It’s wonderful to be able to introduce you today to the wonderful work of film photographer and musician, John Michael Caldwell.
Over to you, John!
Hi John, what’s this picture, then?
JMC: This is a photo of my wife, Alexis while we were in Dripping Springs, Texas a few years ago. We had just moved to Baton Rouge, LA so she could attend Veterinary School at the university. We’ve taken several trips back because it’s a great place to visit near Austin, Texas where you can hike, meet great people, and have some decent barbecue.
This was our first trip to the area and stayed on a great piece of land owned by a couple that had about 16 goats wondering around the land. I also really enjoy the shapes of the trees but couldn’t tell you their names.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
JMC: I’m a 29 year old kid who still feels fairly uncertain about his future. I’m an aspiring film/TV music composer and Alexis and I are moving to Los Angeles after she graduates so I can pursue that goal. Currently I work as an in-house Audio Engineer at a large Christian television broadcast network.
I studied music education in college, but it didn’t take and left with a semester of school left. Some people would say that’s a pretty dumb move but certain things weren’t lining up and I still had no inclination to teach.
Over the past 5 years photography and film photography have become a much bigger part of my life. Enough for me to consider myself an amateur, I think. I spent time learning how to develop my negatives and scan and process them but then realized that it was taking over my life so I have to take a step back from developing and started sending my rolls to a lab.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
JMC: I started shooting film in 2012, I think. I assisted an engineer at a recording studio the year before who got me into DSLR’s and filmmaking for the studio. Once I left the studio my dad noticed I was keeping up with photography and filmmaking and that it was turning into something more than a fad, so he gave me a few of his dad’s cameras that he had kept in his closet over the years. They were a Hasselblad 500CM with three Zeiss lenses, a Nikon FA with two lenses, a Rollei 35S that needs a bit of cleaning still, and several light meters and other paraphernalia.
Inheriting these cameras really got me interested in shooting film. It’s not even something I considered until I had these in my possession. And I slowly became more enamoured with the film process. It’s like using tape during a recording session, it’s not that it’s necessarily better or worse but it’s the smell, the spooling and unspooling, challenge of limitations, and the knowledge that comes with having to learn how to use it.
That’s what keeps me shooting. That and I keep buying film cameras and feel guilty sometimes when I don’t use them.
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
JMC: I think family, friends, and my relationships with people have influenced my photography the most. That’s all I really shoot.
I rarely ever shoot strangers. It’s just not something I’m ever comfortable with. I do bring a camera with me just about everywhere, though. I like to look at other photographer’s work and certain photojournalist’s and fashion photographers certainly influence my photography but it’s not the same as just going out and just shooting for the love of shooting. I’m also a bit of an introvert but I love going out and doing things so I think holding a camera gives me an excuse not to engage sometimes.
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
JMC: I am. I always keep my digital camera in my bag but I also always keep an Olympus XA in my bag, as well. It’s normally loaded with ILFORD HP5 PLUS. If I think I can shoot the subject on film then I’ll go for that first. If I think I’m going to have a harder time or if I’m just being lazy I’ll pull out the digital. I love my digital camera too, though, and I always have just as much fun shooting with it.
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?
JMC: There’s a lot I’d love to accomplish in twelve months. I’ve always been interested in alternative photography techniques like carbon transfers and that’s something I’ve been meaning to start for a while. I already have the materials just not the time.
I’d also like to step out of my comfort zone and actually start a project like documenting someone interesting, something that could be considered a collection or a series. I love taking photos of people doing what they love but I’ve never really taken that first step of making it happen so that’s something I’d like to focus on.
As for techniques, a little bit of everything. When you look at my photographs you can tell that I’m not a technical person. When I get my scans back from the lab I don’t do much to them.
I’d describe myself as a point and shoot photographer that knows a tiny bit about the basics. It’s something I’m always reminding myself to work on but sometimes I just get too excited to shoot and I forget to apply the things I’ve learned.
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
JMC: People are always the subjects I like. And I probably (almost) always shoot monochrome underexposed – for some reason I like that. I’ve tried landscapes, buildings, and the abstract but getting photos of people always satisfies me the most.
You might be interested in...
I love looking at other photographer’s images of those things but when it comes to my photography I’m always disappointed in what I get. And it’s probably because I don’t know what I’m doing when I’m shooting but so far nothing has satisfied me more.
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?
JMC: I’d probably pick up my Nikon F3 with the 50mm f/1.4 lens and a roll of ILFORD HP5 PLUS and Kodak Portra 400.
I know that camera really well and I typically always shoot ILFORD HP5 PLUS. I know that I’m going to get usable results. I’d bring the Portra just in case there was a scene with good colors that needed capturing but that’s the only reason I’d take it, I think. I’m still figuring out color film.
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?
JMC: I’d probably take some Kodak Portra 400 to Sri Lanka to shoot. I’d spend time travelling to parts of the country that I didn’t get to see before, meeting new people, and just learning more about culture altogether. Sri Lanka has some great colors to capture and that’s why I’d choose Portra over ILFORD HP5 PLUS.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
JMC: This is kind of a hard question to answer because I haven’t experimented with lots of different films. And I’ve stayed in the monochrome realm for a long time because I would develop my own film and I could never get good results when developing and scanning color myself. So, I’d probably pick ILFORD HP5 PLUS because I love the way it looks. Especially when it’s pushed. I’d try to make the shots count and capture my family and friends just hanging out mostly.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
JMC: I think most people think that film photography is harder than digital. I certainly thought this when I first started. I was a bit apprehensive to try it, especially with the Hasselblad. I couldn’t imagine trying to take photos with a camera that required me to use a handheld light meter. But once I picked up the Nikon FA I realized that you could rely on the camera’s built-in meter.
That’s kind of where I built my confidence and learned about exposure. If you can sit yourself down for an hour or two at some point to learn a bit about exposure then you’ll have no trouble at all and it only get’s easier. Plus, shooting with film has only helped my digital game.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
JMC: Oh man. Well, we’re starting to see more new films being developed, more old warehouses being bought, and new labs popping up. I think as the availability of film becomes greater more younger photographers will start trying it out and hopefully liking it enough to stick with it.
Most likely, film photography will always be available as long as there is someone to buy it. And as much as I love it I wouldn’t want to see it take over digital. Moving backwards is never a good plan.
~ John Michael Caldwell
A massive thanks to Michael for stepping up. After two and a half years of doing these interviews, you might think that everything that could be said has been, and every “type” of film photographer out there has had his or her say. You couldn’t be more wrong.
The different perspectives provided us by the lives we have led mean that even two people growing up in the same town at the same time will have different approaches to their photography and motivations for continuing – regardless of medium.
Thank you for continuing to read these pieces and thank you for continuing to submit!
You can find John over on Twitter, his photography website and his dedicated professional composing website. Please do make sure you check him out.
I’ll be back next week with more fresh perspectives but in the meantime, please take a minute to check out this week’s articles so far: Olli Thompson’s Plustek Opticfilm 8200i SE film scanner review, the community-voted winner of November 2017’s DeltaDefJam and Daphne Schnitzer’s 5 Frames with… shot on Kodak Portra 400 and her Zero Image 2000 6×6 pinhole!
That’s all for now but please, 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.
Share your knowledge, story or project
The transfer of knowledge across the film photography community is the heart of EMULSIVE. You can add your support by contributing your thoughts, work, experiences and ideas to inspire the hundreds of thousands of people who read these pages each month. Check out the submission guide here.
If you like what you're reading you can also help this passion project by heading over to the EMULSIVE Patreon page and contributing as little as a dollar a month. There's also print and apparel over at Society 6, currently showcasing over two dozen t-shirt designs and over a dozen unique photographs available for purchase.