to being a bit of a gearhead and suffering from many cases of GAS over the years. I have my reasons excuses but I can say with a hand on my heart that it’s the expression of vision that’s been the most important thing to me and that I have been surprised on many, many occasions by thoughts with supposedly “lesser” gear that translated into fully formed photographs that met the vision I shot them with. Gear can help you to achieve certain things but if you’re out there trying to make amazing photographs, they’re most likely not going to work unless you have an idea formed in your head: vision, visualisation, preparation, call it what you will, you need it much more than a specific camera in your hand.

Please do check out Alys on Twitter, Instagram or over on her website. You can also find out more about her new book, Ex-Voto, which is published by GOST Books.

I’ll be back with another fresh EMULSIVE interview in a few weeks but you can look forward to a new “Add to Queue” interview from Rob J Davie next week where he continues his discussions with film photographer YouTubers. Together, we have the pleasure of bringing the one and only Ted Viera.

Nice.

~ EM

Your turn

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2 thoughts on “EMULSIVE interview #212: I am Alys Tomlinson and this is why I shoot film”

  1. Thanks for the feature EM. Alys has been one of the most influencial photographers on my practice of the last couple of years. Delighted that this article will allow her stuff to become known by an even wider audience.

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