I am Lilly Schwartz and this is why I shoot film
It’s a pleasure to be able to bring you Lilly Schwartz or @blaurebell, as she’s know on Twitter for today’s interview. Lilly is a true film photography hero. She’s passionate, incredibly knowledgeable, avidly shares her experiences with others, all that without even mentioning her stunning work.
It’s time for a real treat!
Over to you, Lilly.
Hi Lilly, what’re these these pictures, then?
LS: This picture is part of my Progress through Demolition project, which is a documentary project during which I went back to my hometown to document the disappearing traces of my childhood. My hometown in East Germany was really hit hard by the fall of the Soviet Union and about 25% of the population left over the course of 15 years after most of the factories closed down in the 1990s. Both my father and brother had already moved elsewhere a few years before I left myself at the age of 17.
After this exodus, whole streets became abandoned and there weren’t enough children left to keep the schools open. In the end the city council decided that it was best to demolish the empty buildings, and called this effort “Fortschritt durch Rückbau”, which is one of those typically German euphemisms and loosely translates as Progress through Demolition. As a result of this policy the house where we lived during my primary school years, my kindergarten, my primary school and my secondary school were all demolished.
It was a very difficult project, not only because of the emotional dimension, but also because I was trying to photograph something that just wasn’t there anymore. And since the region is still going through changes I’m never quite sure whether the project is finished or not. More buildings that still appear in my pictures have disappeared by now and I could always go back to document these changes as well. Right now I’m still in the process of printing the pictures in the darkroom on Slavich Unibrom 160 fibre cooltone paper which is produced in Russia and therefore a conceptual choice.
The Zorki 4K I used at the time was another Soviet touch, but frankly it was a bad choice because of the weather conditions I was facing. In cold weather these cameras tend to seize up and tear the film which means that printing these negatives in the darkroom turned out to be rather a challenge. In some cases I even need to resort to a hybrid process to produce a decent silver gelatin print because the negatives are too scratched.
The slow progress makes further changes to the project likely, but I will definitely finish it by 2019, which will mark 30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
LS: Did you know that this is an incredibly difficult question once you really start thinking about it?
I have been a tango dancer, a researcher, a roboticist, a designer, a writer, a photographer and probably a few other things over the years. Certain things drift out of my life for a while and then return with force. Other interests just fade and never return.
I have lived in 3 different countries – Germany, England and now Spain – and no place really felt like home until I had already left again. I always found it very hard to restrict myself to doing one single thing or staying in one single place. I seem to be always searching, always moving on, always trying something new. However, the most consistent force in my life is photography and this is where I return when I feel lost in my other pursuits. So, maybe I’m just a photographer who gets distracted a lot.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
LS: Although I shot a lot of film as a kid, I really started photography in the digital world. When I was a teenager the internet happened and I became very rooted in the digital realm early on, long before most people even knew about it.
I always got on well with computers, I learned to code very early, took computers apart, put them back together. I was fascinated with everything digital. It was unsurprising that I got my first digital camera as soon as they were affordable.
Coming back to film happened after I graduated from my Evolutionary and Adaptive Systems MSc, which combined a rather crazy mix of mobile robotics, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience. It was great, but I spent several years biting into a keyboard out of frustration over robot code that needed a lot of persuasion to finally work.
When I graduated I just had enough of the digital world I guess. I asked my brother for his old record player and bought myself a Zorki. Digital is easy, you just press a button and the machine can usually do the rest. And even if the machine fails, you can still fix things in Photoshop.
Even a monkey can take a selfie nowadays (Google it, it’s a good one)! It’s not that easy with a fully manual film camera.
With these manual cameras photography takes human skill and one can take pride in that skill. My first roll with my old Zorki was a real mess. Although I very much knew what I was doing with a digital camera, these skills obviously didn’t transfer to a fully manual film camera. That was the moment when I figured out that I still had a very long way to go.
For some reason I loved the look of it all, though. It was a bit like coming home after a long journey to a very different planet.
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
LS: My photography usually centres around humans. Frankly, humans have always puzzled me to some extent. My photography is an expression of that and tries to unravel or explore some of the mysteries that they pose. For a few years I have therefore been shooting street photography, usually with a few documentary projects on the side. These documentary projects tend to have a very personal side to them like my Progress through Demolition project, but they also expand into topics of more general interest.
I shoot other things as well, when the opportunity presents itself, but street and documentary photography is where my heart lies. My street photography is a little different, from what’s popular these days. I really try to focus on narrative rather than just the purely visual style that is favoured now.
I have always been interested in human behaviour, cognition and interaction. Before my Robotics Master I pursued a bachelor in Cultural Studies which always seems a bit of an odd combination to most people. However, both areas of research are actually connected and have plenty of overlap. After all, human cognition defines robot cognition and to ask how robots can interact with humans is to ask how humans interact. One could suspect my move from research into photography as another jump into a new direction, although really it’s just a different way of exploring the same area of interest.
In general my interests often combine in strange ways and these connections usually only become clear to me after several years of moving into a new direction. For example, after years of not coding one day I sat down to build a little film development robot so that I wouldn’t have to babysit my development tank anymore. It all connects, even if sometimes I don’t really know how it will all fit together in the end.
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?
LS: There are several things I’m working on at the moment, most importantly slide and motion picture film. I don’t actually shoot that much slide film – it’s one of these experiments that falls somewhat out of my practice -, so the disappearance of the Tetenal 1L E6 kit really upset my experiments a little. Right now I’m trying to recreate Kelly-Shane Fuller’s process of making E6 slides with BW and C41 chemistry, so that I don’t have to wait another 2 years before I see some of the slide film I shot this year. I could just give it to a lab, but I’m paranoid about film getting lost in the mail and I actually really like to tinker with such processes.
Messing about with motion picture film came about in the same spirit of exploration. I wanted tungsten balanced film for night photography so that I could shoot without a tripod and there are no options left for still photographers anymore. Cinestill is a good effort to make one of the motion picture tungsten films available for everyone, but since the pre-removal of the remjet means that there is no antihalation layer on it I have to go back to the source myself, which is Kodak Vision 3 500T. I can be a little bit of a perfectionist and the red halos of Cinestill just don’t work in every picture, although sometimes they create some weird magic too.
The other thing I would like to master in the foreseeable future is pinhole photography. Eventually I would like to build my own cameras and pinholes seem to be a good place to start, although I’m really not sure yet how these experiments will fit to my other work. Maybe in a few years I’ll know.
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?
LS: I would take my Leica M6 with my new Voigtländer Nokton 35mm f/1.2 lens. With such a wide aperture it’s my most flexible setup and M6 + 35mm is my favourite combination, which means that I’ll be comfortable with it no matter what.
My two film rolls would be one roll of Ilford Delta 400 Professional and one roll of Fuji Pro 400H. Delta 400 is such a smooth option and pushed to 800 it’s all I’d need with my f/1.2 lens. I only just discovered Fuji Pro 400H for myself. Much easier to colour correct than Portra and it seems to be a good allrounder. I’d probably also throw an ND filter in the bag just in case.
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?
LS: The thought of staying in one place for the rest of my life freaks me out a little, but I guess if I had to choose I’d probably choose Buenos Aires. Although always a little precarious politically, as a tango dancer I will always have a deep connection with the place. It’s big, it’s a bit crazy and very diverse, so there is always one more thing to photograph. Also choosing just one film seems somewhat crazy, since I keep switching emulsions after every 15-30 rolls.
If I had to choose one, I would choose HP5+. It’s the most versatile option of my favourites, because it pushes really well without building up contrast too fast, and classic grain BW just makes me happy in general.
It’s strange to choose a BW film in Buenos Aires, when I have always shot primarily colour there – as opposed to BW everywhere else – but the thought of having to process so much C41 film just makes me sigh. It’s such a hassle to develop it and I really dislike the smell of the C41 chemicals.
Besides, over there home processing C41 kits are simply not available and having to deal with bulk chemicals would annoy me too much. Still, in general ⅓ of what I shoot is colour which means that restricting me to one emulsion is even more cruel than to someone who only shoots BW or colour!
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
LS: No way! I guess if you force me at gunpoint I might take a roll of HP5+ in my Rollei to Paris. Shooting street with my Rollei in Paris is one of those things on my bucket list and I’m secretly dreaming of spending a month there doing just that.
Why the Rollei? The Leica experience can be recreated with digital Leicas, but there are no digital TLRs. Besides, somehow Paris strikes me as such a perfect place for my Rollei. To be honest though, if forced to give up film I would prefer not to shoot a last roll, because that’s just too much pressure. I don’t like to shoot under pressure.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
LS: There are many misconceptions about film photography floating about, for example that it’s prohibitively expensive, that it’s too difficult, that it “slows you down” and so on. I could write about all of these. However, I guess the most important one for me is the one that says that film makes you a better photographer. Although it can be true and was like that for me, it’s not necessarily true for everyone and under all circumstances.
If you keep shooting automatic cameras and have the lab develop the film for you, there really is no difference in the level of skill needed. Becoming a better photographer can only happen when you push yourself out of your comfort zone. Film is a good way to do that for any digital photographer, but only if pursued in the right way.
Film is also not a magic potion that will transform bad pictures into pure photographic gold. Content and photographic vision is still the most important part of photography. The camera, film or digital, the specific developer or film used are all secondary to the photographer’s vision. Of course these tools help to convey the message the photographer wants to convey – some things can only be said with cracking sharp and clean pictures whereas others only come across on homemade lenses and distressed film.
For me film is primarily about the tonality and the way classic grain looks in black and white. I just can’t get used to the super clean look of digital, even though sometimes I use low ISO films too. Secondly, without film photography I never would have started shooting colour. Digital colours just don’t look right to me no matter how expensive the sensor.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
LS: Recently there has been some buzz about the comeback of film photography. Yes, it’s getting more popular again, now that many people seem to be getting somewhat disenchanted with our all too digital world.
The popularity of film, vinyl and even hipster practices like growing vegetables on your own balcony are signs that the analog world is finally pushing back. However, sometimes I fear that this is just another fashion, like big hair and arcades in the 80s. It’s really hard to tell what’s going to happen in the long run, since humans are involved and they always behave in chaotic ways.
However, my hope is that a lot of the options being produced right now will be sustainable also in the future. After all, these are the options that survived the big crash of the industry after digital hit the market. There will always be a market for small film producers.
Maybe some more standardised processes will disappear in the long run – E6 perhaps – but there will always be tinkerers who won’t let themselves be stopped by such inconvenient circumstances. Kelly-Shane Fuller, who is my spirit guide in all things connected to slide film, even develops Kodachrome again! Whatever happens, I think I’ll have ammunition for my Leica M6 for a very long time.
~ Lilly Schwartz
It’s almost difficult to know where to start. Perhaps somewhere outside of this interview is a good place, I hope Lilly doesn’t mind me sharing.
She and I chatted over direct message towards the end of January. We were talking about slide film development using black and white chemicals in combination with a C41 kit in order to create transparencies. It’s an interesting and almost unbelievable process that underlines two things for me; the need for continual experimentation in film and the need to share results.
If you’ve read these pages for any appreciable amount of time, you’ll know that one of the main tenants of EMULSIVE as a platform is the encouragement of sharing – knowledge transfer – in the community. Film maybe dead, (or resurrected, I forget what the rest of the world is saying this week), but the industry is still here, cameras are still here and we are still here.
There’s so much information that’s squirrelled away in notebooks, dusty corners of people’s memories and dark places on the Internet. Much of this information is lost, or at least unobtainable by most of us but thriving communities still exist both online and off. It’s our responsibility as members of the global film photography community to share what we know, encourage experimentation and to push the envelope, to use that horrible term.
The more we share, the more we know. The more we know, the more we share.
I’ll take a guess and say that if you’ve read this far, you’re probably as passionate about film photography as Lilly is. Take a leaf out of her book and try something new, then talk or write about it. You’ve nothing to lose and you never know, it might take you somewhere unexpected and magical.
You can and really should connect with Lilly over on Twitter or at lillyschwartz.com. It’s also worth noting that Lilly is a co-founder of She Shoots Film. Their recent Indeigogo campaign to support issue one of She Shoots Film Magazine was fully funded and you can find more information about when it’ll be available over at their Facebook page – get to it!
That’s it for today but stay tuned for another interview coming the same time next week. In the meantime, you might be interested in reading Tim Dobb’s recent guest post on making and experimenting with redscale film using Agfa Vista Plus 200, or the first in a new series called My Return to Film, featuing the words and pictures of Adib Mufty.
With that, I bid you adieu. Keep shooting, folks!
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