EMULSIVE | Jan 3, 2018 | 5
I am Jef Price and this is why I shoot film
Today’s interview has been written, rewritten, added to and chopped up many, many times over the past few months but it’s finally ready and I couldn’t be more pleased. I’m finally ready to bring you thoughts and words from the curious mind of Jef Price.
Over to you, Jef!
Hi Jef, what’s this picture, then?
JP: This is a photograph of my father from a wedding we were shooting. It’s very early on in my time as a working photographer, I was 15-16 when I took this.
For me it’s a good representation of the things that would define a lot of my work then and now, experimenting, taking chances and catching moments that others miss. I used a D50 years ago to get a good digital copy of this photo, which I’m thankful I did. Only a short time later a good deal of my negatives were stolen, the original photograph among them.
Ok, so who are you?
JP: My name is Jeffrey (Jef) N. Price and at the time of this interview, I’m 32. I’m from Columbus Ohio, which is also where I currently live. I’ve been a good many things in my life so far, from professionally backpacking and testing/consulting on outdoors gear and equipment, retail sales and management – including selling cameras, to being a pastor for a while in my early twenties.
I even taught photography as a career and art form for a NPO in a public school program designed to introduce youth to the arts.
I first picked up a camera when I was a kid, I had this little 110 spy cam my Dad gave me that I ran about with it documenting life around me, with no film of course! Not that this mattered to me, I had a camera and that was my window to the world. As far back as I can remember photography as been a part of me.
In January 2011 I suffered a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and photography has played a major roll in my recovery, therapy and in my reconnecting with the world. There’s hardly a day that goes by when I don’t force myself to “work” in some way on the craft, even if it’s a bad day and I can’t get out and shoot.
In addition to photography I have a great love of the outdoors, writing, I’ve always worked, ever since I was a young teen, so even now I’m always working on something. I try and keep myself busy, more recently I’ve been recovering from a set of hip replacements, so that’s given me a lot of time to get a few new projects up and running as well as catch up on my editing.
My current hobbies are limited to what I’m able to do now, but in the past I did a lot of rock climbing, teaching, hiking/backpacking, kayaking etc.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
JP: With a real honest to goodness camera? 11-ish years old. When I was 11 I was incredibly sick and very nearly dying as the result of severe food poisoning, it was at this time my Dad gave me my first “real” camera, a Mamiya 35mm SLR. He handed me a few books, included were the BSA photography merit badge book and an entry of Ansel Adams basic photo series and told me to start there. I had a real camera for the first time, that Mamiya and 3 lenses, a 28mm, 50mm and 135mm. Actually not long ago I found one of the first 2 rolls of film I ever shot, I promptly put it someplace safe and now have no idea where that was.
I’ve rarely been without a camera in my hand or in my bag/pack or pocket. It started as a hobby, I wanted to make photographs and adventure. But as I got older it became a career and a big part of who I was. I started working with my Father at 15 learning photography as a profession and continued shooting professionally right up until I suffered the TBI.
It took me more 2 years of struggling against that injury to be able to work with a camera again and there was a time about a year after the wreck when I was at my worst.
I was at the very bottom, I gave up, threw out tons of journals and logbooks. I felt hopeless. I think it’s overcoming these things in part through photography that has so deeply ingrained it as a part of me. Those images from my past have played a large in role in recovering parts of me, memories, that were lost, my drive to become better and seek out adventure, to tell stories and share the world as I see it has only grown the more I’ve had to fight for it.
As far as what drives me to keep shooting, I think Josef Koudelka said it better than I ever could… “What matters most to me is to take photographs; to continue taking them and not to repeat myself. To go further, to go as far as I can.”
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
JP: Adams is the first major influence on me, his approach and mindset, the way he went into a project. That commitment and drive taught me a great deal. Later it was war photographers and documentarians, street photographers as well. Even Hemingway was an influence after I’d read a biography on him when I was a teen; his adventures and life sparked my imagination in a way.
Ernst Haas, Robert Frank, Capa, Hine, I admired so many through the years. Josef Koudelka is another big one. If I had to pick two photographers themselves, not just their work, but them and their approach and vision, who have influenced me the most it would most likely be Adams and Koudelka.
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
JP: I do shoot both, I shoot more film now though than I have in years. Choosing between them is just matter of what I feel like shooting, unless I need one or the other for something specific. As far as why I shoot film now, I honestly went back to film out of necessity.
After I suffered the TBI, I found myself all but completely unable to work with a camera. After spending your whole life doing something like photography, a craft that you grow into and learn from, refining your process and developing a style, and to have that suddenly missing from your life…it’s crushing.
Getting to the point I’m at today was a slow, often painful and incredibly difficult process. Just talking with you about it now, 6 years later, is really, really difficult and emotional. Film was a necessary part of the recovery process.
I’d been struggling for a couple months, I just couldn’t function with a camera. I’d been told by my doctor that like many parts of my life, photography was something I’d probably never be able to do again. After I’d had time to process what I was being told, I got to work. There was a lot of failure, a lot of struggle and emotions to overcome, I had to decide that no one was going to tell me what I couldn’t do.
Normally I’d take 3-4 exposures and they’d all be properly exposed and composed, I’d just pick the one I preferred, the more decisive of moments. But now I was taking maybe 40-80 (digital) shots hoping that just one would be useable. I understood how a camera worked, I understood theory, but it was like I couldn’t access or use this information. It’s a hard thing to explain, but all that math, all that experience I’d gained and used for so long wasn’t working for me anymore.
I had to relearn a new way to shoot and think.
I compiled a list of things that were holding me back, issues I needed to resolve and then started tackling them one by one. The first and biggest was the handling of the camera itself. There’s no real feel to modern DSLRs, they never really become an extension of yourself. Shooting a D300, D700 or whatever isn’t the same as the FE2 or M that was second nature, a real tool or instrument for your craft.
So the first step I took was going back to film.
I slowly started finding my way around a camera again. The final step was looking at exposures, prints, and identifying what went wrong. Finding ways to fix that. I kept very thorough documentation on each exposure and compared where I was, how I was feeling, if I was having a bad day, if I had the shakes, every little detail, with the final image. Then I made notes on how to overcome or compensate for those shortcomings and deficits.
I tried going back to my smaller Nikon DSLR throughout about a year or so of this process, but like I said it just didn’t feel right, and I was having serious issues with picturing the final image in my mind. So I took all my gear over to a friends shop, World of photography and he started getting out mirrorless EVF systems. I settled on a Fuji X and started using the EVF for exposure preview combined with the R3 or 35RC and that let me compare and preview what I was getting. This process worked wonderfully, and I made great progress in recovery.
Film systems played such a major role in teaching myself a new way to think and a new way to approach photography. Film has a depth to it, a feeling that I’d long been replicating in my digital files. But no matter how well done, it’s still not film. Film has that tangible nature that lets you hold it in your hands and see the real results of your work. Even when working with digital, I order prints and look for the flaws, the adjustments to be made in the image.
When I was 11 I was captivated by film, the process of creating a photograph, loading the 35mm canister and the feel of the film advance. As it turns out, when I was at my worst, when I was at a loss as to how to begin again, these things are what got me back where I needed to be, behind a camera and telling stories. I’ve heard or read every argument there is for shooting film over digital, and honestly I still shoot more digital than film. For me it’s not that one is better than the other. Film photography is what allowed me see the world clearly as a boy. 35mm gave me a vision and a dream when I was 11 and when I was older, desperate and failing from this sudden injury and all it took from me, it’s is what gave me back some of what had been taken.
Every day is a struggle. It’s as if I’m some dull or pale version of the person I was. But when I’m behind I camera, I’m more of myself again. Film gave that back to me.
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?
JP: I have 2 main challenges in 2017, the first in the launch of a new web site with two of my close friends, Andrew Tonn and Cullen Marriott. We’ve been plotting this for years, but I had to wait till I was ready again.
Number 2 would be going through what’s left of my collection and shooting at least one roll through each camera by the end of the year. I started collecting when I was just a kid really, then when I started shooting at 11, I really just bought anything I found that I could afford. I’ve had to sell of or trade in most of the collection over the past few years, but I still have a good many, all working. From very early Kodaks to the Leica IIf, to my father’s Nikon FE2 that he gave me a few years ago.
I’m going to end the project on the Leica R3 and my grandfather’s Nikon EM. These are the two main cameras I retaught myself with. It comes full circle that way you know?
As far as what I’d like to master: the completed project and darkroom work. I’ve never developed my own film but for one time in my old apartment. Now I have everything to do it, so 2017 is the year of me teaching myself that skill. And I need to complete photo projects I’ve had open for a long time. I have 4-5 projects that I can’t ever really show or do anything with until I feel they’re complete. I’ve always been bad about letting go of a project, the result is I just keep working at them for years.
I also really want to do some wildlife work this year, too. Wild America was a show that really influenced me and I’ve always wanted to do that type of work, but have always been distracted by other projects or gigs. I did a little over the past few years, just dipping my toes in the water and I got super lucky awhile back coming face to face with a baby owl. That really revitalized my desire to shoot wildlife.
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
JP: I’m often told everything I do looks like street photography. I think that’s just the way I see things now. I don’t try and define my work or photography by a style or restrict myself to one “type”, I just focus on shooting things the way I see them. The goal is to share with others the way I see things, no one sees things just the same.
Where one photographer may see shadows and dramatic light, another may see emotion in the faces of the crowd and focus on that. A lot of what I see is depending on what I’m going through in the moment, what’s on my mind, am I having a good day or a bad day? Am I struggling that day or am I in the moment, in tune with the world around me?
I find more often than not I focus on people, they seem to let their guard down with me, let me really see them and capture that. Human stories and places that could be forgotten. But really whatever interests me. There’s two quotes from another photographer, Elliot Erwitt, who influenced me…
“Nothing happens when you sit at home. I always make it a point to carry a camera with me at all times… I just shoot at what interests me at that moment”, and… “All the technique in the world doesn’t compensate for the inability to notice”.
I can’t sum it up any better than Erwitt does in these statements. When I taught I started each course with the first bit, and ended each with the second.
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 to you take with you and why?
JP: I love this question. It challenges you, I’ve thought of maybe a dozen responses to this and each has been met with, “well that won’t work if it’s this…”
I’d take a Leica M6 TTL with my 35mm f/2 lens, ADOX CHS II 100 B&W print film, and since they’re bring it back, I’d take a roll of the new Kodak EKTACHROME with me.
…unless those crazy kids at Kodak really do figure out how to bring Kodachrome back in which case, I’d take that as my color option.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location for the rest of your life. What do you take, were do you go and why?
JP: The American west or Alaska I think. Unless we go wider as far as location goes, and then I’d say North America as a whole. I don’t think I’d ever get sick of shooting our continent, it’s so varied and diverse in subjects and content.
As far as film goes…. I’d probably go with ADOX CHSII 100 or Kodachrome. I could spend a life in BW or Kodachrome and be happy with what I leave behind, I think.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
JP: Kodachrome, no question there. As to where…I’d set off to Everest basecamp, start there and hopefully take the final photograph from the peak looking down on the world.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
JP: That it’s dead.We may be in the middle of a film revolution, but that’s largely a revolution that’s not very well known or cared about outside of the photography community.
I don’t think there’s a film photographer alive who hasn’t has someone mention to them something in the way of, I like your retro camera or is that film?! It’s been 6 years since I taught, but when I bought film in the first week and had students shoot through a roll, the most common comment was “they still make film?”
In fact, when shooting Impossible Project film on the street I hear that all the time. Education is key. Like I said outside of the photography community, not everyone knows film isn’t dead, that it’s resurrection is being taken on by independent companies like Impossible, who love it and have taken great care and love to give it back to the people larger cooperations turned away from.
Kodak made headlines when it kept film around for Hollywood and that helped, but it’s still not everyday knowledge. There’s a whole generation of photographers now who have never shot film. It’s going to be a grassroots thing, if we want new photographers to work with film they need to understand and realize digital hasn’t made it obsolete; that film is very much relevant and can offer a rewarding and fulfilling photographic experience that is very different from digital.
Not necessarily better, but different and incredible.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
JP: Kodak may be bringing back a film we all thought was history, and Impossible may be feeding our polaroids, but I think long run we’re still in danger of it dying.
Professionals are returning to film yes, but most of their professional work is still being done digitally. I think that the hobbyist community is what will truly save it, and that if there is hope for it to stay around for years to come, rather than just see a temporary revolution, it’s in the success of sites like yours and work like that of your readers.
We has a long way to go before we can kick up our feet and say mission accomplished. Film can disappear altogether if we’re not careful. Polaroid almost did, if it wasn’t for a group of people that set out to do the impossible, we wouldn’t have the format anymore. And I see photographers complain about what Fuji did, canceling their instant films, rather than supporting and helping to grow the companies like Impossible.
Kodak may have brought back one film, and half-mentioned Kodachrome, but they’re not the savior of film photography. Ilford never abandoned us, but very few have praised them the way Kodak is being praised by many right now… Kodak nearly brought themselves to ruin multiple times over the last half century and if EKTACHROME’s return isn’t a success, I doubt we’ll see a trend from brands like Fuji bringing back films we’ve lost.
I’m not saying buy EKTACHROME even if it’s not a film you want to shoot, but I am saying that if you’ve missed EKTACHROME, then when it hits the market, shoot it. Shoot a lot of it. Brands like Kodak and Fuji have tried to shape the market by pushing from film to digital, and actual sales numbers are only a part of this strategy, but if we as photographers show them we’ll come back and support them when they bring back the films we want, that’ll go a long to ensure film is around long into the future.
“I am sure the next step will be the electronic image, and I hope I shall live to see it. I trust that the creative eye will continue to function, whatever technological innovations may develop.” – Ansel Adams
~ Jef Price
This post script isn’t about Jef’s photography or any of the (many valid) comments he’s made about photographic inspiration, or the state of the film photography industry – time for a sigh of relief.
I had a rather large wall of text prepared to help sign-off this interview but upon reflection, I don’t feel any of what I wrote does anything to add to Jef’s words above, quite the opposite in fact.
With that in mind, I’ll just leave you with three requests:
Please scroll back up and have another read. Jef’s journey has not been an easy one by any means, and I know it’s taken a lot for Jef to write about the effect of his TBI on his life and recovery to date. To me, his perseverance is as much of an inspiration as the quotes which accompany his thoughts.
Finally, you please check out Field Photographer, the website Jef mentions as a collaboration between he, Andrew Tonn and Cullen Marriott. At the time of writing it’s just getting started but there are a handful of lovely articles you can check out.
That’s it for this week’s interview. Thanks again for reading and as ever, keep shooting, folks.
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