Darkroom lab owner, photographer, printer and workshop host, Lina Bessonova is one of the busiest interviewees I’ve had on so far this year. It’s a pleasure to be able to finally feature her on these pages, so when you’re ready, grab a drink and get stuck in.
Over to you, Lina.
Hi Lina, what’s this picture, then?
LB: Back in 2017 I took a 10-day Vipassana course, during which you meditate 6 – 8 hours daily, prohibited to speak, write, read, listen to music, use your phone, and photograph. I did sneak in my camera though, and around the ninth day couldn’t resist the urge to document my experience anymore. Luckily, no one understood what was that weird metal box I was carrying around, and my little rebellion passed unnoticed.
In this image is the door to my room and a shadow of a chair, which I’ve been sitting on in silence every day between meditation sessions.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
LB: Happiest workaholic, doing what I can’t live without.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
LB: Eight years ago, and it was love at first roll. I mean, the first roll was ruined, but it didn’t prevent love from happening. Just like my first horrible prints were still pure magic, which I wanted to continue experiencing.
Currently, my main drive is the process of darkroom work. It’s an amazing form of craft, and I want more people to discover it, be unafraid, try things and ultimately enjoy it as much as I do.
I get the biggest support from the online analog community. It’s easy to feel alone in the darkroom and hard to find someone as committed to printing in the same geographical area. Yet every time I encounter a problem or just share my process, I get an unbelievable amount of great advice, positive feedback and genuine interest.
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
LB: For a long time, I had been doubting whether analog photography could be an actual job. The only example was my first photography professor, Francesco Arese Visconti, who was teaching photography, travelling for projects, doing research and publishing books – in large format too! I was lucky to have been an assistant during some of his documentary projects, which ultimately convinced me to give photography a serious go. Now he is pursuing a PhD in Photography, and guess what I’m seriously tempted to do too!
Another important experience was being a professor’s assistant during my MFA.
Helping students achieve beautiful results felt incredibly rewarding. There was nothing in the world that ever made me happier, not even my own prints. And all the imaginable issues, mistakes and solutions I encountered were most valuable for eventually teaching my own workshops.
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
LB: If I don’t shoot film, I either don’t shoot at all or use my iPhone for generic Instagrammable scenes. I would love to mix photography with painting though! I just need to figure out how various paints affect image stability and archival qualities.
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?
LB: I already tried with really great results, and I’m dying to do more of analog photomontage. No cutting negatives, no taping prints and making a master negative, none of that. Just printing from two negatives and two enlargers. I only now finally have the equipment for doing it consistently and properly, and all that’s needed is free time!
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
LB: My hugest inspiration is abstract art. The rhythm of lines and forms, the subtlety of textures, deep meaning behind simplicity. One of my favourite paintings ever has three lines and two white squares on a white background. To me, this is the epitome of purity and beauty.
So, in my imagery, I look for really simple everyday things, and if through printing I get to render them a little abstract and unrecognisable, it makes me really happy. I also like printing light, because it’s showing everything even in the deepest shadows… and revealing nothing at the same time.
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?
LB: Mamiya 7ii, 65mm lens, ILFORD HP5 PLUS film. With the film size, amount of frames and lens angle and sharpness, you can do anything from reportage to portraits to still life. HP5 PLUS film is not my favourite, but it’s known to be the most forgiving, responding very well to pushing and pulling. So I’m choosing it just in case I’m in a dark location and have to shoot handheld at EI 1600.
I could take one color roll just in case… but almost anything can work in black and white, and no one would commission me to shoot color anyway!
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?
LB: I’d go travel around Russia, if I have to narrow it down to a region, it would be the Caucasus. Gorgeous wild nature, mountains, horses, amazing people, Soviet architecture and a ton of social issues for potential documentaries. I would go with my 8×10 camera, and I’m open to film brands, so just in case there is a company willing to sponsor that endeavour, I won’t say no to a truck of some fine grain 400 ISO film.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
LB: I have enough negatives to keep me entertained printing for the rest of my life. You can play around with toning, combine different series, make a photomontage, paint on prints, do installations… And then you can use found negatives too!
I could ask people to send me their bad shots… So many options! So I don’t think I need a last roll, I could stop shooting right now.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
LB: That there is some universally perfect camera, lens, film, developer, paper or paper developer, that will guarantee you great results. Nothing will give you that guarantee except a lot of experience, so eventually, someone with a basic cheap camera and an old terrible enlarger can make prints with more expressive power than a person expecting the expensive supplies to do the work.
It’s a bit like barely talking to your wife, but buying her luxurious gifts based on what a generic woman is supposed to like. She will be (hopefully) grateful and perform as a good spouse but don’t expect her to truly love you. Until you make an emotional commitment, stop hiding behind the (lack of) perfect equipment, and start giving your all, photography won’t love you back either.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
LB: There is a rise of interest, but will it continue or decline again? Is it just a cool trend or a long-term phenomenon that will live for generations to come? We can’t look into the future, but we surely can do our best to secure a bright one for the medium we enjoy so much.
As a partially reformed suffered of GAS, Lina’s answer in the penultimate question, really resonated with me:
“That there is some universally perfect camera, lens, film, developer, paper or paper developer, that will guarantee you great results. Nothing will give you that guarantee except a lot of experience, so eventually, someone with a basic cheap camera and an old terrible enlarger can make prints with more expressive power than a person expecting the expensive supplies to do the work.”
I see people showing off newly acquired gear as if it’s some kind of silver bullet to their photographic woes every single day and as much as I hope that Lina’s sentiment above sinks in, I know that most (afflicted) people reading this will scoff and move on.
A word of advice: don’t!
Different gear my help you to see/do things differently but it most certainly won’t help you to become a better photographer!
A huge thanks to Lina for taking part. Please do spend a minute to go check out her website and follow her on Instagram and Twitter. I’ll be back with another fresh interviewee in a couple of weeks but until then, please stick around and check out what else has been going on here at EMULSIVE.
As ever, keep shooting, folks.
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