Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 178th EMULSIVE interview! Today I have great pleasure in introducing you all to Lisa Toboz. Of course, more than a few of you will already be familiar with the both Lisa’s work and lady herself, so consider this a warm re-introduction.
Over to you, Lisa!
Hi Lisa, what’s this picture, then?
LT: This photo is part of the “Dwell” series, a project I’ve been shooting for the past year while I was undergoing treatment for lymphoma. Because much of my time has been spent either at home or doctors’ offices, my house became a studio and self-portraiture a healing process.
This image in particular, is inspired by a Maya Deren film that I saw years ago in a film class: a woman in black is running through a series of rooms, chasing another woman in black. When she finally catches up to her, the woman turns and her face is a mirror. It’s an image that has haunted me for years. The glitter adds texture to the face and complements the green wall.
It stands for how I feel now when looking in the mirror: so much has changed physically and emotionally, yet there are parts of me I still recognize.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
LT: I’m a writer, reader, Polaroid enthusiast, and collector of many things, mainly books, vintage dresses, and vernacular photography. I love horror films, especially anything supernatural. I love getting in the car with my husband, Jeff, and picking a direction for us to go without plans, and I always take my camera(s).
I was born in Pittsburgh into a working-class family where I was taught that we work to live, not the other way around: the notion of doing photography as a living has never crossed my mind because I think of it as “mine” and I don’t want anyone telling me what to do with it. So I work at an art school evaluating student records, and also do freelance copy editing, which gives me the funds and free time to shoot photos.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
LT: I’ve shot film since 2006, when I decided I wanted to learn the “proper” way, which was darkroom work, developing and printing 35mm. I took a few classes, and became hooked; when I lost darkroom access, I switched to digital for a few years, but missed film, which was when I turned to integral film – the immediacy that you find in digital photography combined with film aesthetic was the perfect marriage for me and I became obsessed.
The Polaroid community is incredibly supportive, creative, and kind – it’s a big reason I’ve been so committed to the medium for over eight years now: the working possibilities with this film, as well as the people who use it has opened worlds for me.
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
LT: Vernacular photography is a huge source of inspiration because the original intention is not usually artistic. After combing through so many discarded old photos in thrift stores and flea markets, I come across a real gem by an anonymous photographer, and it makes me wonder what he or she thought at the time the photo was taken: you can see their “aesthetic eye,” how they viewed the world at that moment – and it’s haunting and beautiful.
The image becomes something else when it’s in another’s hands, and develops another story, another life.
My mother took photos throughout most of her life with the intention of keeping a record of it, almost like a visual diary. She never claimed to be a photographer, but there is something special about the photos that she took where you can see her creative eye – they aren’t typical of the usual “family photo” one sees in nameless albums.
So I’m drawn to these anonymous photos, and lately, vintage “spirit photography” (double exposures, collages). Bertien Van Manen is one of my favorite photographers: Using a snapshot camera, she works in a deliberate vernacular style that comes across quite effortless – looking at her work is like peeking into a journal.
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
LT: These days, it’s Polaroid film and my iPhone. I use the iPhone when I don’t have my Polaroid camera(s) with me, but often I take an iPhone photo and try to recreate that image or moment on Polaroid film. So the iPhone often serves as a “test shot” for the Polaroid images.
Some days aren’t conducive for Polaroid film (rainy ones being one of them, and that happens often in Pittsburgh), but the itch to take photos is always there; I find it quickest to scratch with a smartphone and make notes for film shots later.
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?
LT: This past year, I had the honor of being part of the 12.12 Project, an instant film arts collective which created images interpreting a monthly theme. One requirement, in addition to rendering a concept, was also using a different technique: emulsion lift, double exposure, mixed media, transparencies: I was continually amazed at the work the group produced throughout the year, expanding the definition of “photograph.”
I dabbed a little in mixed media, but this year I’d like to try long exposures with my Polaroid cameras (night photography), continue using mixed media with Polaroid film (acrylics and glitter), and double exposures – I always have a soft spot for them.
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
LT: When travelling, I’m drawn to old signs and any retro architecture; when home, I love to photograph the light in my house and also engage in self-portraiture as both therapy and storytelling. I love bold color, and am drawn to negative space. Mirror shots jumpstart creativity. I’ve been using the same round silver mirror in my work for over 12 years and joke that I could probably just make a photo book based on that one piece. Mirrors are cousins to cameras – I love their mystery, and I use them often as imagination portals.
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?
LT: My Polaroid SLR680, which is my instant film workhorse camera, along with Polaroid 600 Color and Polaroid 600 Blue Duochrome films. The 600-color film is the more practical choice, but the 600 Duochrome is something of a gamble: the blue film really lends a cinematic quality that could transform even a can of beans into an object of mysterious beauty. I love it, so the risk would be worth it.
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?
LT: I’d take my Polaroid SLR680 with 600 film and photograph Slovenia. My friend Tamara lives there, and we met as pen pals when we were young girls, so I feel a connection to the country that I wouldn’t have otherwise if it weren’t for our unique friendship. On my previous travels there, Tamara showed me not only the beauty of coastal Piran and the Julian Alps, but the beauty of her family life as well: I’d love to return to photograph her grandmother’s kitchen, and the light falling across the table – it’s an image I never took, but will always remember, and Polaroid film would give that moment the soft focus and colors of memories.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
LT: My last film cartridge would be Polaroid Originals Spectra. Which would give me only 8 shots to get those last images right. Spectra film has rich colors and detail and the Spectra camera is super-handy for double exposures and self-portraiture, and sturdy enough to withstand the elements.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
LT: Most people think using integral film is “easy” to use, especially with a lot of the old Polaroid point-and-shoot cameras. But the film is finicky, and one still has to know basic photographic principles in order to get a decent, consistent shot (although sometimes your film fails you despite all odds – but we diehards will somehow make that failure work!). It helps to know your camera’s quirks too. Patience when working with Polaroid – or any film – is key.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
LT: It’s encouraging to see that over the years, the film community has only grown, with people of all ages dedicated to shooting all kinds of film – that there are others like me who are just as nutty about it as I am. I still see it as a niche part of contemporary photography, but hopeful that it’s here to stay.
A huge thanks to Lisa, and also to you for reading. I love this comment from Lisa:
“Most people think using integral film is “easy” to use, especially with a lot of the old Polaroid point-and-shoot cameras. But the film is finicky, and one still has to know basic photographic principles in order to get a decent, consistent shot…”
Am I the only person who’s always thought integral film is finicky from the very start? 😉 In all seriousness, I’ve always found it troublesome to get accurate, consistent results with integral instant photography and seeing work like the kind Lisa has shared here always leaves me in a bit of awe.
I’m not sure I’ll take the leap back to instant photography with both feet just yet but you never know, I might try to burn my way through a couple of boxes this coming summer.
Keeping the theme of fortnightly interviews, you can expect to see the next fresh interviewee towards the beginning of May. In the meantime, I’ve got something fun planned for you all next Wednesday.
That’s me for now, so as ever, Keep shooting, folks!
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