We’ve got a bit of a treat for you today; the photography and thoughts of Ryan Neilan. Ryan’s currently living and working in Vietnam and he’s here to show us some of his fantastically gritty street and live music photography.
There are details of Ryan’s current exhibition at the bottom of the page but first, we’ll make some space for him to tell you all about why he shoots film.
Over to you, Ryan.
Hi Ryan, what’s this picture, then?
This is actually a picture of a picture. Or more precisely, a picture of the contact/index sheet for the very first roll of film I ever shot, back in 1999.
A friend’s band were playing in a local community center and a friend of the family had given us a camera. I don’t recall the model or the film used but I decided to dub myself their official photographer.
It took two days to get the pictures back and I was so disappointed when these are what I was left with. I had no idea about film speeds, aperture, shutter speed etc. They even had those big stickers telling you that your picture was terrible on almost every print. Which was nice.
Deflated as I was, this definitely pushed me to want to learn why the pictures turned out like this. So that’s what I did.
Ok, so who are you?
I’m a 28 year old photographer born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, now living and working in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I’ve been based here in Saigon for close to four years now. My day job is as an English teacher, teaching adults in a language center. In my free time I like to take photos, come up with and forget ideas for projects and books.
When did you start shooting film and what about now? Why do you shoot film and what drives you to keep shooting?
I really began to seriously learn about and shoot film one summer when I was about fifteen or sixteen. I signed up for an intro to photography course run in a local art college. I fell in love with the darkroom then; the smells of the chemicals, the peace and quiet.
After secondary school (high school) I spent a year doing a portfolio course, learning more about film and darkroom techniques, as well as really introducing me to a lot of photographers I still admire today, like Eugene Smith and Wee Gee. After that, I went on to do a B.A in Photographic Media and the whole first year was spent shooting film.
I only began to shoot film again back in October 2015. I had spent the better part of three years not enjoying photography anymore, feeling uninspired. And I wasn’t sure why.
When I first moved to Vietnam there was no darkroom in Ho Chi Minh City. But in October 2015, I found one. It had been open about a year and I drove over and bought their very last roll of Kodak Tri-X 400.
I shot it that night and the pictures were awful. My camera, a Phenix DC303N was a piece of junk with an even worse lens on the front. But I was hooked again.
So with a vacation from work coming up in November I decided to take some savings to Japan and invest in a new camera and now here I am, five months and seventy plus rolls of film later. I also sold my digital camera while in Japan. So now I only shoot film.
The reason I love shooting film is the look first of all. I spent a lot of wasted hours trying to recreate film grain etc., in Photoshop.
Also the process. It’s very freeing not being able to look at an LCD, fiddle with pages of options etc. I even enjoy those longer moments when I have to wind and reload film. Sure you see some shots while you’re doing it but I don’t let it get to me. Just enjoy the process.
I just shoot how I feel. In the beginning I was worried as my camera has no meter but it was like riding a bike. Very quickly I got used to metering in my head again.
I’m a big fan of the ‘Are, Bure, Boke’ style, and Daido Moriyama is a big influence on me. Shooting film, for me, suits this aesthetic perfectly. When I shot digital I was totally obsessed with pixel peeping and anything not totally sharp got tossed out. Now I just go with the flow.
What’s the next challenge…your next step? How do you see improving your technique, or what aspect of your photography would you like to try and master in the next 12 months?
The next challenge for me is to start working on a series based here in Ho Chi Minh City as well as a series on Shanghai.
Recently I’ve also started to get back into shooting live music, which has certainly been a challenge to shoot on film. But I would like to put together another exhibition focusing on live music here in Saigon. Over the last few years the music scene here has really exploded.
Having recently gotten back into photography, and having set up a website, a Facebook page etc., something I’ve realised is that there are a lot of people who are interested and trying to get into photography. And they send me messages.
‘What camera should I get? What lens? What settings should I use?’
And a part of me is happy to answer and give my opinions and advice. And a yet a part of me wants to say ‘Fuck what camera. Just get something and shoot. Get a camera, a kit lens and look at work. And shoot, a lot.’ There’s no short cut to this. I’m not a great photographer. I’m not a good photographer. And honestly I don’t believe I ever will be. But shooting excites me.
Something I do, people like. And that’s a nice feeling.
Will I ever be rich from this? Hell no. Will I be satisfied that I tried? I hope so.
As for my technique? Well, I’m happy with it. I shoot how I feel. It changes day to day. The results are questionable. But that’s what makes it interesting. I really found my niche shooting music and got a good response (from the artists at least), and so it’s been interesting shooting music again, especially on film.
Shooting music has a certain energy to it. You’re so limited between lighting and everything else. You have to make it work.
When it comes to technique, my biggest hurdle is processing and scanning myself. This is purely a financial issue though. We’ll get there. I’m excited to explore stand development.
Any favorite subject matter?
People. I mean I live in Saigon. It has ten million people to photograph. I was never particularly interested in landscape or nature or macro. It just didn’t excite me.
I like people. Whether they’re doing something noteworthy and intriguing or something utterly mundane, I love making pictures of people. Which is strange in a way as I’m not the most outgoing people person you’ll ever meet.
Rarely will I talk to or even acknowledge the people I’m photographing. In fact I tend to walk and move and shoot so quickly that they rarely get a chance to say anything to me anyway.
I also love cities. Whether it’s the bustling back streets of Saigon or the more orderly and well kept streets of Tokyo, if there’s noise and activity I want to shoot it.
Lastly, shooting to a project is helping me a lot. I’m hoping to have two books by the end of the year and having projects to shoot towards and focus on is something I’m finding more enjoyable than just going out and shooting random shots all the time (though I still do that from time to time.)
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll?
It has to be Kodak Tri-X 400 shot at 1600.
The character of the grain coupled with the contrast (along with the forgiving nature of the film) is just a perfect combo for me. Black and white is really what I love, with buckets of contrast and Tri-X allows me to push it that bit more.
Deep blacks and just a hint of blown highlights. Or even totally blown highlights. I love it.
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?
Well this is an easy choice since I only have one camera right now, and one lens!
My Leica M2 and Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 Biogon. It’s black, works like a charm more than fifty years after it was made and the Zeiss 35mm is a beautifully sharp lens.
For film, Tri-X400 of course but for the second roll, Portra 400.
I’ve never actually shot Portra before (I’m still looking to import some as getting film here in Saigon is not the easiest,) but what I have seen from others, the colours are just beautiful.
I think with those two I’d be pretty well covered for just about anything. We’d make it work.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
This is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot and I think I’d like to go back to Tokyo.
On my last trip (and my first time in the city) I only had six days to explore and shoot. I was happy with being able to get my Leica and shoot forty rolls in that time, but it’s such an amazing city and has such a great vibe to it, I would love to shoot more.
And with an unlimited supply of film, I know I’d come back with some good stuff (considering how much I shoot when I’m out.)
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography and how would you set it straight?
It’s expensive (compared to digital.)
Full disclosure, I once subscribed to this train of thought, but over the past few months I’ve realized it’s really not.
It all depends on just how much time and effort you’re willing to put into it. If you bulk roll film, process and scan your own negatives etc, it’s really pretty affordable. I’m hoping to bring my costs down but doing these things this year.
People spend thousands on lenses and accessories they don’t need. They take the same pictures everyone else takes. That 200mm Canon whatever isn’t going to make you a better photographer.
I’d just rather spend that money on film and books. But I learned all this the hard way after years of shooting digital and wasting money with trade ins etc.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
This is such a difficult question.
I’ve been reading online that things have been looking up for film lately, and the new Kodak 8mm camera they are releasing seems like a step in the right direction for film. There must be a market there.
But for stills, I would love if Kodak brought out a hybrid film/digital camera. I wouldn’t use it, but if it got more people interested in film, brought film sales up and pushed them to keep making film? Brilliant.
When I was in Japan it was really difficult to find Tri-X in any of the big stores which worried me, and it’s incredibly difficult to get here in Vietnam.
Honestly I’m a little worried about the future of film photography. Not next year or the year after. But ten, twenty years from now? It’s scary.
~ Ryan Neilan
I never had the guts or nerve to make a consistent and ongoing effort with high EI, low light work, as we’ve seen above today. Don’t get me wrong, I love it. I love the look, love the feeling and love the grain but I’ve always been too distracted to commit myself completely.
Ryan cites Daido Moriyama as an influence in his photography and there’s no mistaking the similar aesthetic. Moriyama’s work might not be to everyone’s taste but on a personal level, it really speaks to me. I’m not talking about his boudoir portraiture, or even some of his more famous pieces (crazy street dogs, anyone?), I’m referring to his stark street photography of perfectly normal objects and places in everyday life.
It’s not what I would consider to be (film) street photography in the usual Euro-American sense, more a snap-happy almost digital approach to seeing something interesting and shooting it without any further thought. For Moriyama, one might say that his more famous work was directly influenced by the camera he used and having had, used and sold the very same gear, I can attest to how it changed the way I shot “street”, even though at that time I had no inkling as to who this Moriyama person was.
To be inspired by someone so iconic and yet produce something subtly distinct, is in my opinion what photography in all its forms is about. To my eye, the images above stand astride several different styles and subsets of street photography, and whilst they might seem familiar to work we’ve seen, or perhaps created ourselves, there’s a feeling of movement and reality that makes them, something else.
Before we sign off, here are the details of Ryan’s current exhibition. Running for the whole of April at the Decibel Lounge in District 1, Ho Chi Min City, the event features 14 select images from the ‘Tokyo, Blind,’ series, some of which you can see here. If you’re in, or planning on heading over to Vietnam this April, please do try and swing by!
We’ll be back again very soon and remember, keep shooting, folks!
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