EMULSIVE interview #215: I am Tony Warren and this is why I shoot film

Regular readers will be familiar with the writings and photography of today’s interviewee in the form of his large format pinhole camera build and light meter articles here on EMULSIVE.

It’s high time we pulled back and learned a bit more, don’t you think?

Over to you, Tony.

Hi Tony, what’s this picture, then?

TW: Twenty years ago, being an inveterate early adopter, I had sold off all my film gear and bought an Olympus C2000 digital camera, and digital was the future wasn’t it?

On a trip to New Zealand in the late 1990s I bought a 1900ish Houghton Klito No 2 falling plate camera on my last day in Dunedin. It was in its original box and in good cosmetic condition with almost all its original film holders, called septums. Only the shutter seemed to need attention so I thought I would restore it and sell it on back in the UK.

I had been experimenting with large format for a while, building my own cameras, so fixing the Klito and taking some photos with it seemed like a good challenge. As it turned out, it set me on the path to where I am today, leading to an article about it in UK’s Amateur Photographer and subsequent efforts in using a range of cameras and writing about photography.

You might say it put digital in perspective for me and returned me to the true path.

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

TW: I was born in 1939 in Bradford, Yorkshire, just before the outbreak of WW2, and grew up during the austerity years that followed that conflict. I became interested in cameras at the age of 10 or so and began making my own contact prints with a Johnson’s Home Printing Outfit (PDF) soon afterwards. The school photography club developed my interest and knowledge with the guidance of the chemistry master, himself a very accomplished landscape photographer.

After leaving school, I trained as an architect at Manchester University and worked in that profession until taking early retirement in 2001.

For many years I belonged to camera clubs in the UK and NZ, gaining a great deal from my membership. I belonged to the Lincolnshire Postal Portfolio form the ’50s until it disbanded in the ’90s. This group of dedicated photographers were good friends and had a great influence on my work over many years.

I had a flirtation with digital starting in 1999, changing up from my original 2MP Olympus C2000 to a 12MP Fuji S2 Pro and then 16 and 20MP Sony mirrorless, using them with legacy lenses via adapters. Over the past few years, I have also been able to enjoy a wide range of excellent film cameras at quite reasonable prices, whilst I continue to build my own cameras, pinhole and panoramic.

In 2002 I moved to New Zealand, where both my daughters had recently settled. My wife and I now live in Dunedin within a few hours drive of a fascinating range of locations and subjects.

Having just turned 80, I am less able to charge around with my camera these days and tend to tackle more static subjects but my enthusiasm for and satisfaction gained from photography is as strong as ever.

When did you start shooting film?

TW: Simple answer, when I first took up a camera.

Film was all there was available in those days. Kodachrome was very slow at ASA (now ISO) 25 and ASA 400 was an almost unbelievably fast film. ASA 50 or 100 was the norm. So I didn’t exactly take it up at that stage.

More recently, I guess the Klito project mentioned brought me back to film after a brief diversion into digital, though I had been using 8×10 bromide paper as film in my cardboard box pinhole cameras and other homemade efforts all through this time.

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

TW: Bill Brandt made the biggest impact on me in my teens. The exhibition of his work I saw in the 1970s had such an exciting range of subjects and treatments. It led me to more of his work, especially his documentary images in the 30s and 40s. He managed to tell his subjects’ story but in a strongly pictorial way.

Ansel Adams and Group f/64, including Imogene Cunningham and Minor white, were also strong influences on a technical as well as a creative level. And of course, Edward Weston also figures. All were big influences on my generation.

Several other photographers I have admired for their absolute dedication, not simply to photography but to humanity also. Sebastiao Salgado, Eugene Smith and Larry Burrows come to mind amongst many others who have made a big impact on me and on many people’s lives through their work.

Today, photography is much more accessible and prolific, producing so many images that it is difficult to single out any one photographer. I suppose you have to say the biggest influence on my photography since the 1990s has been Photoshop and Thomas and John Knoll, who originally created it.

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

TW: I guess almost everyone is classed as mixed medium these days in the sense of the question. Unless you are completely cut off from the digital world it is unavoidable in order to function at all.

My workflow is analogue to the negative stage and from there I digitise my work by copying off a lightbox with my digital camera and pre-AI Micro Nikkor mounted on the column of a Durst M301 enlarger.

I have always believed in “horses for courses”, however, and that still applies today. Any choice is made mainly for practical reasons, i.e. what the end purpose is. This extends to the type of camera as well as the recording medium employed.

True mixed media art is very thin on the ground and it takes great skill to combine analogue and digital. Various image transfer techniques are some of the more successful applications I have seen recently. They hark back to gum printing and other alternative processes which produced some beautiful images by the likes of Robert Demachy and Edward Steichen. When I felt they suited the subject I have used tone separation and pseudo solarisation occasionally, which hark back to those techniques is some ways.

Photography for me is principally a recording medium, its strength lying in its ability to capture incredible detail and also the fleeting moments that any other medium simply cannot capture.

When photography first appeared in the mid-19th century, it was said that “art is dead”. This was because the photograph represented the subject in such detail and with relatively less effort than painting. But what it actually did was free the artist from the need for accurate representation and paved the way for movements such as Art Nouveau, the Impressionists, etc., and a much less literal approach to the subjects and the emotions portrayed.

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?

TW: Hard to pin down really. Anything and everything I suppose. Photography operates on so many levels depending on its purpose at the time. Techniques, creativity and communication all play their part and need to be constantly challenged and improved on.

One thing I have wanted to try for some time is 3D, but in the old way, with side by side images in a hand viewer, so I might try that. I would be using digital, though, out of economic and practical necessity, with printed output to view the results.

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

TW: As an architect, I have always enjoyed photographing the built environment. I enjoy still life for its challenges in lighting and arranging subjects and portraiture for the same reason. I did quite a bit of stage work at one time which was demanding but very rewarding. Natural history has also featured in my work.

I have always seen myself as a pictorialist. I admire the work of Frederick Evans and Brandt, as I mentioned earlier, who treated their subject matter in that style. Many of the portraits that seem to do well in contemporary competition leave me cold when considered against the likes of Karsh or Armstrong-Jones but there are some gems buried amongst 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 do you take with you and why?

TW: I would take a medium format SLR with metering prism head, e.g. Hasselblad 500C or Bronica SQ, a medium wide-angle lens, e.g. 65mm, and two rolls of colour negative film, 100 and 400 in separate camera backs.

The larger negative would allow some cropping, whilst the moderate wide-angle wouldn’t be too restrictive at closer quarters. Two film speeds in interchangeable backs should cover most situations and would be useable as mono or colour output. Finally, the kit would be easy to carry if the location proved to be challenging.

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?

TW: There are so many small, fairly isolated communities in the world threatened by population loss and climate change, I would try to record the environment, traditions and way of life of one of them. I believe it is very important to preserve as complete a record as possible of these communities.

I would ideally take Polaroid 55 positive/negative film for use in a 5×4 field camera. This monochrome film allows almost instant viewing by the subject yet provides a negative for subsequent, enlarged output. Realistically, Type 55 being out of production now, it would have to be 5×4 ILFORD FP4 PLUS and an Instax.

Using a 5×4 camera needs the co-operation of the subject in the process which can lead to more relaxed and natural results.

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

TW: I think I would go to Iceland with a 36 exposure cassette of Fuji Reala 100 in my Nikon F801. Iceland has such stunning landscapes, fascinating architecture and, of course, the aurora borealis. I would expose each frame with as much care and thought as I could muster to do justice to each subject.

I think I would die happy having experienced and photographed such a wonderful place.

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

TW: The biggest misconception amongst non-film photographers is that film is no longer relevant. If you are a snap-shooter with a ‘phone or a pro having to satisfy the needs of demanding clients as quickly as possible and at the least cost, then that is probably fair comment. If you use film or are thinking of doing so, then using film can seem a bit daunting, so much more of the process having to be in the control of the photographer.

It all boils down to approach at the end of the day. Spend a bit of time understanding the processes involved and it is no different to mastering a new computer program. There are huge resources on the net these days to help, but the best way to learn is by experience, i.e. by doing it! Be prepared to make mistakes and be critical of your results and you will improve, no question.

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

TW: Its future is what we make of it.

The resurgence of interest over the past few years is a testament to what it holds and not just for dinosaurs like me. Whilst it will probably always be something of a niche interest, it is one that gives immense satisfaction in a way that digital can never do. The need to visualise and be patient are intrinsic to the process and which gives it so much of its attraction.

With so many new sources of materials appearing to add to those already available, I think the future is bright.

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

TW: Learn as much as possible about all the aspects of operating the camera and the various films available and the means of processing them. Decide what you think will suit you best in terms of the type of camera, film and processing, trade or home.

Don’t overthink it though. Once you have made the basic decisions, get a camera as soon as possible and take pictures.

Look at your results with a critical eye, even measure them against similar, well-printed images and most important of all, print a contact sheet and make larger prints of what you feel are the best frames from each film. They don’t have to be masterpieces, just ones that please you. I have several clear pocket files of my prints and I try to do a contact sheet for every film.

Finally, try to keep a record of everything in as much detail as you can manage, even if it is only a summary of each film on the back of the contacts – film, developer, when and where taken and subjects.

Most of all enjoy the experience.

~ Tony


A huge thanks to Tony for stepping up and sharing his thoughts and photography. His answer to the final question is something I’d like to pick out and reiterate, if I can.

You may think that his message of learning as much as possible and not overthinking basic photographic decision making are at odds with one another – some kind of mixed message. I cannot stress enough that this is far, far from the truth.

There is absolutely a case for analysis paralysis – knowing too much or fearing you know too little and finding yourself asking questions instead of acting – however I would say that on a personal level, having a knowledge and awareness of the tools I’m using and my objective are more of a help than a hindrance. Of course, I still (regularly) find myself in situations where there are unknowns. While it would be relatively easy for me to fall into analysis paralysis there, it’s during those times that I switch off my brain and go with my gut. The result may not be what I expected or wanted, however, each click of the shutter is a learning experience, whether it teaches us something new or reaffirms a pre-existing belief.

Accept your photography and learn from both success and mistakes.

Time for me to get off my soapbox and ask you to scroll back up and take in Tony’s interivew one more time before you head on over to something else. If it’s been a while since you were here, dod you know that I’m now publishing two articles a day? There’s LOADS going on so please get stuck in.

Stay safe,

~ EM

Your turn

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.

EMULSIVE
EMULSIVEhttps://emulsive.org
I'm EM, founder, overlord, editor-in-chief here at EMULSIVE.org and all-round benevolent gestalt entity. Contrary to popular belief, I am not an AI.

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