Today we’re sitting down with Mike Fraser, Toronto-based photographer, cancer researcher and all round globe-trotting nice guy.
Mike works in film of all formats, as well as the occasional foray into digital. He has (we think) an incredibly keen eye for detail in shadows. To be clear, that’s not the same as shadow detail.
Moving on, we’ve been wanting to feature Mike for quite some time here. Grab a coffee, tea, or some rum, get comfortable and read c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y.
Over to you, Mike.
Hi Mike, what’s this picture, then?
MF: This photograph is the one I get the most questions about, and I think it really typifies my style.
This photograph was taken in downtown Boston. I had been walking around since very early that morning, and had stopped into a little coffee shop right around the corner from here, and I noticed how the light of the mid-morning was interacting beautifully with the densely-packed buildings. This happens in the financial district of many big cities – Wall Street, the City of London, Bay Street, etc. The highly reflective buildings provide excellent fill light, while the gaps between the buildings themselves create these wonderful areas of stark contrast.
I had a roll of Fuji Provia 100F loaded in my Leica M6 that day; this is my go-to film for these types of sunny mornings, where I can let the naturally high contrast of the film work to my advantage. Many people think that slide film is difficult to work with, and that it’s very easy to blow the highlights. This isn’t strictly true, though. Slide film is meant to be exposed for the highlights, not the shadows. As such, it’s more true that it’s very easy to blow the shadows with slide film. Clearly, that’s what has happened in the photo above; I metered the light areas, and let the shadows clip.
Anyway, I came upon this scene, and I knew right away that there was a picture to be made here. I shot 4-5 exposures, with different people coming into and out of the light, but this was the one that worked. And as it happens, it was also the first one I shot.
This photograph works (I think…) because of the amount of negative space, the precise placement of the man, and the searing red light that comes blaring out of the darkness. I’ve always wondered whether the photograph works better with the blue sky in the upper right, and I’ve printed it both ways.
This week, I like it there, so that’s the version you’re seeing.
Ok, so who are you?
MF: There’s a loaded question! 😉
I’m a 37-year old father (of two), husband (of one), scientist, and, sometimes, street and fine art photographer from Toronto, Canada.
I’m a medical scientist by day; I have a Ph.D. in cellular and molecular biology. My research is focused on decoding the DNA sequence of prostate cancers, so that we can better understand the aetiology of the disease, and why some men get very aggressive disease while others can be completely cured. It’s incredibly fulfilling work, and keeps the intellectual side of my brain fully engaged. It also has the added bonus of necessitating a fair amount of travel, which has allowed me to exercise the artistic side of my brain in some of the most fabulous cities on Earth. I’ve been truly lucky in that regard.
With respect to my photography, my focus has been on fine art photography for the last 4-5 years, with a particular focus on street photography. Early on, I was heavily influenced by the classic street photography of Kertész and Cartier-Bresson, as I think most street photographers are.
However, I quickly found myself gravitating towards less “perfect” works, and more towards the abstract and sometimes cacaphonous compositions of people like Ray Metzker, Aaron Siskind, and especially Joel Meyerowitz, who was (and continues to be) a tremendous influence. His use of colour revolutionized street photography in the late-sixties, and his incredibly varied portfolio (street, landscape, abstract, portraits) has always fascinated me.
About 5 years ago, I discovered Trent Parke, and in particular his colour work. That was a difficult moment for me. He was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing, and doing it far and away better than I could; what was the point of carrying on, when I’d never be able to touch his work?. I’ve often struggled with this conflict my desire to always do better and my knowledge that someone will always be doing something better than me.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter; we all bring our own unique elements to our photography. But after finding Trent Parke, I came as close as I’ve ever been to abandoning street photography altogether.
When did you start shooting film?
MF: I never stopped, to be honest. I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, when film was all we had. At that time I wasn’t shooting seriously, of course, but because all of my childhood and adolescent memories were photographed on film, it was never foreign to me.
I got my first serious digital camera (a Canon 10D) in around 2006, and then messed about with various other cameras for about 4 years. And then at some point in 2009 or 2010, I decided to give film a try; just to see how it compared for the more serious (!) shooting I was doing at the time.
I hated it at first. I now realize that I hated it because I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how to meter film properly, and everything was coming out muddy. I gave it up for a year or so, but the few successful frames I shot in that first go around kept me interested. There was a look to those shots that just spoke to me. So I did my research and eventually sold my DSLR (a Canon 5D Mark II) and bought a Leica M6, which was better suited to my street photography anyway.
Once I got that Leica, there was no going back. Through trial and error, I learned how to shoot successfully on film, and over time I just stopped shooting digital altogether. And today, all of my street and fine art photography on film; 35mm, medium format, and large format. And I’ve never enjoyed photography more.
What about now, why do you shoot film and what drives you to keep shooting?
MF: I shoot film for two very simple reasons: I like the way film looks and I like classic film cameras.
It has absolutely nothing to do with not liking digital photography. I own a digital camera, and I use it every day to make photographs of my kids and my family. It’s brilliant for that. To me, digital offers one key advantage over film: speed. For a lot of photographers, speed is paramount. I totally get that; people should work in the medium that satisfies their needs. But in every respect that matters to me, digital offers no compelling advantage to film. And since I like the way film looks, then why not stick to that medium, right?
Second, the cameras. A lot of people will tell you that a camera is just a light tight box with a lens on one end. But the truth is that, for me, the camera, and the entire process of making the photograph, is as integral to why I love photography as is the final photograph itself. The buttery smoothness of the film advance on a Leica MP. The solid “clunk-clunk” of the shutter release on a Hasselblad. The “so-real-you-think-you-can-touch-it” image on the ground glass of a large format camera. I firmly believe that when the process is more enjoyable, the end product is better.
And then there’s large format. ‘Nuff said.
The understanding that, at this very moment, great photographs are going un-made. And the desire to do better than I did yesterday. Like anyone else, I have days when I just don’t want to shoot. That’s normal. But when I put those two concepts together just right, I find it impossible to not shoot. There’s just too many great photographs out there for me to sit idly by.
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When I’m just out and about in the city, buying groceries or whatever, I’ll constantly see potential photographs emerge. I don’t always carry a camera with me (it’s just not practical when I’m out with the kids), but frankly, it doesn’t matter. That experience of knowing that a great photographic opportunity has presented itself is what drives me. It tells me that no matter how many photographs I make, there are always more photographs to be made. And I want to make them.
Any favourite subject matter?
MF: People. Not portraits per se, but people in their environment. I love to examine the subtleties of human interaction with the urban environments they’ve constructed.
To see the interaction between light, shadow, and human movement, and to photograph the precise instant where all of those elements coalesce…that to me is where the action is. Where the heat is, so to speak.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll?
MF: Provia 100F. 120. Shot on the Mamiya 7 with the 43 f/4.5; aka, the greatest lens in the world. I don’t know what I’d shoot with it, but I know it would look incredible.
You have 2 minutes to prepare for an assignment. One camera, one lens, two films and no idea of the subject matter. What do you take with you and why?
MF: Easy: the Hasselblad with the Zeiss 80 2.8 Planar. While the image quality from my Mamiya 7 is better – and I reach for this camera when absolute IQ is the priority – the Hasselblad/Zeiss is a potent combination. f/2.8 is enough to shoot in almost any reasonable light, and the 6×6 format is so versatile.
As for films, I’d take Portra 400 and Tri-X. Because there is nothing you can’t do with those two films. They push beautifully, and can give almost any look you desire.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
MF: It’s a toss-up between New York City and Hong Kong. I’d probably just show up at the airport and flip a coin.
New York City. You could make an entire career out of just Manhattan. Hell, you could make an entire career out of just 5th Avenue. If you can’t make a good street photograph in New York City, you can’t make one anywhere. The energy is palpable.
Hong Kong is just madness. The mixture of the traditional Chinese culture and the British influence produces a city that is unlike any other. It has the energy of New York, but always feels like it’s about to come unhinged. The other great thing about shooting in Hong Kong is that no one seems to care about what you’re doing. There’s no timidity in Hong Kong.
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography and how would you set it straight
MF: By far the biggest misconception is that it’s expensive. It’s not. Yes, there are ongoing costs to film, whereas digital is free once you’ve bought the equipment. Then again, I’ve got film cameras that are over 50 years old (Leica M3 and M2), and still work flawlessly, and will go on doing so indefinitely, given a modicum of care and maintenance. If you can amortize the cost of a film camera – even a top-end one such as a Leica or a Hasselblad – over 50 or 60 years, then the camera becomes nearly free to own. Plus, in many cases, these cameras can be had for pennies on the dollar of what they originally cost. Film itself isn’t cheap, but if you know where to look, and if you learn to develop your own film (B&W and colour…both super easy and cheap), the cost is kept to a minimum.
You also tend to shoot a lot less with film than with digital – that is, you become more selective in when you release the shutter. So the keeper rate goes up (I’ve yet to meet anyone whose keeper rate didn’t go up when they started shooting film).
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
MF: I think film has a very bright future, but only in a marketplace that has adapted to the real demand for film.
The old way of doing things; large batches of film produced to meet high demand, is simply not tenable in 2015. The marketplace needs to be become more highly focused on a small number of high quality products, coming from a small number of companies with film production pipelines that are in line with actual demand. In its heyday, Kodak was producing, by my count, more than 20 different film stocks, all in various formats. 35mm, 120, 220, 4×5, 8×10, and beyond. Portra 160 and 400 in multiple flavours, numerous reversal and B&W films, tungsten-balanced films, and so on. Obviously, the market for this variety of film no longer exists.
But what can exist is a marketplace of smaller players – including Kodak and Fujifilm – producing films to meet demand. Kodak’s film production future is largely tied to the motion picture industry, and all current signs suggest that a reasonable number of Hollywood filmmakers will continue to use Kodak film for years to come. This should keep Kodak in the still film photography market for some time. Fujifilm is downsizing their product line, as they should. As of now, they’re the only maker of reversal films left, at least until Ferrania begin production.
Other niche players have a role to play, as well. Ilford has always been the champion of B&W photography, and they seem to have a business model that is compatible with the new realities of the film market. CineStill is an interesting product. They’re dependent on Kodak, of course, but they’re producing a great product at a reasonable price. Ferrania is, to me, one of the most important metrics for the future of film photography, since they’re a new player in the market. If they can successfully bring out a high quality product at a reasonable price, I think that will be a very good omen for film’s future.
~ Mike Fraser
And there we have it, thanks Mike.
I’ll get this off my chest quickly. I love slide film. Not just by way of a passing flirtation; I am head-over-heels in love with it.
Shoot slide film in a relatively uniform-lit environment and you’ll be watching your exposure in order to get the most out of the highlights. Shoot it in even a slightly high-contrast setting and you’ve got a recipe for amazing shadows and can create the kind of isolation we see in some of Mike’s images above.
“Emerging”, “Void” and “Oblivion” all make me feel simultaneously uncomfortable, as well as pique a curiosity about what was left lurking in the shadows. Wonderful stuff.
Mike is a constant source of sardonic wit and beautiful images via both his Twitter stream and website. I’d strongly suggest you go follow him…now.
Ok, that’s all from us for another day. We’ll be back soon with another peek into another film photographer’s mind and process.
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.