EMULSIVE Interview #186: I am David Allen and this is why I shoot film
I think one of the first interactions I had with David was in Feb 2017 when he commented “best thread ever” on a Twitter thread I was involved in, which included a stock photo of two shirtless elderly gentlemen having a pretend fist fight.
I think that says it all, really.
Over to you, David!
Hi David, what’s this picture, then?
DA: This photo was taken during my daughter’s first real walk outdoors. She was about 14 months old and while she had been walking since she was about 11 months old, we had not yet let her loose on the street. She was so excited she practically ran the entire time.
I had been working on my splitter street photography series leading up to this; and, without thinking, I had grabbed my camera and slapped a splitter on it. So, I ended up snapping some candid family shots in the same style. The results blew my mind — it changed how I approached everyday photography. I realized that splitters could be as much a part of my everyday photographic arsenal as, say, a red filter.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
DA: I suppose I could best be described as a surly polymath. In high school I was mostly interested in art and philosophy, opting out of a fourth year of both math and science. I would, then, go to university as a theology major, only to drop out to focus on a video production company I had started with the guy who would end up making Amazing Grace, The Broadway Musical.
After a few years, we decided to go our separate ways. And, as my former partner kept the business, I was left with some video gear and no degree. So, naturally, I decided to go to a technical school for exercise science and nutrition, while still picking up occasional video production work.
From this, I would end up managing an athletic club, teaching at the same technical school, and eventually worked as a division 1 strength coach, while going back to school with the intended ends of a kinesiology degree.
As the wyrds would have it, I somehow ended up with a degree in mathematics, and later found myself in a PhD program in that same subject. It was sort of like when you go to the store for milk and end up coming home with five steaks, a grill, and a new SUV to bring them home in, all while forgetting the milk.
My wife, who had spent about five years in France, however, wanted to return. So, with a year or so remaining in my degree, I thought I had found someone with whom I could continue my research in France.
Being mistaken in the whole “I’ll continue my PhD in France, we’ll find funding” thing, I quickly found freelance work in a slew of areas, largely calling upon my video and graphics skills of old. I even found an outlet for my love of art, working as a ghostwriter for art experts.
Basically, I’m excellent at almost being successful at things.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
DA: When leaving Colorado for France, a good friend gave me a Canon AE-1 with a few lenses. He knew I had done a little photography in my video years and told me he thought I’d enjoy the analog process. Being a longtime friend of Jon Wilkening, I had been simultaneously following his analog journey and my interest was sufficiently piqued.
Before leaving for France, Jon gave me another camera, a developing tank, changing bag, and a glass of some vodka he found that was made from 100% potatoes, in the old style.
When the program in France didn’t work out, I was left with an AE-1 and a void once filled by mathematics. My doctoral research was in the area of algebraic geometry — a very technical, yet equally abstract, area of mathematics. As I experimented more with analog photography, I realized that it could play a part in filling this void.
With film photography, I need to use technical acumen to effect a given aesthetic. In many ways, this is not so dissimilar to the technical yet abstract nature of my area of mathematics. And, it is precisely for this reason that I initially found a love for multiple exposures. Without a screen, I need to visualize in my head my aesthetic (which is often abstract) and use tools to realize that aesthetic without a screen-enabled, immediate feedback loop.
This has grown from my use of multiple exposures — I’m continually interested in pushing boundaries in development techniques, in the darkroom, and within my own personal view of photography as an artistic medium. This is now what pushes me to keep shooting, even if it is also what makes it difficult for me to focus on mastery of any given technique (in math, an implicit proof is just as good as an explicit one — if I can see how one could master a given technique, I have a tough time continuing. This is my curse).
Also, recently, I joined forces with Simon Riddell, with whom I go on crazy photo adventures. The promise of such adventures is always a good kick in the pants when one is letting one’s rolls get freezer burnt. We’re actually throwing around the idea of a YouTube show centered around our photographical (mis)adventures, which would be a great excuse to try newer, possibly dumber, things.
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
DA: Initially, I was both largely encouraged and inspired by Jon Wilkening (you can listen to us talk over possibly too many whiskeys on his podcast, The Creative Bar.
As mentioned, I have a long-running passion for art, namely, modern and contemporary art. But, while my knowledge of the history of photography is ever increasing, I must admit a dearth of knowledge in the medium when beginning. For this reason, much of my photography has been largely influenced by artists of other media, save for Man Ray who is most definitely my favorite photographer.
I suppose some notable influences are René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, and (more philosophically than aesthetically), Wassily Kandinsky. Oh, and Man Ray. He’s great. I wish I was half the photographer he was.
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
DA: My freelance work requires I use digital cameras both for video and photography. Apart from that, I don’t touch the digital camera for photography. I tried, one day, taking it with me on a walk about town. I couldn’t get inspired; and I definitely took fewer photos than would fit on a roll of 120 at 6×9.
I haven’t tried shooting digital for a personal photography project since.
For me, restrictions on the medium force my creativity. For my day job, I must use photo editing software — I know it very well. In that domain, for me, anything is possible. And where anything is possible, there’s no problem to solve, and no reason to push the medium. The limitations on a completely analog process, however, force me to creatively find ways to affect any sought aesthetic.
While I could easily recreate any of my double exposures on the computer using digital photos, I have come to find that I would have never come up with those concepts in the first place if not for these restrictions. This, of course, is a personal path to creativity. In the end, what matters is the image. Whether someone creates that digitally, on film, or the aforementioned’s love child.
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?
DA: I want to focus more on the darkroom. I really believe in working in photographic series and would like to work on producing more exhibition-ready series using a completely analog workflow.
Additionally, the darkroom opens up a whole new world in terms of experimentation and possibilities— I want to add these to my arsenal in creating photos.
Having recently moved, I have already built a darkroom in my garage. I believe the next year will see me taking fewer photos, but spending more time in there, trying to make new works from photos already taken.
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
DA: There’s an old, rubbled tower in Toulouse that I’m fascinated with. It seems that every time I wish to test a film, a new developing process, or new gear, I end up there, taking the same photo. Someday, when I have enough of these photos, in an homage to Warhol, I’ll make a giant contact sheet of them all.
The tower isn’t of notable interest to many people. Repeating its image until it is meaningless feels appropriate (and might be seen as a commentary of our contemporary photographical echo chamber. See, surly.
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?
DA: Lately, I’ve been shooting with my Horseman VH-R a lot. I can shoot various formats with it, including 4×5. Replete with a rangefinder, it’s a pretty handy little (read: “big”) press camera. So, I’d probably grab that with both the 6×9 and the 6×7 backs.
For the lens, I’d go with the 120mm; and, not only because it’s the only lens I have for the thing. 120mm on 6×9 is wide enough for most any situation. And, with medium format, I have a lot of cropping leeway later if I need to get closer. Also, I’d take the Cokin with a slew of splitting masks, and other filters (I’m allowed that, right?)
For film, I’d definitely go with one roll of ILFORD FP4 PLUS, and one roll of HP5 PLUS. FP4 PLUS is my favorite emulsion which I often shoot up to EI 800. The HP5 PLUS would ensure that I could easily get up to EI 6400 if needed. (Although, I have successfully shot FP4 PLUS at EI 4000 getting a very usable result using solarization.)
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?
DA: One of my problems is that I like change too much, so the location would have to be rather robust. This is hard. Let’s start with the film — FP4 PLUS in all formats (wait… am I being asked what gear I’d take? What Film?).
Anyway, as an avid rock climber, I might just have to go to Grand Teton National Park. I’d also need a box truck converted into a dark room… with a giant lens attachment to use the truck as a camera… and some of that unlimited film in very exotic sizes… Wait, does the unlimited film include darkroom paper?
I’d also need to bring a disposable camera to reload with some of the FP4 PLUS while doing climbs.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
I’ve never shot AEROCHROME. As someone who has been described as a “surrealist photographer”, I should probably shoot at least one roll before I quit.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
DA: In general, photography is an artistic medium which has been almost fatally tied to its gear (see: comment thread to any PetaPixel post). I think this extends to film photography. You don’t need any fancy, expensive gear to make great photos on film.
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again — if you can’t make a good photo using a disposable camera, you can’t make a good photo. And, to the end of setting this straight, I actually already concocted a scheme with Jon Wilkening to reload disposable cameras with mystery films and send them to photographers. The goal is to make a book from the results… That is, once we get our asses in gear and start reloading the stupid things.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
DA: I honestly don’t know. The current fad prices of cameras like the Contax T3 with a decreasing number of cameras available to those who might otherwise try the medium has my cynicism spiking. I just want to see one viable, reasonably priced, new camera come to market and I’ll calm down.
Also, as someone who is finding love for darkroom processes, I’d throw some hope in the direction of “darkroom printing sees a resurgence;” but I’m not holding my breath.
Jokey intro aside, David is quite possibly the most cerebral creative I have ever had the pleasure of encountering. From conversations about solarising negative film, to his approach to perfecting his splitter multiple exposures and all the way to what looked like some pretty intense mathematical equations to perfectly create said multiple exposures, it’s both a pleasure and a bit frightening to talk to him – mostly because you have no idea where he’s going to go next (and the fact that he’s likely already several conversational topics ahead of you!)
Fear aside, I hope you’ve enjoyed finding out more about him here and with any luck, I’ll be featuring more of his work here one day – with an appropriate health warning. You can catch up with David over on Twitter, Instagram or over on his website. Please make sure you do.
The next interview will be out at the beginning of September and it’s one I’ve been working on for quite a while now. With any luck, it’ll be ready in time.
In the meantime, I’d love for you to check out my recently published definitive list of analogue photography podcasts, as well as the latest updates to my series on every single film stock still made today.
Thanks for reading and remember, keep shooting, folks!
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