EMULSIVE | Sep 26, 2018 | 8
EMULSIVE interview #147: I am Isabel Curdes and this is why I shoot film
I’ve been looking forward to this for a while and in fact…that’s all I’m going to say about it. Over to you, Isabel!
Hi Isabel, what’s this picture, then?
IC: This is one of the very few pictures I ever entered into a competition (Ilford “Just add…”) and it will also be the last as I don’t think art can be “judged” like that. Still I am really proud of this as Ilford now uses it on their new homepage and so I can support a great company that still believes in film.
But apart from that and for me even more important, it is one of my favourite pictures as not only is it from the very first roll of film I ever developed at home, it also contains so many of the things I love…there is silence, space and mystery, a place of forgotten stories and ghosts… For me the beautiful soft grain and tonal transitions of film really bring it to life and add a nostalgic and melancholic feel that I am sure I could not have achieved without film.
OK, so who are you? (The short version please)
IC: I am an artist, a dreamer, a wanderer and explorer. I am an INFJ (MBTI) and a 5 wing 4 (Enneagram) for those who, like me, are also interested in psychology.
I was born in Germany but a few years ago, after a long search, I finally found my home in the middle of Jutland (Denmark) in the countryside together with my “pack” – consisting of a very supportive boyfriend and our two dogs.
I have the soul of a child and many years of experience as a grown-up. I love imagining things and stories and I like to share what I see and feel through my pictures and books with anyone who is interested.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
IC: I grew up with film but went fully digital in 2002 when I got a digital point-&-shoot-camera. After 11 years without any film things changed when I started to look for a new camera, MY CAMERA, end of 2013.
As I was very much drawn to the look of medium format photography I began my quest with film cameras because they were more affordable.
So I used my first roll of film again in December 2013 on Iceland but continued to mainly work with digital when I found the Hasselblad V-system in 2014 and managed to buy a digital back for it. Still, the seed was sown and now and then I shot a roll of film and with each one of them my love for film slowly grew and when I finally developed my first negatives at home in the bathroom early last year, there was no return.
Since then we have built a little darkroom and film photography has become my main type of photography especially as I now also use a large format camera (4×5) and vintage lenses. This year I went on my first trip where I only packed film and it was wonderful.
I enjoy the whole process from loading the holders/film backs to the development in my little darkroom and all the options I have with regards to formats, lenses and different films.
I love the way my approach to photography has become even more sensual and intimate as I spend more time on and with each subject and picture.
I love how perfectly imperfect and unpredictable film can be and how it teaches me to embrace those imperfections and “accidents” as part of its unique beauty.
I feel that all of this is reflected in and enhances my work and the look of my final prints and thus helps me to visualize my dreams which is really what keeps me shooting film.
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
IC: I have been thinking about influences and inspiration a lot recently as I am also writing a blog post about it.
When I first started out I basically did “what was expected” from a photo(grapher) in my family – to document holidays and family events. I was influenced by what the people around me wanted to have as memories. I used photography to record what was there and what everybody saw.
A few years ago all of that changed when I went through a severe burn-out which turned my whole life upside down. It was a time of introspection and recovery during which I learned that my biggest inspiration and influence had to come from myself if I ever wanted to be truly happy – it had to come from the dreams and visions of my inner child and from the feelings and experiences of the adult I had become.
As I found photography at a stage in my life where after many years of being influenced by others and living “their life” I finally managed to find my own voice, I feared and thus fiercely rejected any kind of external influence by other people and especially photographers.
You could say that my photography was my “Galapagos”. So I stayed on my Galapagos during the first years and the only photographer that visited my island was Ansel Adams – as you cannot (and should not) escape his photography series about cameras, negatives and prints when you want to learn about film photography.
It was only last year that I felt I was finally ready to let other people’s work into my life without the fear that they might influence me too much.
Luckily I found a great mentor in Jonathan Chritchley who step by step introduced me to the work of other photographers – he never showed if he was maybe a little shocked that I basically did not know any of the photographers we discussed and there were some big names like Avedon, Weston, Callahan, Haas,…
While I enjoyed looking at everything from documentary to completely abstract photography, from old to modern, from portrait over architecture to landscape and wildlife, digital or analog and while I learned a lot from examining the individual styles and techniques of other photographers I would only consider Harry Callahan as a real influence.
I loved the curiosity and love he put into his work and that he did not limit himself to a certain genre or style but still managed to put together a body of work that feels consistent and very much “Harry Callahan”. That is what I am striving for in my photography and art.
Other influences on my work are definitely things like poetry and literature as well as paintings. Fantasy books and historical novels are my favourites as they speak to the child in me that loves adventures and mysteries. Literature also influences the way I work in some of my projects which are more like short stories.
With regards to paintings I have been mainly influenced by three styles which are Japanese paintings with ink and watercolour as well as romantic and abstract paintings. I could name a few painters whose work I admire but it is more the general feel of some of the paintings that speaks to me and influences my style of photography and not necessarily the whole body of work of one painter.
I like the minimalism in some of the Japanese paintings as it gives my soul space, the softness and use of light in many romantic paintings as it emphasises the dreaminess and magic I look for and the abstraction especially in some monochromatic watercolour landscapes as it creates a sense of mystery.
In the end, the main influence – the why and what – still comes from within myself while the external elements provide me with ideas on how to “paint” my dream realm.
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
IC: I have to say it, I don’t like the term “mixed medium”. I would consider myself an artist who uses visual media and words to express my vision. My boyfriend thinks that “omni-media” would be a great description and I have to agree with him.
I don’t own a digital camera anymore but “only” a digital back which I happily use on those of my film cameras where it is possible. I prefer this half-digital solution when I am out with the Hasselblad Flexbody as I can use the live view function or when I do more experimental work like exploring new techniques or old lenses as it is easier and cheaper – so rather practical reasons.
But most of the time I now use film as it gives me the look and feel I want for my work. Film gives me the possibility to use my vintage lenses and large format camera with all the options of tilting and shifting to create the soft and dreamy look I need for most of my projects.
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?
IC: Oh there is a long list of things I want to explore and it seems I am constantly adding to it since I started with film. It did not shorten the list when I attended a workshop with John Brewer on wet plate collodion earlier this year which was amazing and where we also sneaked in an albumen print of one of the plates we made.
I also have a whole bunch of books which I read at the moment to help me make a decision about which techniques and processes could work best for some of the projects I have in mind and which of them I want to try first.
I am especially fascinated by anything that relates to alternative printing techniques from lith printing to platinum-palladium and agryotype. But I also want to explore some of the more “artistic” techniques like oil printing and bromoil as they seem to combine my love for painting with photography.
Anyway, the first challenge and thus next step will be to learn contact printing including how to best create negatives from my digital files so that I won’t need an enlarger and then probably the use of liquid emulsion to be able to print on various types of paper. This will also be the basis for many of the other techniques so it’s a good start. I just need to find some time…
Apart from these challenges I also want to work on my book-making skills as I have plans to create more books and use different styles that work best with the individual concepts.
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
IC: I have a dream… 😉
I would say that as long as the subject matter and style fits with my vision and ideas I am basically open for everything though you will most likely never find street photography in my portfolio…not that I don’t like some of the work from other photographers but it’s just not me…too many people and not enough silence and space.
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?
IC: I hardly ever have an idea what I will be shooting when I go out so that is an easy question. I would take my trusty Hasselblad 2000 as I know that camera and am sure that I can create some beautiful pictures wherever I go. I have used it on long walks, in the city and for portraits – I can handhold it for hours or put it on a tripod.
While I love all my cameras this is the one where I have to think least and can just be in the moment, focusing on the assignment. As for the lens, I would bring the 110mm f/2 Zeiss Planar because I love the look wide-open and it is perfect for the way I see the world.
It also has the added bonus that the maximum aperture of f/2 together with the shutter speed of the Hasselblad 2000 makes it great for nearly any light conditions.
For film I would definitely take some of my favourite Ilford Delta 100 Professional but then I would have to do a blind-draw between Fuji Velvia and Ilford Delta 400 Professional…or more likely I would secretly bring both of them hoping that I would not be body-searched 😉
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?
IC: I would take all the cameras and lenses I have or at least my Hasselblad with three lenses and extension tubes as well as my 4×5 Arca Swiss with three lenses as well as some filters for both. Last but not least – depending on where I go – I might take a panorama (6×12) pinhole camera as it is something I really want to experiment with some more and which so far I haven’t been able to make work.
Mmmhhh, the size of the location is not defined so can I go with Earth…too big…how about Europe…still…ok, Scandinavia then…even smaller…I would take a little camper, put up a darkroom in it and then just drive and walk around Norway happily for the rest of my life.
I have a very special love for Norway as it was the place I went to when I recovered from my burnout and I stayed all by myself at a lighthouse for nearly 3 months…which is also where I discovered photography as the “medicine” that helped me to heal. But if that is still not small enough to qualify as location I would say “my garden” at home as that is my personal paradise, my retreat and the place where adventures happen not only in my imagination. Many of my pictures are made in my garden where I love spending time just walking around dreaming.
Does an unlimited supply of film mean that I can have more than one type of film? If yes, then I would probably pick as my standard films Ilford PAN F 50, Delta 100 and 400 as well as Fuji Velvia for my Hasselblad (and the pinhole) and Rollei RPX25 (because there is no PAN F 50 in 4×5…yet?), Delta 100 and Bergger 400 as well as Fuji Velvia again for my 4×5.
If I was only allowed one film it would be Fuji Velvia as despite I normally mainly shoot B&W this would give me at least the option to have colour as well as B&W when converted in Lightroom. Clever?
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
IC: I really hope that on that day I will already have shot all the films I ever wanted to shoot in all the locations I ever wanted to make pictures in so it would not feel bad.
Then I would challenge the Norns (the Norse “goddesses” of Fate)…if fate exists I will end up with what I am supposed to create and if fate does not exist it will at least be an adventure.
So I would simply take one roll of each 120 film available that day, put them all in a big bag and just draw one of them. Maybe I will end up with a film I have never used before, maybe it will be one I know very well…who knows, at least it will be fun.
To continue with the adventure, I would then take a world map, cut it into pieces and draw one of them as my destination.
Finally, I would simply see what happens when I get there…
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
IC: The biggest misconception I still encounter when talking to people about film photography is that they think film is just not available and that you cannot get it developed.
I always respond that there are still great companies who believe in film and that while in many places it might not be that easy anymore to find film at a local shop there are still specialist shops and definitely some great places online where you can get all you want…just ask in one of the film communities on the internet.
With regards to developing film…how about doing it yourself…you don’t even need a darkroom, a changing bag and some daylight-tanks will do the trick and I promise you will love it.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
IC: I think the future of film photography is what we make out of it.
As long as we all continue to believe in film, shoot film and spread the word and most of all our wonderful pictures, then the future will get brighter and brighter as more and more people will see the possibilities and beauty of film. Where there is a market there will be companies to serve it, that is basic business.
What I personally think should be emphasised more is that even when you shoot film you can also process your negatives digitally like I do – hybrid processes give you amazing options
~ Isabel Curdes
There’s almost too much to pick out and talk about. It’s a little overwhelming to be honest. That said, there is one point Isabel makes which sticks out for me when she talks about her burn-out in the “Who or what influenced you…” question above:
“A few years ago all of that changed when I went through a severe burn-out which turned my whole life upside down. It was a time of introspection and recovery during which I learned that my biggest inspiration and influence had to come from myself if I ever wanted to be truly happy – it had to come from the dreams and visions of my inner child and from the feelings and experiences of the adult I had become.”
Burn-out as a means of self-discovery isn’t exactly an ideal path and not one to aspire to by any means. That said, it seems to me that Isabel’s time at the lighthouse afforded her a period of time where she was required to stop, reflect, reinvigorate and as she said, find her own voice.
The results of that to me, an outsider, are the beautiful and often dream-like photographs she produces and the passion at which she attacks her craft, not to mention her writing (more on that a bit later).
I’m not usually one to analyse photographs in exhaustive detail, as I fear that I’ll start spouting nonsense. In fact, I wrote several paragraphs where I waffled on about the loneliness, solitude and feelings of being in a half dream state that many of Isabel’s photographs evoke, which you’ll be glad to know I deleted after my bullshit meter started wailing at me.
What I will say is this:
We all have inside of us a creative streak and the ability to flex it. I do not believe for a minute when someone tells me they’re “not the creative kind”. I have friends who stumbled on their own creativity having feared it lost after decades of working in boring and mundane jobs with neither a creative outlet or the desire for one. Soul destroying tediousness combined with acceptance that it was normal. You should see them now.
No matter what negative feelings you may have about your own creative ability (or supposed lack of), and no matter whether you feel that way constantly or occasionally, there will be a time and place where you will begin to shine…or shine again. Believe me.
Sometimes it’s as simple shifting to a slower gear, focusing on something else entirely and not forcing it. Other times it can come from a change, whether that be subtle or a mallet to the head – “learn to write with your other hand”, a teacher used to tell me.
Go join a pottery class, paint something terribly, care for a bonsai, make something with your kids, sew an outfit for your dog…or just bake a pie (my personal favourite). Last but not least, doodle like your life depended on it. You never know where a pencil and paper will take you, even if you supposedly “can’t draw”.
That’s all for today, and I’d like to extend a massive thanks for reading my rambles and of course, Isabel’s wonderful words above. Thank you for giving us a window into your world, Isabel.
Before I go, it would be remiss of me to leave you without asking you to connect with Isabel over on Twitter, her website (where you can find more of her amazing work!), and her blog, where you can find not only long-form thought pieces but also some wonderful poetry accompanying her photography. Step to it!
Just another week to wait until you can meet the next EMULSIVE interviewee. Until then, keep shooting, folks!
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