Thoughtful, measured and contemplative are just three words you can use to describe the approach of today’s interviewee, Erik Gould. Take one look and his website and you’ll begin to understand that tapping the shutter button is only a small part of his process; one which includes details about location, history and purpose. It’s amazing work and a true labour of live.
We reached out to Erik for an interview some months ago and while it’s been a long while coming, I think it’s been well worth the wait.
Over to Erik for an altogether too brief insight into why he continues to shoot film.
Hi Erik, what’s this picture then?
EG: Lately I’m interested in making pictures of places that have stories to tell. This is a picture of the monument that marks the spot where in 1636, as legend has it, Roger Williams landed. Here is where he encountered a group of Narragansett Indians who met him with the greeting “What Cheer, Netop?”
This event, or this version of this event is depicted in the City seal and the greeting is the City motto. Williams was travelling down the Seekonk river in his flight from the Massachusetts Colony looking for a place to settle. The Narragansetts offered him some advice and Williams went on to establish Providence and Rhode Island. That’s how the settlers tell it anyway. As with many tales of similar encounters, the official account is problematic, and I will leave it there.
Back to this picture of the site. Williams landed on an outcropping that came to be called Slate Rock. So where is that, then? And where is the river? Slate Rock was blown up with dynamite accidentally in 1877 during an attempt to create a Plymouth Rock style memorial. Pieces were distributed amongst local backers and dignitaries. The river was moved, it’s now about ¼ mile from this spot and the river bed filled to make way for further development, some of which never happened.
The current monument bore bronze plaques, twice. The original set were stolen and then replaced, and the replacements were then stolen, or as alternate legend has it, the originals were removed for safekeeping after some vandalism, and then stolen. Either way a visitor today is given little to work with to understand the significance of the marker or the site bringing it back in a sense to it’s 1636 state.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
EG: I live in Rhode Island USA with my wife and my young daughter. I have a day job as a photographer, I’m the museum photographer for Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, where I have worked for about 17 years. Even before I worked at the museum I have tried to keep myself around art and artists.
I continue to do work for artists and nonprofit groups and I’ve been involved with a number of galleries over the years. I have a special fondness for a great organization in Providence: New Urban Arts. NUA is an arts based afterschool program/space open to all high school age students in the area.
I have been involved there as an artist-mentor in photography, it has been tremendously inspiring to see students go from developing and printing their very first rolls of film to going to college and beyond and establishing themselves as dedicated artists in their own right. As a photographer I consider myself a reformed large format guy, but now that I’m freed from professional constraints film-wise I shoot lots of formats. I try to show when I can.
When did you start shooting film?
EG: I’m a bit of an old one now so I started with film when there wasn’t anything else. I was probably 5 when I got my first camera and I got more serious in junior high. My father and my uncle are historians with a special interest in trains, so I learned the basics of picture taking going out with them looking at trains and stations and other old things.
I learned to look at place and space and to read clues hidden in the land. I learned how to work through the boredom of waiting for a train and for the light. We shot slides, Kodachrome mostly. Great way to learn.
What about now? Why do you shoot film and what drives you to keep shooting?
EG: Well, I love it. I love the process and I love the results. I love the smell and I love the tactile qualities. I shoot digital all day, I work with some pretty high-end gear at the museum and I know what all that can do but it’s difficult for me to connect with that process on an emotional level.
Shooting film I am aware of the challenges and limitations all along the way, and I see limitations as a good thing. I’m interested in having my work look photographic if that makes sense.
I’m saying “here is what I saw and felt as a photograph” as opposed to making something that attempts to function as a window or screen through which a subject is viewed.
The most direct way to that it seems to me is to make a photograph on film and on paper. I hesitate to say a “real” photograph but that is probably how I still think of it.
Plus, it’s a process that I know well so I can work very intuitively and fluidly, it’s a joy when it all works.
Any favorite subject matter?
EG: I like to work on projects. I’ll come across something and let my curiosity guide me. I do research. I explore. Photography has a very interesting relationship to time, photographs are made of time. I find myself drawn to places where time suggests itself. If I become aware of layers of history stacked up and exposed as if through erosion or from just sheer stubbornness, I’m hooked.
I’m talking about human time here, I can’t really get my head around geologic time. So much of our world is shaped by what came before, even long after the necessities have expired. As an example, we build and travel along waterways, we then turn our backs to the shore, the channels get built on or over, we then in turn “rediscover” and seek to celebrate what was cast aside.
The pieces of time I consider may be very small, the fraction of seconds of each camera exposure, the breathless moment where I watch a white egret glide gracefully along a section of river, descend to skimming height, poop and then land farther up the shore.
It is the time it takes me to walk a site or the time it takes to structure a finished work: the photographic prints or the book where I re-present the experience, enfolding the viewers time into that of the photographs. I think about places where decades, even centuries open upon each other and I can examine what’s fixed and what’s fluid.
Photographs can be portals, this is photography’s unique trait. They are as close as we may get to time machines.
Short answer for gallerists: urban landscape.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll?
EG: I can never use film again? Now why would that be? I’m not sure I want to contemplate that. Still, given a choice my last roll of film would have to be some Ilford Pan F Plus because it’s been so good to me for so long.
I would take some portraits of my wife and daughter. Then I would develop it right away because you know, Pan-F.
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?
EG: First I’d say “Hey you got the wrong guy, I can’t work that way!” And then you’d have to say “Oh but yes it is you we want for this” and then go on to flatter me terribly and then promise me a big pile of money. Finally I’d say OK.
I’m bringing my OM-4T because it has a fantastic meter and I’m very comfortable with it. It’s small and quick and I’ve shot Olympus gear for many years. I’d bring a 50mm 1.4 because a fifty can work for so many situations and I can get a good range of rendition from it from the funk of shooting wide open to the clinical of stopped down.
The Zuiko can be very sharp but it has a nice character too. A fifty can look wide at times and almost tele at times and again I have to go with what I know so well I know exactly where to stand. For film I’d bring one roll of Kodak Portra 800 and one roll of Kodak TMY-2 (T-MAX 400). These are films I can get many looks out of. If I could convince you this has to be a monochrome only shoot I’d bring a roll of Ilford Pan-F along with the TMY-2.
If you’ll let me bring a polarizer and a tripod I’ll be good to go, and here’s to hoping we aren’t going under the ocean, you crazy client.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
EG: Unlimited time too? I think I’d love to go travel Great Britain because I’ve never been there but I could be happy just staying home. I know I could head out the door and find things to interest me here.
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography and how would you set it straight?
EG: I don’t really know what people think about film. The question I get when I’m out with some old camera is “can you still get film for that?” which is weird but I know they are just being curious and I never want to discourage that.
I’d say just get out there and use film and be seen doing so. When people ask that silly question say “yes, film is easy to get online, and it’s beautiful.” People understand that.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
EG: I’ve always selfishly thought that film would be around long enough for my working career, at least. I still think that. For someone my daughter’s age, she is 4, who may get into film in their teens, I’m not so confident.
Certainly there will always be the option to “coat your own” in various ways, and we’ve seen a great resurgence in interest in the 19th century processes. That’s great, but for good old film in rolls and sheets I worry that it will become so expensive to make that the market will collapse. I know the interest is there among younger people but it can’t cost so much that only the wealthy can afford it.
I know that nothing lasts forever. We have to use these materials while we can and share our enthusiasm with others. That’s the best way to keep this going.
The volume of images we take and post online grows each and every day. It’s too easy to skip by the photographs we see every day on the web without thinking more about them than a cursory “that’s nice”, or giving them a quick “like”.
It’s also easy to forget that many of these images have a deep and well-connected story behind them.
We all shoot for the sake of shooting some of the time but just as we wish others would appreciate shots we’ve put thought and effort into composing and capturing, we should also remember that this isn’t a one-way street and that we should do the same for others.
We talk about shooting film and the way it slows us down makes us more methodical in our approach and less trigger happy. I think that by the same measure, we should try to slow down when viewing the images we take, as well of those taken by others (analog and digital alike). After all, snapping that shutter button is only a small part of a much larger process and we should be as invested in the outcome as we are with the collection and usage of gear.
Erik is an example of someone hell-bent on sharing his passion through teaching and mentoring, as well as through the sheer effort he puts in to ensure that viewers of his work, understand and appreciate the stories behind each image he chooses to share. It’s no small feat and one that we can all learn from.
Thanks again for reading. We’ll be back soon but in the meantime, keep shooting (and appreciating) folks.
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