EMULSIVE interview 187: I am Kim Weston and this is why I shoot film – NSFW
Regular readers will be aware that I typically focus on everyday film shooters (like me) for these interviews but the opportunity occasionally arises to sit down with someone very special.
This is one of those times and I’m very happy to welcome Kim Weston to the EMULSIVE fold.
For those of you not familiar with Kim’s work and background, I’ll let him do the talking. For those of you who are, I hope you’ll be able to learn something new about the man and his family and work.
One thing before you scroll down; some of the photography contained here is definitely not safe for work, and the interview contains some art which some readers may find disquieting.
With that said, it’s over to Kim.
Hi Kim, what’s this picture, then?
KW: My image is blank. For me, the work I will create next has a specific and powerful personal connection to me. The art itself is not that valuable. It’s about the process and my ability to keep creating work.
Ok, so who are you? (The short version, please)
KW: My name is Kim Weston. I am a third generation black and white film photographer and I have been making photographs for nearly five decades. I live in Carmel Highlands, CA with my wife Gina, where we teach several fine art nude photography workshops every year.
In 2004, after seeing darkrooms closing on the Monterey Peninsula, Gina and I founded the Weston Collective. The Collective is a non-profit which benefits high school and college students practising black and white film photography.
It’s now in its 15th year and remains committed to the preservation of black and white film photography on the central coast of California. Through it, we create and support photographic mentorships, exhibitions and the Weston Scholarship, which has awarded over $100,000 for students’ photographic excellence to date.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting today?
KW: I started making photographs when I was six and, being a pretty shy kid, I loved spending hours in the darkroom with my negatives. It was a dark quiet place where I could focus on my work. Since then, I have been driven by a constant pursuit of clarity and honesty in my work.
I grew up in an atmosphere saturated with photography and as a child, when I would go to peoples houses I would be like, “Where’s your darkroom?!”. My first camera was a Rollei and I would go out and take pictures of my dad, brothers and sister. It wasn’t very long before I moved to 4×5.
Now, when I say our home was saturated with photography, I mean that there were literally cameras everywhere. It was easy to pick something up and use it. It was something I really enjoyed. Of the four brothers and sister in the house, I don’t know why I was the only one who picked one up.
We grew up in a very rural spot in the country, our nearest neighbour was ten miles away. You had to make do with what you had back then and my siblings and I had each other as our playmates.
My grandfather died when I was five years old and his photography wasn’t something that we really spoke about as a family. Of course, I knew he took pictures but it wasn’t until my teens that I became more aware of him and his work. Edward’s work always had a more profound effect on my father than on me. I felt he was always battling with being the son of a great photographer. That’s one of the reasons he moved to color – not wanting to be compared to the man that came before him. It’s funny though, my uncle Brett didn’t have a problem with the comparison.
Pressure and expectations skipped a generation, I guess. I started with a fresh canvas whereas my father lived in shadow. Of course, my father tried to get away from the stigma of “the son” but ended up spending most of his life printing his father’s negatives.
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
KW: My influences were, of course, my father (Cole Weston), my uncle (Brett Weston), and my grandfather (Edward Weston) who all shared a love for the photographic discipline.
Who or what continues to influence me? My persistent hunger to better my vision and to understand myself as an artist. I move from challenge to challenge; the things I set myself to achieve.
There’s retrospection involved, sure, and looking back I can certainly see an evolution of ideas, concepts and feelings. I look at my work from 40 years ago and consider those pieces like children: undeveloped and full of potential. Each photograph represents part of a thread of capturing a moment in time: I created scenes and executed them as a statement of what they were and I was at that time.
I will often revisit ideas from the perspective of capturing them in the context of where I am today but once a photograph has been made, it’s time to move on; it is complete. I guess it’s probably best described as expressing a thought beyond the scene in front of me. Most of my inspiration came from and continues to come from paintings, the Impressionists especially…all of ‘em!
When I was younger if I happened to be in New York, I’d head to one of my favourite bookstores and go pull out books looking for a visual that created an emotion: the work of Bernard, Degas and his ballerinas, the emotion of Edward Hopper and Picasso.
In terms of today, there is Balthus, who is an endless supply of inspiration and growth.
There’s a difference between recording something and making something – capture vs create. Not that simply recording isn’t valid but when you create, each person is going to take whatever they can from your work. There’s no single interpretation and interpretation will change over time as the viewer’s perception does.
One thing I have never done is to create a photograph with the specific intent to sell…when you get strapped into that seat you commoditise yourself and it’s very hard to escape.
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
KW: Yes, I am a mixed medium photographer. I paint and draw on my photographs, which is a process that adds another layer to my photographic stories. I use film. I will always use film. I know it, and I know how it relates to my vision.
How I embellish each photograph comes after the creation and capture of the scene. It either works or doesn’t, and I’ve only gone out once with the explicit intent of painting on an image. Generally speaking, the embellishment comes later, when I review the negatives. It’s a feeling more often than not.
I photograph women and there’s a certain sensuality to go back and touch the image and be able to move the paint around on and around her. It’s another way of connecting physically with the model.
I grew up in a family where my grandfather was notorious for having affairs with models and assistants. My dad too. I didn’t want to be that way. I knew I was going to spend my life around women. But I wasn’t going to screw everyone that I ran into.
It’s all about trust and respect. Without trust and respect, there is no connection between the photographer and the model. Trust and respect are paramount and with it comes the ability to explore avenues that you wouldn’t ordinarily get to.
I’m lucky that Gina fully accepts, supports and encourages what I did and do as a photographer. I’ve photographed hundreds of women and there’s an implicit trust between us that’s essential. Without her, I couldn’t explore my vision as I have done.
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?
KW: My next step is always to put new challenges in front of myself and to be my own competition. Without the chance of failure in one’s work, true discovery is never attained.
As a conceptual photographer, what drives my self-challenge – the interesting thing about it, if you will – is that concepts are rarely if ever fully realised – the concept keeps evolving, often faster than the photographer can keep up.
Just like Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World. This painting has travelled with me for 30 years. These are the challenges I take with me and explore again and again. I think some landscape photographers do the same, too, returning to the same spot again and again and again.
I’ve nailed shots against a vision in the past but consider them momentary. Perfect for that time. There’s a picture of my wife with the light hitting her on a set I’d built. It was perfect. Perfect because of the time it happened and where we were. A few days or weeks before or after and it would not have been the same; it can never and will never be repeated, the photo transports us back to that time.
I can improve things in the future but that was perfect.
It’s an ongoing struggle one that’s perfectly described by one of Balthus’ paintings, which itself is still extremely controversial today: “Guitar Lesson”. It’s an amazing concept of struggle – a mother fighting with her child, trying to get her to play the guitar. Simple on the face of it but has a hidden depth that reveals itself with each viewing.
I blew up the painting for students in one of my classes and I realised there were marks on the child’s knees; marks made when this tomboy had obviously been outside playing before being dragged indoors to play an instrument by her mother. There’s detail to pull out that you may have not previously seen, or were able to perceive when you last saw it.
That idea of the ever-evolving concept is a constant struggle. Will I find ever the answer? I don’t think so. I think I’ll always be trying to figure it out. Maybe one day I’ll just give up and laugh, because it’s such a funny thing to do, really.
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
KW: I don’t capture static scenes (landscapes and the like), I conceptualise, construct sets and capture moments.
When I was younger and travelling with my family, capturing landscapes and such was our normal thing: waiting for dramatic light or scene to present itself. There’s nothing wrong with that but as an individual, I’m very different.
I photograph the female figure. The relationship between me and the model has always been of the utmost importance. I’m not interested in just going out and looking for something to photograph. It’s the collaboration. Be it between me and my wife, friends, or professional models, my goal is to work together to create a piece of art together in that moment.
Today, much of my work involves collaboration with professional models who are involved in the process and not just because they are the subject. I mean involved as an integral part of the creation of the final work. They’ve studied the work I’ve done, the artists I’ve read about and been inspired by; they’re as much a part of the process and outcome as I am.
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?
KW: My wife, and my son. Why? These are the people that inspire my life. With them anything is possible.
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?
KW: I would stay here at Wildcat, my grandfather’s former home and now ours, surrounded by the love of my life, my son, and friends. I need nothing more to create.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
KW: I would put it on the shelf and never use it. My life is filled with such richness that if I never took another photograph and could be surrounded by my family and friends, the roll of film would be covered with dust.
Film is not life. People are.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
KW: To me, there is no misconception about film. Film is film. It’s a tool just like any other medium; but, there is a magic in it. I can remember watching that first image show up on a blank piece of paper in the darkroom and it still gives me goosebumps to this day.
The biggest thing – problem? – I find is the fact that people who just shoot digital (and have never shot analog) have an incredible number of bad habits. Just because their camera can shoot multiple images multiple times in quick succession, they think, “I can shoot 20 shots of a model moving from one position to another and still get something from it”.
I like to ask, “why don’t you do it in the camera?”
Personally speaking, I know I need to take a shot, then take that shot into a darkroom and make a print. I don’t need to take 20 shots of the same thing to make it work, it’s wasteful. No matter how good a printer you are, you can’t make a good print from a poorly executed vision.
That lack of discipline in the approach has the effect of removing the beauty of photography – that execution of vision. Without an understanding of why you’re doing what you’re doing the art is lost. It goes back to my belief that you should just shoot one position, one shot and move on (this is not me trying to brag). It’s why I teach photographic mindfulness in my workshops: the consideration of “what you’re doing and why”.
I had one particular student who, in one day, shot 2,000 images – two thousand! – He then went on to sit in front of his computer for hours, deleting, deleting, deleting. The next day, I told him, “You have 36 exposures and that’s all you get..for a whole day”. I think that resonated with him.
There’s too much reliance on tools to validate execution – constantly looking at a histogram as if it’ll somehow tell you something your eyes can’t see. You don’t need a histogram to know it’s dark inside a room and what you should do about it!
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
KW: I think there will always be film. There’s a great resurgence in people using film, especially younger people. They grew up in this digital age and don’t even know what a negative is. They’ve never seen one.
Because the younger generation has been so influenced by instant gratification once they get sucked into it, it’s very difficult for them to leave. It’s like an umbilical cord and very difficult to break.
I’ve had younger students coming to my house and react to negatives with, “this is so retro!” Film is a tactile, living thing and this younger generation are finally realising that this is something they can put their hands on. With that realisation, it’s only going to grow.
That instant gratification is tough to compete with but with the right approach, I believe it is possible. For our part, Gina and I along with our son Zach, do what we can through the Weston Collective, scholarship and associated activities. It’s been a huge part of our lives and through it, we’ve changed the lives of many young photographers.
We need to educate.
We need to show young photographers the potential.
We need to show young photographers what they can achieve.
~ Kim Weston
To some, Kim’s almost cutthroat determination to move on to the next challenge may seem against the grain of photography as a learning process to achieve perfection – vision, exposure, development and print. It initially struck me as so, too.
Thinking and speaking to Kim the best way I can describe it (poorly, I might add), is that he has a very strong, “what’s done is done” mentality about the scenes he captures but the pursuit of perfection is right there.
Some scenes come and go, some stay with him and although there doesn’t seem to be a specific desire to reiterate and perfect a specific scene, the desire to capture his vision perfectly runs deep: a moment can be caught but that struggle goes on.
It’s quite liberating.
A huge thanks to both Kim and Gina for their time and help putting this all together. It’s been a long time coming.
I’ll be back with another fresh interview in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, please check out Scott Micciche’s “Getting the best out of FERRANIA P30 Alpha part two” article, the first 5 frames of this week and a photograph I’m particularly proud of having taken.
Until next time, keep shooting, folks!
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