I am David Toman and this is why I shoot film
Here we are again for a sit-down with another film photographer. Today we’ve grabbed some time with David Toman, an enigmatic New Yorker currently entrenched in Taiwan – David is known locally as “涂景文” (Tú Jǐng Wén), in Mandarin Chinese.
[EMULSIVE: Update – as of June 2016, David is now based in the Bay Area!]
Known to his friends as a “Formerican” (Former American on Formosa – another name for Taiwan), David is a professional sports/portraiture photographer, mixing digital and film for both work and pleasure. We heard he recently finally procured a purple lens filter. God knows what he’ll do with it, though.
Let’s see what he has to say for himself.
Hi David, what’s this picture, then?
DT: This is an image I made while shooting a bridal session a couple of years ago. I was on the shoot with my DSLR and associated gear but also had a 10-dollar plastic camera tucked into my shorts pocket; fixed focus 22mm lens, fixed aperture, fixed shutter speed.
The shoot was coming to an end when I suddenly remembered the “plastic fantastic” in my pocket. It was loaded with Fuji Superia Xtra 400 and already close to the end of the roll, so I put down my DSLR and picked up the “toy“. I had the bride pose with her puppy and finished the roll before putting it back in my pocket and continuing with the shoot.
Some moments later, a wave washed over me and soaked me to the waist. I was in too much of a panic raising my DSLR above my head to give the plastic camera any thought. Later when my attention returned to it I was sure that the film inside would – at the very least – suffer some kind of funky damage from the salt water (and oh, how “Lomo” that would have been, eh?). But when the roll was developed, it not only came out unscathed but the light and scene were as dreamy as I’d hoped for at the moment of capture.
I often show this image to people when they get too caught up in gear talk, disparage film, or claim they need a better camera. While a “Plastic Fantastic” camera has limited use due to its inability to focus and lens’s heavy vignetting, it demonstrates my belief that in the end, photography is all about using the light and bringing out emotion.
Beyond that, it’s about choosing the right tools for what you have in mind, and in this case it all came together as I’d hoped.
So who are you? (the short version, please)
DT: I’m a longtime resident of Taiwan, originally from the northeastern United States. I came to Asia on a youth art exchange and ended up making a life in Taiwan. Now I’m well past that “youth” stage but try to stay young by challenging myself creatively with photography, and physically as a runner and very retired triathlete.
After working as a translator, copywriter, advertising exec, triathlon coach…and having gotten heavily involved in endurance sports as a triathlete and marathon runner, I found a balance and outlet among my various interests and sides to my personality in sports photography.
It was there that I began taking this behind-the-lens thing pretty seriously. Later, while working for online sports media, I branched into portrait and lifestyle photography.
When did you start shooting film?
DT: Film was the sensor of necessity when I started with photography. My parents first let me use a focus free box camera on a family holiday when I was around four years old. This was followed by other basic cameras and by the time I was in high school, I got my mom’s Canon AE-1, after she moved over to autofocus and compact film cameras.
When her father passed away I got his (identical!) AE-1 with 50/1.8 lens, and I have held onto both bodies since then. One of them still works and gets some use. The other has found new life repurposed as a succulent planter (since its meter failed).
I’ve recently grown my collection of AE-1’s with another silver body and a black body (complete with winder!) in mint condition…
What about now. Why do you shoot film and what drives you to keep shooting?
DT: It’s a practical thing, really. If I don’t eat through the massive supply of film taking up space in my freezer I won’t have any room for actual food.
No, seriously, you should see my freezer…
Lately whenever I’ve taken some time to check out photography by others active in the local market I’ve been taken aback – even repulsed – by a pronounced reliance on gimmickry and slick post-production. In fact, a lot of what’s out there now seems to be equal parts graphic arts and photography. Whilst it can make for creative images in some instances, it drags a boatload of mediocrity along with it as most people tend to follow and mimic others, rather than their own voice.
The result is a huge volume of trendy detritus that I fear will not age well at all. One need only look back at some of the trendy effects that blew through photography in recent years, selective colour being one egregious example, to see where it will likely go.
Apart from the act of shooting film having taken on a bit of a hipster vibe in the digital age, there really are no trends to chase in terms of the end result of exposing and processing film. Certainly there are alternate stocks like Lomo’s admittedly interesting Purple and Turquoise, or methods like redscaling or messing about with pushing, pulling and cross processing. But even if you do make use of alternate techniques or odd film stocks, as far as the process is concerned the photographer knows approximately what he’s striving to achieve in advance, and post-production is not much of an issue or consideration.
That’s the main appeal to me with film, in that I place the creative interpretation towards the front of the process, before and during exposure. I enjoy working with interpretation of digital files in post-processing as well, but derive a certain satisfaction from getting a roll of colour film back or processing a roll of black and white, seeing the image, and feeling like I wouldn’t want to change a thing.
I love the personalities of various film stocks, their subtle (or vast) differences in grain, tonality, exposure latitude and the “genuine” feel of film. Even though I am well aware there is nothing really “organic” about light sensitive chemicals smeared over plastic, film still feels more natural and genuine to me.
Given the restrictions I place myself under, which limit the post-production possibilities to digital files from scanned film, I prefer that process of conceptualization, set up, and anticipation, as well as the more economical style of shooting I employ with film.
Film photography keeps me engaged throughout the part of the process that I care the most about; whether due to the more manual aspect generally associated with film cameras, or the pre-visualization or -conceptualization that goes into shooting film.
I would much rather figure out exactly what I want to shoot (subject), or at least have a notion of what I want to attempt by choosing a film stock, camera, lens and settings, rather than running through a whole system of menus.
The gear is also a gas (pun intended)!
There were so many wonderful cameras made over the decades that film was the only medium for photography. Each has a different personality, tactile quality, weight and balance, shutter action and sound, and styling. I find it a shame to throw all that great industrial design away in exchange for the expedience of digital cameras, which are now less optical than electronic devices, and have now become essentially consumer electronics. To wit, I just sold a very nifty digital camera for around US$200 I purchased two years ago for 500, and you should see the prices on 5D Mark IIs these days.
There are some cameras which I’ll never part with because of certain qualities and idiosyncrasies; the chunky shutter clunk and unique lens-mount shutter speed dial of Nikkormat FT series cameras, the crisp whir and click of the Mamiya 645 Pro TL’s auto film winder, the precise milling of the block of aluminium that forms the lens mount of the Kodak Retina series, or the pure joy of composing an image on the “LCD screen” (waist level finder) of a TLR like a Mamiya C330, Yashica Mat 124G, or Rolleiflex.
Finally, there’s the archival aspect of film, contrasted with the constant headache and expense of digital storage and management. I’ve been scanning lots of negatives I found not so carefully stored in shoe boxes in my dad’s den – mostly shot on Kodak Plus-X in the late 1950s and early ‘60s – and they look just as good as a fresh roll would.
I trust my ability to file strips of plastic away in folders and cabinets much better than keeping track of (and current with), the constantly shifting digital storage media devices and specs we deal with these days. Not long ago important data was stored on Digital Audio Tape (DAT). Try finding a DAT player now, or for that matter a tape that hasn’t oxidized to nothingness.
Ever since I started approaching photography as something that goes beyond representing things as they are – to express how and what we see – I have had a restlessness that continues to keep me engaged and compel me. I try not to repeat ideas, so I remain excited by all the possibilities that either confront my eyes or infest my mind and demand expression in some fashion.
Any favourite subject matter?
DT: Definitely people. Whether shooting in a studio setting with strobes and posing subjects, or covering athletes in full stride, people’s emotions and expressions change from moment to moment faster than even a professional grade DSLR in full burst mode can keep up with.
…and because of that, they remain an endless source of fascination and challenge to me. In addition to seeking, prompting, and observing their emotions, I also derive great satisfaction from positive responses to the images we make together.
You can never use film again. What is your last roll?
DT: If it’s my last roll of film ever, it would have to feature something that’s aesthetically beautiful or that means a lot to me personally. With that in mind, I’m going to have to take a subject-centric approach to the question; that is, what subject would I just have to shoot on film or not at all?
My answer would be a grand landscape or even cityscape, most likely with a long exposure. For that reason I would choose a roll of Velvia 50 and shoot it in my 6×12 pinhole camera. I’m fascinated by the way photography can also be “chronography,” expressing moments in time and the passage of time, whether freezing high-speed action or conveying the flow of a river or city traffic.
Using the 6×12 format I’d only get to make five exposures (six if I’m lucky), so I might try to make three exposures of landscapes and two of some sort of urban scene.
You have two minutes to prepare for an assignment. One camera, one lens, two films, and no idea of subject matter. What do you take with you and why?
DT: I’m a big fan of medium format but I’d have to say that for the sake of versatility, I’d go with 135 film and my Nikon F100. It’s reliable, has an incredibly accurate meter and a maximum 1/8000 second shutter speed.
For the lens, I’d grab my old Nikkor AF-D 50/1.4 lens for a “wide enough” focal length and large aperture if needed.
I’d also take my “grab and go” lighting kit with three portable flashes, stands, a reflector, and light modifiers – all of which I can transport to gigs on my scooter. Is that cheating?
For the film I’d want a black and white stock with wide latitude, so I’d grab a roll of Eastman 5222 (Double-X). For color, I’d choose Fujifilm Pro 400H. It pushes and pulls well and doesn’t look like the typical color you get from a digital sensor.
Depending on the light I could shoot the Double X from 400 to 3200 and with the F100, I could get enough shutter speed to cover any DoF I need. The Pro 400H would give me the nice creamy skin tones I love for portraits (if I were lucky enough to shoot in ample or controlled light).
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
DT: I’d use my Mamiya RB67 and go to town…in a studio. I’d love an unlimited supply of models, regular people, props, costumes, and lighting setups, art directors and assistants to aid and abet the proceedings; and experiment with every kind of lighting I can possibly conceive…all while playing around with exposure and color palettes. That way I could achieve a wide, nearly endless variation of concepts, looks and lighting without having to select just the “right” location!
[EMULSIVE: that’s kinda cheating but you’re allowed one]
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception of film photography and how would you set it straight?
DT: Ever since Kodak’s bankruptcy made headlines, people think film is gone, kaput, dead, KIA, unavailable, DOA.
So, the remarks people make most often when they see me with a film camera is “I didn’t think film was still made. Can you still buy it and get it processed?” Each time (after I’ve rolled my eyes and uttered “not again!”), I explain that fresh film is fairly easy to purchase and there are plenty of labs around to process it. Sometimes I also add that there really has never been a better time to shoot film in terms of the film stocks, cameras, lenses, processing, and scanning technology available.
If only New Portra 160 and 400 had been available “back in the day”…
Oh, and if I had a dime for every time someone spotted me with a film camera and asked me if it was a “LOMO” camera… Once I was using a Leica R8 and someone associated it with “LOMO.” Sheesh! Nothing against the Lomography Society, whom have done more than anyone since the tables tipped in favor of digital capture to promote film photography and keep it viable, but that term unfortunately conjures up associations with various quirks and imperfections like light leaks, vignetting, distortion, soft focus, chunky grain, or party goers’ drunken mugs nuked into the annals of time by hideous built-in, on-camera flash.
These associations are not only unwarranted, but they are sorely misguided, as film technology has never been better. Sure, film stocks are not available in the same quantity and variety as before, but the quality of what is currently being produced – from the venerable Kodak Tri-X and Ilford’s monochrome emulsions to colour stocks like Kodak’s Ektar and Fuji’s Pro 400H – has never been better.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
DT: Unfortunately, as the cost of film stock and processing continues to rise, I foresee everyone but a core group of film devotees and boutique photographers abandoning ship.
Other than a very select number of models – Nikon F6, Nikon FM10, Voigtlander R Series rangefinders (sadly discontinued a few days before this interview was published), the really dumb retro Leica film body, and the various “toy” cameras made by Holga or sold through Lomography – new film cameras are no longer being made. Eventually few people will bother repairing film cameras that need a little TLC (spelled “CLA”), thus eventually through attrition, working film cameras will remain in the hands of a dwindling few.
If I did not have the good fortune of living in Taiwan, where film processing remains affordable, I would probably only rarely shoot colour film, but I see black and white film thriving for decades into the future.There is something about black and white film that digital post-production cannot quite emulate, and enough people love that look to ensure the availability of monochrome emulsions and processing chemicals.
Eventually, Kodak will follow Fujifilm’s trend and cease producing film altogether. Then, a group of film devotees will get together to purchase production facilities to keep, say, Tri-X alive, and continue making classic chemicals like Rodinal and HC-110 available – similar to the way the Impossible Project revived instant film. When that Kickstarter project to save Tri-X or HP5+ comes along, I’m sure I’ll be reaching for my credit card…
~ David Toman
I’ve written, erased and rewritten this short outro three times in a vain attempt to try and capture the essence of David’s words and how they left me. I’ll stick with this, my fourth.
I think the second picture here probably sums him up best. In short, whilst you can’t say that the man is totally mad for all things photography, there’s a certain photographic something flowing through his veins.
In his professional life, David makes a choice between film and digital based on the subject(s) at hand and whilst you can say that film photography is his preferred choice for his most personal of projects, there can be quite a bit of digital there, too. He’s a bit of a chameleon, turning his hand to whatever tool he happens to use (one’s and zero’s, or sub-miniature to large format film), and he has a deep understanding of the medium in terms of both equipment and process. A real encyclopaedic force of nature.
It’s a real pleasure to have been able to talk to David at length about both his experiences and thoughts on photography as a technical skill to be learned and an art form to be explored and pushed. Flicking through his rather large body of work has certainly helped inspire me to try and do things differently from time to time, as well as push myself to accept and learn from my own mistakes. Thank you, David.
You can track David down on any of the following websites and social networks…and if you’re ever in Taiwan or the surrounds, we’d strongly suggest giving him a nudge.
Web: http://etudephoto.com (Traditional Chinese only)
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