I am Luis Barrancos and this is why I shoot film
Today’s interviewee hails from Portugal and is currently enjoying life in tropical Malaysia. He’s been shooting film in one form or another for over three decades and has a wonderful eye for detail – both composition and print.
It’s over to Luis Barrancos!
Hi Luis, what’s this picture then?
LB: This is a picture of a couple of dogs on a farm called Cabeça Gorda in the Alto Alentejo province of Southern Portugal, which I took when I was a teenager. A shepherd entered the room, and they turned their heads to his direction.
In the hot summer holidays, we used to visit my father’s hometown (Redondo); I enjoyed wandering around, observing and documenting rural farm life, daily routines…a disappearing way of life. People had slowly moved away from the village, leaving the farm houses uninhabited. Slowly, the abandoned farm houses decayed and what remains are mostly ruins, except those that were converted for rural tourism. These houses had thick stone walls, painted white to reflect the sunlight and to keep the interior relatively cool in the heat of the summer. I recall the light that entered and bounced through small openings, with a diffused haze-like quality.
Back then, I was using a Minolta X700 and an MD 50mm f/1.7 lens. This was shot at f/1.7 on Kodak T-MAX 400, pushed to 800 ASA and developed in T-MAX developer. I remember this exact configuration, because not only was it my regular film/developer combination, it was also the setting for a slight mishap. After developing the film, when washing it, I got distracted with something else and left the water running for a few minutes. Upon returning to the kitchen, I noticed to my horror that steam was coming out of the development tank. I reacted immediately, turning the water faucet from hot to cold, giving rise to a half-molten negative.
It wasn’t as bad as it sounds though, the negatives were usable and printable in grade 2 (Ilford MGIV FB for the record). This series of events, coupled with the slight softness and vignetting of the 50mm wide open – all these accumulated imperfections is what makes this photo special to me. It is also a reminder that I should always pay attention to the process temperatures.
OK, so who are you? (the short version, please)
LB: I’m Luis Barrancos, 44 years old, born and raised in Porto, Portugal in a family of artists. My siblings and I were always encouraged to express ourselves through visual arts. As a kid I also developed an interest in computing after i got my first 8-bit computer (a ZX Spectrum). I followed in my parent’s footsteps in pursuing something related to visual arts in university, which led to a long period away from computers, however the rise of Linux in the 1990s rekindled in my my fascination of fusing arts and science together – something I had enjoyed with my film camera and the science behind developing, printing.
One thing led to another, and I eventually found work in the computer graphics industry. I currently live in Malaysia, where it is hot and humid throughout the year. Everything from film and gear storage, to cooling down black and white working solutions to 20°C is a huge challenge which I had pretty much taken for granted in Portugal. I work with digital photography as well but these days when I want to relax I just shoot film and the DSLR stays at home.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
LB: My first camera was a gift from my grandfather when I was still a kid – a Bilora Bella 66 model 3 medium format camera, which as the name suggests, shoots 6×6. I have to confess that back then, I only used it a couple of times but I guess it kindled my fascination with cameras in general.
In my early teens, I had a 127 camera whose make and model escapes me. I still have shots from that camera somewhere, but the camera itself is gone. My first more serious contact with film was in my mid-teens, when a part-time job helped pay for a Minolta X700 and MD 50mm f/1.7 lens.
At the time of my father’s passing, I was organizing some belongings and ran into some family albums. Browsing the albums and seeing actual physical tangible images, each showed the characteristics of the format, the film, and the way they deteriorated. Some had acquired a reddish cast, others lost a bit of the shadow detail, or black density. Perhaps it was that particular moment, but they all seemed more real, permanent compared to digital images, despite the inevitable decay.
I keep shooting film because it’s part of a need to create images irrespective of medium, but in the case of film in particular, because it has a very unique aesthetic quality, very different than digital. I find shooting film much more relaxing than digital, in the way that it forces you to stay focused (pardon the pun) and visualize the entire process, especially when developing and printing at home.
You have a lot of freedom in these stages – development, printing – specially when you realize it’s impossible to control accurately all the variables in these processes. There is an intrinsic chaotic nature in film photography that is not present in digital, and that has its own appeal as well.
Finally, permanence. Those albums, those Agfamatic 110 shots with all their imperfections had a haptic quality, they were tangible in a way that digital isn’t. I can leave negatives, slides and prints behind, and someone will be able to see an image forty years from now. I don’t know if the same will happen with digital.
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
LB: There were lots of influences, lots of small things, but I only really got more interested in photography in my mid-teens. I remember being mesmerized by some images made by Keiichi Tahara, William Eggleston, but one of the more prominent things perhaps was when a national newspaper started publishing a Saturday supplement by Sebastião Salgado, about workers. The images were powerful. Some compositions looked like paintings. I was developing my own 35mm film at home then.
At first, without an enlarger, the only thing I could do was getting a sheet of 18x24cm paper and cover it with 6 strips of 35mm film, a piece of glass, and turn lights of the improvised “darkroom” on and off to get a contact print. Later on, with a cheap condenser enlarger, I learnt something very important about photography: that printing is an art form in and on itself, and that good printers are not necessarily good photographers nor vice-versa.
Those photos forced me to learn more about printing and the entire photographic process. Inevitably this forces you to visualize the image and have in mind the entire process, before and after exposure.
Later on, a friend of my father lent me a Durst M601 with a colour head and he showed me some of his Cibachromes. They were fantastic. Those prints had saturated colours, smooth gradation, strong blacks and great contrast. Eventually I tried Cibachromes at home as well, but only once in a while when I could afford it since the process was expensive.
Present day influences, that’s a difficult question. I enjoy re-reading, (re?)discovering the work of master photographers in old magazines and books. The French Photographies Magazine, the US Camera & Darkroom, Swiss Camera International are magazines that presented work that would always make me feel humble. These days my main source of “news” are americansuburbx.com, and of course, EMULSIVE.org.
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
LB: I’m not sure that would be the best way to put it. I like to create images in any medium. Like many i joined the digital “revolution” because of my interest in photography, and also for professional reasons.
A few years back, I was travelling quite a bit through Asia and it was just more practical and convenient to shoot in digital format.
One day I came across a classified for a Polaroid 104 Land camera. The price was good, and the owner made a really good deal by throwing in 5 packs of Fuji FP100C. So I bought it and this ended my long hiatus from film.
Upon returning home to Portugal for the summer holidays, I decided to take one of the film cameras with me to Asia. A Fuji GS645S that I had bought some years earlier for a preposterously low price – people were selling film cameras for peanuts when digital started to become popular. It felt like seeing an old friend, and in no time, I was enjoying shooting film again.
Today, the Fuji has as companions, a Noon 612 multi-format pinhole, and a Mamiya 6 with the 50, 75 and 150mm lenses (the Mamiya was sadly, not being sold at peanut prices).
My choice of medium isn’t really clear cut, but I generally bring along my DSLR if I’m travelling for extended periods of time and there is going to be landscapes, panoramas, and city nightscapes. Digital photography can be interesting and has its challenges, for instance, colour science and the processing pipeline. This and other issues promote a kind of cross-pollination of knowledge and ideas between film and digital. Lots of technical knowledge acquired in sensitometry books, reading film data-sheets, printing in the darkroom ended up in my digital processing workflow and vice-versa.
These days, when I want to relax or get away from everything, I just take one of the film cameras with me. It forces me to stop, to slow down, and to pre-visualize the shot from the exposure, to development, to print and at each of these stages you have creative choices to make. With digital it’s too easy to adopt a more liberal approach that allows you to postpone decisions to post-production.
In my opinion, there is more discipline required in shooting film in that it requires a more complete vision of what the photographer wants to achieve. For me, being completely immersed in this process drives me to shoot film.
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?
LB: Only somewhat recently, I started developing my own black & white film again. I would love to find a way to develop film on location as you travel, but I can’t see myself carrying much gear and developing film in hotel rooms.
Within the next 12 months, I hope to start developing C41 at home, as well as starting to print black & white again. I find that a good silver-gelatin print has a very different look than a digital print.
Then there’s RA4, large format photography and alternative processes, specially platinum/palladium, gum bichromate. Digital negatives are also piquing my curiosity, so I think 12 months won’t suffice for all of this…12 years would be more like it.
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
LB: Though I try not to have the same subjects, I keep getting drawn to… luminosity perhaps. I don’t know how to describe this: A shot at dusk, contrast, grain, sometimes a blur, a silhouette, a shadow, a figure, flash of colour, or the play of light. It doesn’t need to be anything specific. The visual and subjective description of a moment, rather than the perfect depiction of the moment itself. Does that make sense?
I like the way the imperfections in film sometimes create a feeling of timelessness in an image that I find lacking in digital, but that is also a bit of a generalization. When using digital, I find myself shooting mostly panoramas and night time cityscapes – not mutually exclusive – maybe it’s just habit.
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?
LB: The choice of film is somewhat easier than the choice of gear. Kodak Portra 800 for its unique colour rendition, and Fuji Neopan Acros 100 for its reciprocity failure characteristics. The choice of gear… that is a difficult one.
I like the portability of rangefinders so it would come down to either the Mamiya 6 and its 75mm lens, or the Fuji GS645S. Mamiya 6 is the one I would probably pick because it has a brighter viewfinder, and I’d still have the ability to crop a considerable part of the image if needed
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?
LB: Probably Kodak Portra 800 and Hong Kong. I just like the grain, the slightly green cast that is somehow able to deal with the chaos of light sources of Hong Kong at night. The play of light is especially beautiful in the rain, and with the urban density that is Hong Kong, there’s always something new to explore.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t be able to stay in the same location for the rest of my life, so it would be a transient experience. But I’m definitely not done with photographing Hong Kong just yet.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
LB: Never! Take my film and camera away, and I will be making images with shoe boxes and self coated emulsions for sure.
But, for this hypothetical last roll, probably I will use the same combination that got me started. Kodak T-MAX 400 developed in T-MAX developer and shot with the Minolta X700 / 50mm f/1.7. Not anything extraordinary but I could always get 36 frames out of the roll and be able to push it well.
I would expose it in Patagonia. For quite some time now, I’ve been thinking of going all the way from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. It would be the perfect excuse to do this, taking my time – after all it is my last roll. I don’t know if it’s possible to go across to the Antarctic Peninsula, but that would be the perfect last frame – at the end of the world.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
LB: That somehow film is obsolete, and that “digital is better than film”, or that film was supposed to be better than digital to begin with.
The popularity of acrylic painting didn’t made oil painting obsolete, and the appearance of photography didn’t made painting obsolete either. Digital displaced film photography and took over its mass market role, but film photography will always exist one way or the other, though in a more modest and niche scale.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
LB: It’ll always be here. Even if suddenly there were no cameras and no film manufacturers nor film, you would still find someone digging through books and preparing their own emulsions, coating their own glass plates or paper, exposing in self-made pinholes or perhaps slightly better cameras with some simple lens design – but they would be there, together with their determination to create an image, to tell a story, to communicate, even if in the worst case that story only makes sense to you.
How you choose to do it is up to you, but there will always be a community of passionate people keeping film alive.
~ Luis Barrancos
Luis says in the final sentence in his final answer above, “How you choose to do it is up to you, but there will always be a community of passionate people keeping film alive.”
If you’ve encountered me in any way, shape or form elsewhere on the internet, you’ll know that I and by extension, this website and the people who have offered their words and pictures on these pages are all about one thing: community.
I agree with Luis when he says that there will always be a community for film photography (and analogue photography in general) but we need to remember that it will inevitably stagnate if we are passive members of it. We need to engage and inspire, we need to be open to bringing new people into it and we need to fight those who believe that community should be controlled, directed and forced into a particular mode of thinking.
“Correct” may be a valid concept but there is no “right”. We all express ourselves in our own unique ways and if this means doing things that are “wrong” by the standards of others, then it’s that perception, not the product that needs to be questioned.
We need to keep building, encouraging and developing our community; and we need to take as much as we give to it. Finally, and likely most importantly, we need to remain passionate about doing so.
After all, what is creativity without passion?
Thanks again to Luis for stepping up. You can find him over on Twitter – please make sure you give him a follow.
That’s it for another interview but don’t forget you can find any you missed in the archives! See you the next fresh interview next Wednesday.
If you still need a film photography fix, have a think about checking out Tim Dobbs’ recent Mamiya 645 1000S review, 5 Frames With… #24 by Michael Rennie and of course, DeltaDefJam’s September 2017 shortlist could do with your vote!
Thanks for reading and keep shooting, folks!
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