I am Amy Jasek and this is why I shoot film
I’m very pleased to be able to bring you the work and words of a veritable film photography force of nature – it’s Amy Jasek everyone. Someone you should be very familiar with over at the Film Shooters Collective and She Shoots Film.
Over to you, Amy!
Hi Amy, what’s this picture, then?
AJ: Well, it’s me, in a nutshell. As a child, I spent a lot of time pouring over my dad’s collection of photography books, Diane Arbus in particular. Her work had a big impact on me in a lot of ways, and one of her self-portraits stayed with me: of her pregnant, in her undies, staring frankly into her own camera lens in the mirror.
While I can’t see myself ever having that kind of nerve (no undies shots, sorry-not-sorry y’all), this self-portrait is my homage to her. The camera you see, my first large format camera, was given to me by my father, and I started making self-portraits of myself about 3 years ago when I realized that I owed it to my daughter to at least be in some photos. My photography really isn’t about me, but the personality of the one holding the camera factors in, so there ya go.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
AJ: I am the only child of two devoted, loving, accepting, kind, creative, and intelligent people who have always encouraged me to be myself.
I am a photographer’s daughter. I’ve been a gymnast, a pianist, a writer, and a dancer; I don’t think you ever really stop being those kinds of things, whether you can do the tricks anymore or not. I’m a science nerd. I’m a woman of faith. I am a mother. I love people; I believe in humanity’s beauty. And I am a photographer.
Oh, I also get way too excited about good food.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
AJ: My dad gave me my first camera when I was 7, so I guess I was probably already photographing before then and of course in 1983 or whatever it was all film. I remember making my first darkroom print, at that same age, although I can’t remember a time when I didn’t hang out in the darkroom with him.
Even if I wasn’t printing (and as a kid I usually wasn’t), I just loved being in there, messing with all the stuff, watching, pestering him. So I have never not used film; even when I was given a DSLR I never took it seriously. It was just a snapshot camera, not a real photographic tool for me.
What drives me to continue is breathing I guess, since photographing is something that I do every day without any premeditation. What also keeps me with film is the process itself, how organic it is: I can touch it, hold it, be involved with the chemistry of it. I love that. For me, film is photography; the interaction between light and chemistry is a little bit of magic that brings me joy with every single roll or sheet.
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
AJ: My father, first and foremost, although we don’t do the same type of photography at all. The camera and the darkroom are as integral a part of his life as they are of mine, and he is the absolute best mentor and teacher. I wasn’t always as passionate about it as I am now; I had my moment, in 2003, when I made a particular photograph on a bus in Rome, saw the negative, and threw myself wholeheartedly into “Photographing Strangers.” Street photography.
I hadn’t seen much of it before then, outside of Arbus; I don’t think I really knew it was even a thing. I just knew that I loved it, and felt compelled to do it because people are so beautiful and interesting. The photography that surrounded me growing up was Perfect: Edward Weston and his sons, Al Weber, Ansel Adams, people like that. My dad’s photography is also Perfect.
It wasn’t until around 2004, when I moved to New York and had more time to look around, when I started seeing work by people like Friedlander and Robert Frank, and then I was like oh, well dang, all this stuff has been done already. Oh well, I’m still going to keep at it; at least I know I’m not crazy. And my photography is far from perfect, but I’m ok with that.
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
AJ: I really do very little digital photography, outside of cell phone snaps that I use for social media or as some kind of quick record. Lately I have attempted to “go pro,” so I have tried, again, to develop some kind of meaningful relationship with my DSLR. We just don’t have that much in common though; it’s not you, digital, it’s me.
If I do choose digital, it’s because either the conditions are just too difficult (DARK) and I don’t want to risk not getting the shot (for example, when I am at my daughter’s school for an event), or because it is the kind of professional circumstance where I need to be able to turn the work around quickly and get it to the client, with the focus being more the document of the moment rather than my own preferred artistic output. If that makes sense.
I struggle terribly trying to turn RAW files into something I can live with, whereas with film it comes straight out of the tank or lab exactly how I want it, so yeah, I pretty much only use digital when I have to. Where I do mix my mediums is with alternative processes. Playing with other forms of photo processes is something I really enjoy as a creative outlet, especially cyanotypes. I’m addicted to that process.
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?
AJ: 8×10! And contact printing. I have nowhere to go but up when it comes to large format, especially with the new-to-me view camera I received this past Christmas. I would very much like to get better at 5×7 work and learn to make contact prints from the negatives in the next 12 months. It will probably take me that long to clean up my darkroom and get it ready for printing again.
I would also like to experiment more with portraiture. I photograph people all the time, but in this case, I mean more of a planned moment, both with people I know and with people I do not. My biggest challenge for this year is to not throw in the towel in terms of the “pro” journey, because my goodness, there’s a ridiculous amount of competition out there, and self-promotion is not a game I enjoy playing.
There are a few alternative processes I would like to play with (wet plate photograms, encaustic, gum printing…) but those are reserved for down the road when I have the money to treat myself to workshops.
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
AJ: People, more than anything else, because to me people are so interesting and beautiful. I find myself photographing children a lot, with and without their families. I don’t seek them out; it isn’t a planned thing.
Partly I think this is because I have always loved kids, but also for the past nearly 11 years most of my photo time has been in the company of at least one of them, so usually, I am up to something kid-related when I’m out with my camera. Recently I went alone to one of our favorite festivals of the year, and when I developed the film I was surprised to see that just about all of the photographs are of children/families.
We have to spend a lot more time apart these days, so I guess this is my subconscious acting out. When I am photographing, I let my mind go, I just let it happen; I feel like I am both connected and disconnected from the process. I concentrate on looking, seeing, absorbing what’s going on around me, rather than thinking about composition or whatever, so I’m often surprised with what I find when I pull the film out of the tank. But there’s pretty much always children.
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?
AJ: I take my Nikon F, the accompanying 50mm f/1.4 lens, Kodak Tri-X 400 and Portra 400. While I consider my Hasselblad to be my main camera, the Nikon is more versatile because of that 1.4 lens and that combo has been a faithful companion to me many, many times.
Tri-X is my favorite film; I would prefer to never use anything else, and I know it like the back of my hand. But if color might be required, I would go with that Portra because at least it’s 400 and not slide film, which is super unforgiving if you nerf the exposure.
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?
AJ: Kodak Tri-X 400, and my first inclination is to say New York because I do still love that city and it’s a never-ending wonderland for street photography. I love the people there. And the food. But I’ve had enough of moving around, so more than likely I would stay in the Austin area instead (since it also has terrific people and food).
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
AJ: It would have to be Tri-X, and I would expose it with/of my family at home, because those are the most important things to me, and I would want to have one last set of memories that can be handed down in physical form to the future.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
AJ: That it is too expensive. There are ways to do it cheaply, and also if you consider the thousands of dollars that people spend on digital gear, I really don’t think it is a valid argument. I bought my Nikon FM2 from a friend for $100. I buy bulk rolls of b&w film, spool it myself (in the dark, yay), and develop it myself with chemicals I mix myself. It is possible to cut out a lot of the middlemen and do things on the cheap.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
AJ: I suspect it will continue to be a niche thing; it’s hard for me to imagine it completely taking back over. I think it will continue growing, however – how exciting it is that people are bringing out new films, and that Kodak is bringing some BACK!! – and that people will keep experimenting. I’ve always refused to believe that film was in any way “dead.”
Now for the extra thing I would like to mention: COMMUNITY! And you, EM, are part of that. When I decided to put my photography “out there” on social media, I really didn’t know what to expect. It was scarier than applying for the first artists’ guild I joined. It opened up a whole new world; I found myself overwhelmed with extraordinary friendships and so much incredible support. The photographic community is huge, but there’s a place in it for everyone – even diehard film photographers! – so I would love to encourage anyone reading this who might be holding back to just go for it. It isn’t just about opportunities and networking; it’s about falling into a group that can nurture you as a person in ways you would never have expected.
Over the next few months, you can expect to see a few updates to the interview format here on EMULSIVE. Ruminating about the updated format and preparing this interview has got me thinking: how often do we really think about what we do as photographers? I’m not talking about visualising the shot and “the process”, more about the kinds of photographs we take.
Regular readers might be aware of certain…challenges I’ve had with fully accepting rangefinder cameras over the past two years or so. I recently turned a corner and think that it was the introspection that got me there. Not just a simple “why am I taking this shot” affair, closer to, “is this what I want to do”.
Amy’s comments about one particular photo she took in Rome, and unconsciously gravitating towards taking photos of families and children really got me thinking. I’d love to hear your take in the comments below.
A huge thanks to Amy for all the work she does in the analogue community. If you weren’t completely aware before, I hope this little interview had helped. Please do make sure you check out her website before giving her a hearty shout out over on Instagram. I know it’ll be appreciated.
Thanks for reading and as ever, keep shooting, folks.
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