Today’s interviewee is a busy man, he’s a producer and off-air reporter covering the US Congress for NBC News, past Chairman of the Radio & Television Correspondents Association on Capitol Hill, oh and a film photographer who also happens to shoot some of our favourite film stocks (and cameras) while doing the day job.
Looking for American politics on film? You’ve come to the right place. Over to you, Frank!
Hi Frank, what’s this picture, then?
FT: I took this picture for a project that Washingtonian Magazine did asking photographers to take self-portraits in quarantine. The Coronavirus quarantine has been weird in a lot of ways, and our daughter was born just as things were starting to shut down and life was changing around the world.
I had just (coincidentally) set up a mini-portrait studio in our basement, and decided to try to take the picture with a dry glass plate on my Graflex Speed Graphic. I was really happy with the results, and am extremely grateful that I have this image to remember this crazy moment in my personal, and our collective, histories.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
FT: I’m Frank, I live in Washington, DC with my partner and that newborn daughter in the first picture, and I work at NBC News as a Producer and Reporter who covers the United States Senate. While photography isn’t in my job description, I’ve folded my passion for it into my work.
I’m lucky to be able to have a job that allows me to do that, all while working in a place where shoving a camera in someone’s face is not abnormal.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
FT: I started shooting film in 2018, and things escalated quickly. I have a colleague who lent me my first film camera, a Hasselblad 203FE, and I took a darkroom class at a local arts organization to learn how to develop and print myself.
The first time I went through the process of shooting, developing and printing a roll of black and white film I was hooked. The exhilaration of knowing that so many things could go wrong somewhere along the way, but then pulling out a roll of solid negatives, or producing a solid print is unlike anything I had experienced before in photography. I loved slowing down the process, having a tangible, touchable product in the end, and the pictures had a timeless, historic feel to them which I immediately fell in love with.
What keeps me going is how I feel like analogue photography opens so many creative doors that I didn’t know existed, and when you go into one door it leads you to even more. It makes you look at things from a different perspective, and has made me a far better and more deliberative photographer along the way.
I had started shooting black and white exclusively, but then drifted into color which led me to things like the purple-tinted film Lomography produces.
As I was shooting the Hasselblad on Capitol Hill, a photographer friend of mine mentioned he was offloading a bunch of his 4×5 stuff and wanted to know if I was interested. I bought all three of his 4×5 cameras off him, including the Speed Graphic which I use to shoot most of the large format stuff I do on the Hill. That led me to Jason Lane, who produces glass dry plates which I’ve shot both on and off the Hill.
I love the idea of using the processes that people used while documenting life and news events in the past, and trying to apply them now. If they were able to make it work back then, why can’t I now? It’s a challenge that I put on myself that sometimes doesn’t work, I miss shots that I would normally be able to get if I was shooting digital, but when it does work it’s unbelievably rewarding.
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
FT: I remember as a child I would look at the ‘Best Pictures of the Year’ features that different outlets would do and just marvel at the work, thinking to myself that I wanted to be able to tell a story with a single photo like that.
But it’s close to impossible to list all the photographers who have influenced me along the way. I first started to seriously take pictures while I was living in Haiti after the earthquake that hit that country, and Ben Depp and Allison Shelley were good friends and huge influences on me early on. While working on the Hill I’m surrounded by some of the best photojournalists in the world, and I draw inspiration from each and every one of them.
Additionally, Geoffrey Berliner at the Penumbra Foundation opened my eyes to older techniques of photography and the importance of the history of the medium, and recently I’ve met and got to know both Louie Palu and David Burnett, who still shoot film as photojournalists and their work is incredibly inspiring. Pete Williams, who is the NBC News Justice Correspondent (and the person who lent me the Hasselblad) is an amazing photographer and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the mechanics of photography and developing and printing film. He’s been my sherpa through all this.
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
FT: Very much so, I regularly use a Fuji x100f, and I still love that camera, the images it makes, and the ability to turn around pictures almost instantaneously. My camera choice day-to-day is largely dependent on the flexibility I need, the light available, or if I have a particular vision for how I want to capture a moment. I haven’t found that shooting film has turned me off of shooting digital, but it’s made me a better digital photographer.
Sometimes it makes sense to shoot medium format black and white film, other times it makes sense to go all-in and try to nail one shot with the Speed Graphic on a glass plate, and other times the flexibility and speed of using my Fuji makes that the right camera for the situation. I try not to overthink it, that decision-making process can be a paralyzing one if you let it be. I love all facets of photography, and in my opinion a good picture is a good picture no matter how it was taken.
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?
FT: I very much rely on available light for the pictures I take now, which is great, but I’m currently working to learn how to use artificial light sources. To that end, portraiture is what I’d like to focus on next, and is something I’ve never really practised before.
Also, using the glass dry plates, as well as my interactions with tintype portrait artists like Geoffrey, have me super curious about going down a wetplate rabbit hole, but I’m not quite sure I’m there yet.
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
FT: People. I love the idea of capturing a moment in time that will never be repeated, and I find that people generate those moments more than places. I also like the idea of having a picture of someone that makes you wonder what brought that person to that moment, and where they went from there.
I’m not critical of anyone’s preferred subject matter, I just find pictures with people in them to be more emotive and dynamic. Alternatively, I’d love to be able to shoot a scenic shot with the emotion and feeling that Sally Mann’s work in the south has, so I could see that focus shifting.
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?
FT: If a film assignment was sprung on me like that I’d likely take the Hasselblad 203FE with the 80mm f/2.8 Planar lens. That camera/lens combo takes such beautiful pictures, and I’ve grown to love the square format. It also has a light meter in the camera, which makes it a great camera in grab-and-go situations.
As for film stocks, I’d take Kodak T-MAX 400 and Portra 400. I use Tri-X when I’m shooting 35mm, but the first roll of film I ever bought was T-MAX for the Hasselblad, and I’ve used it ever since when shooting medium format. Something about the tonal range just fits for me, and I still get the contrast because I typically push it to 1600 when I’m shooting in the dingy halls of the Capitol.
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?
FT: I think I’d go with the Graflex Speed Graphic since I think there’s so much more to explore when it comes to that camera and what it can shoot. I’m also in the process of coupling a 7” Aero Ektar to a Speed Graphic (using the step-by-step on this website, actually), and feel like that’s gonna keep me busy for a long time.
As for where I’d go, man, that’s a tough one! Can I pick a state? How about California? Not only does it have interesting people to shoot, but if I’m feeling like putting on my Ansel Adams hat I can head over to Yosemite.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
This is so sad! I’d probably take a box of ILFORD HP5 PLUS in 4×5, and take portraits of my family and friends with the Speed Graphic. Then I’d put them all into a book and give them all a copy.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
FT: I think the biggest misconception I’ve faced about film photography is that it’s not something that is readily available and used by people around the world. To be honest, I think I set that straight simply by using film and sharing my work. I get a lot of people asking where you even buy film nowadays, or where I get it developed, and just answering those questions helps people realize that the film medium is very much alive.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
FT: Oh god, I hope it’s bright. Even in the past 2 years it seems to have blossomed in ways that backs up the whole ‘film is not dead’ mantra. And to be honest, what gives me the most hope is the community that is so passionate about the craft.
It’s truly awesome how supportive others are when you simply have a question about how they scanned their negatives, or what kind of tank you’re using to develop. Analogue photography is an art for curious people who like to learn and try new things, and I wouldn’t be doing the stuff I’m doing now if it hadn’t been for the support and encouragement of the people I’ve met along the way.
Finally, what advice would you give to someone just getting started, or thinking about jumping into film photography?
FT: What every single one of the best photographers I know has drilled into my head is the importance of studying and understanding the work of those who have come before me. While I’m a strong believer of developing your own eye and not just replicating previous work, that advice has been so important in broadening my understanding of how you can capture an image, either on film, wet plate, digital, or something I don’t even know exists yet.
Also, if you’re thinking about starting to shoot film, my biggest recommendation would be to either take a class or teach yourself how to develop film on your own. It’s stressful at first, but it’s so unbelievably rewarding once you get the hang of it, and it’s allowed me to be able to develop at home during this whole pandemic.
A lot of people have a lot to say about photographic education, be it practical or theoretical, process or art. There seems to be a rise in the idea that informal education is better than being stiffly told how to do X or why Y should be appreciated as a “good photograph. While I agree, in part with that sentiment — I’m self-taught for what it’s worth — there’s incredible value in learning and understanding what’s come before. Frank encapsulates that perfectly in his note:
“What every single one of the best photographers I know has drilled into my head is the importance of studying and understanding the work of those who have come before me. While I’m a strong believer of developing your own eye and not just replicating previous work, that advice has been so important in broadening my understanding of how you can capture an image, either on film, wet plate, digital, or something I don’t even know exists yet.”
Of course, the nature of EMULSIVE is to put forward ideas and let you, the reader, be the judge — aside from the topic of “120mm film“. However, I’ve got to put my foot down a little here and ask those of you shaking your heads if you truly believe that taking time to look back, appreciate and learn from what’s come before is time better spent doing something else. Let me know your thoughts.
There’s so much more going on here at EMULSIVE, so if it’s your first time here, please stick around for a while. To all the regular readers (hello again), you’ll have noticed a slight drop in output since the beginning of the month. Well, things are insanely busy for me (in a good way) so for the moment, “normal” service of one article per day has been resumed.
Have fun, stay safe and 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.