Describing himself as, “barely removed from being a baby-boomer”, I got to know of Robert and his work through the previously featured, Aimee Lower. One thing led to another and here we are today, with a chance to get to learn more about the man and his photography.
Less is more, so enough from me and over to you, Robert.
Hi Robert, what’s this picture, then?
I took this photograph of the Interstate Grain Terminals in Corpus Christi, Texas, in May 2000. It’s part of an ongoing series I’m working on, Concrete Cathedrals. But, while it works very well within the series, when I lined up the image in the waist-level viewfinder, and first saw it on the ground glass, I remember that particular moment, and I really grokked the phrase, “It’s a good day to die.” Because, this type of moment occurs so seldom to a photographer.
It’s not perfection, but rather, the photography gods really lined up everything for me on this shot: I got a perfect balance of sun and clouds, the shadows fell for me just the right way, and the asymmetrical symmetry of the silos and ducts just hit me as I was composing the shot. I had the exact camera (Rolleiflex SL-66), the exact lens (Zeiss Planar 80mm/f2.8), and the exact film (Agfapan APX 25) to transform the scene into what was in my head. I only had to wait about fifteen minutes for the clouds to be “just so.”
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
I am a snapshot photographer and art school dropout who never forgot that snapshots are the most honest essence of photography. I’ve learnt volumes of technical knowledge along the way, but I never for a moment believed that, in order to be thought of as “serious,” I had to unlearn snapshot photography to become an “artist.”
I think knowledge is cumulative and selective, but that killing your own instincts homogenizes your photography, and kills off a part of your photographer’s soul.
When did you start shooting film and what about now? What drives you to keep shooting?
Christmas, 1969. I was four. Santa brought me a Mickey Mouse Instamatic camera, that took 126 cartridge film.
What drives me to keep shooting is that my eyes are always open. I obsess over visual themes, and each one has its own character: I shoot Concrete Cathedrals with the SL-66 and Agfapan 25; I am doing a series of night shots in California on the Hasselblad Xpan and CineStill 800 tungsten film; I have been documenting the Trans Canada Highway on the APX Colorpack III and 669 film (now, Fuji FP-100C).
There is a particular film, camera, and lens suited to each visual theme.
Even with the unfortunate winnowing down of film selection that has transpired over the past decade, there are still a decent number of emulsions out there that can meet the needs of any project a photographer might have. Plus, I began stocking up when Eastman Kodak stopped production of Panatomic-X 32, more than a quarter century and half a lifetime ago.
My Frigidaire is packed to the gills with all sorts of film that’s no longer in production.
Any favorite subject matter?
The towns of Coahuila, a border state in Mexico. It’s very dry, the sunbaked caliche is a pale sort of beige. So, the people who live there compensate for the rather lifeless appearance of the badlands by painting their houses and businesses in festive, primary colors. It is the ideal place to shoot Kodachrome or Fuji Velvia.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll?
Kodak Verichrome Pan 125, in 126 Instamatic format. It was my first roll. I am very sentimental about this film, with which you could never take a bad photo. I learnt to see and think in terms of black-and-white with this film. And, the smell of the foil wrapper and backing paper, when you first open it, is intoxicating.
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?
Nikon FM-3A, Nikkor 50mm/f1.4, Kodak Tri-X Pan 400, and Agfa Optima II 100. I have been a Nikon shooter since I graduated from a Ricoh SLR that took Pentax K-mount lenses. I can do the math in my head, set a depth-of-focus, and shoot intuitively.
It’s the one camera that really feels like an extension of me, rather than a machine I operate. That particular lens gives me the feel, sharpness, and bokeh of a Leica rangefinder.
For years, I obsessed over being able to save up my money for one. Then, one day, this really fast, and beautiful lens comes into my life. You can have your Leica and I’ll keep my money.
The films: Old reliables that work great in any situation, have great exposure latitude, and character in their grain structure (Tri-X) and color curves (Optima II). But, I’m not forgetting my tripod, because there is never a lens and film fast enough that reality isn’t slower than.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
Lisbon, Portugal. I first understood color as a totally different animal to black-and-white photography there, in 1986. There, I was on a very limited supply of cheap 3M film an Army private could afford. I promised myself one day to return, and let my camera just soak up the locales, the street life, the rail lines, the seaside.
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography and how would you set it straight?
That film limits the photographer, and that digital photography is a leap forward in technology over film. It’s not.
There are ways digital equipment and the final product is superior to film, but in other ways, I find digital is more limiting. I shot with Canon and Nikon digital SLRs in the Army for around five years, and I really felt walled-in. I grew up a film shooter.
You might be interested in...
All of a sudden, using having to use one digital camera kit is akin to being forced to use one brand of film, one emulsion, color only, about 4 or 5 different speeds. That is really confining. This was around the time digital “replaced” film. But, if a digital camera is its film sensor, a film camera is a multiplicity of film sensors: So many brands, types (print or transparency film), and ways to develop (even a single roll of Tri-X can potentially be dozens of different rolls of film, depending on developer, adding sodium sulfite, metol, what have you. Some people even tone the negatives in selenium, chromium intensifier – not to mention people who develop film in wine or coffee).
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
Digital photography came along at an interesting time. I do not regret it did – it just isn’t for me.
But, what it did was to suddenly democratize photography even one more level than snapshot photography had in its heydey. That’s a good thing. Now, certainly, there are a lot of wedding and portrait photographers whose business has taken a hit from all these new photogs who fancy themselves “professional,” because all of a sudden, they own a DSLR. And, there is a lot of buyer’s remorse on the part of those people who entrusted their priceless memories to the lowest bidding photographer.
These newly-minted “professionals” aren’t my focus, though – that situation will fix itself at some point. I am overjoyed that the up-and-coming generation of photographers are amateurs. This shouldn’t be confused with poor quality. Orson Welles reminded us that the word’s origin means “someone who loves passionately.” There is an excitement with so many different sorts of photographic media that is palpable. And, it is from that well – the new generation of amateur photograph enthusiasts – we will draw adherents to film photography.
The girl who wants to feel and hold her Instagram photos, gravitates to an art fair, where she buys a secondhand Polaroid camera and a couple packs of film. The young photographer who discovers there’s an actual manual mode on his DSLR will turn off the auto-focus, and turn on his brain – and find there are Nikon F-series, Canon AE-1, and Pentax K-1000 cameras on eBay to be had rather inexpensively.
Look at all the photographers who are getting into medium and large format film photography. It’s very heartening. Because those formats in digital are extremely cost-prohibitive presently, film is by far the more economical choice. And, as we know, if you’ve made that kind of commitment, that’s it: You’re sucked into film photography, and you can’t just settle on one camera. Against your own better judgment, you become a gearhead – but one who uses their gear, and experiments with it, creating new ways to see.
~ Robert L. Jones
“I am overjoyed that the up-and-coming generation of photographers are amateurs. This shouldn’t be confused with poor quality.”
As seasoned photographers — in reality, or in our own opinion — it’s all to easy to look at the work of young, up and coming, or just-getting-started-out photographers, and dismiss it as pointless, useless, messy, ugly, or with any number of unflattering adjectives.
This…snooty attitude of “old work being the best work”, is an aspect of the photography community as a whole (not just film) and needs to stop. Now.
When I first started randomly hitting shutter buttons, it would have been easy for my more learned friends and fellow photographers to balk at my Olympus Trip 35, or first stab at an SLR, whilst eyeing their own Leicas, Hasselblads and other top-shelf cameras, as if those brand names gave them power over me through some inherent quality they believed these magical objects bestowed on their images.
They didn’t and for that I am both proud and lucky.
Not everyone has it so and one quick look at APUG, Photo.net and other internet forums reveals threads with simple questions from new, or inexperienced photographers being turned into slanging matches, flame wars, or going so completely off topic that you see nothing from the OP after the first page of replies.
To save this outro from becoming a lengthy rant better suited to a post of its own, let me say this. If you have someone near you just getting into photography (film, or not), give them a hand, give them your patience and give them your experience (when asked for it). Think back to the way you were supported when you got started out and repeat that process. If you had nothing but negativity around you, then try and give that someone the support you wish you had received.
I believe that we all have a responsibility to support, share and make bonds. You never know where they’ll take you.
You can find out more about Robert’s background, philosophy and work by heading over to his website, www.robertjonesphoto.com. Be sure to drop him a line, there so much more to him than this short, simple interview.
I’ll be back again soon with another film photographer and their take on the medium. In the meantime, 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.
Robert, thanks for your candor and adherence to your vision. Too many people want to be like someone else and in so doing, miss who they’re made to be. Many would scoff at the snapshot photographer, dismissing them as unimaginative and undisciplined. You prove them wrong. Vision takes bravery. Keep up the good work.
“Now, anyone who knows me will tell you my deep-seated loathing for digital photography. To me, it’s cheating — damned if I’m going to just flush thirty-plus years of acquired knowledge of real photography down the drain just because somebody invented a way to mimic photography.”
The rest of the quote:
“But, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’ Which means, don’t let a great photo opportunity pass you by just because you’re a retrograde purist (such as I) standing on ceremony.”
I love your comment. It sums up digital photography for me as well.