EMULSIVE interview #190: I am Simon Riddell and this is why I shoot film
Based in the Scottish Highlands, today’s interviewee gets about a bit, and I don’t just mean island hopping in the Scottish seas. Most recently to be found in the company of Keith Moss and Dapper Dan the Darkroom Van, I managed to catch up with Simon, put him in a dark room and ask a few questions.
Over to you, Simon.
Hi Simon, what’s this picture, then?
SR: This was shot on Pan F plus at Cromarty with my Dad on one of our early photo days together, about 2015. ‘Release’ captures my photography style. Wide open, down-low, up-close, high-contrast and grain. I want you to feel what I felt.
Looking back on my negatives, this was in the first couple of months of shooting film. I was holding my Bronica ETRS – now in the hands of my extended photography member la familia – Paul Whitehouse.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
SR: I don’t know? I know I’m a little unhinged and mad. I know what I’ve done, and what I want to do, I’m focused on that path in the present. When I was 18 I was diagnosed with diabetes – curveball. I had geared up my education and life to join the Armed Forces as soon as I could. Two weeks after being accepted for basic training I nearly died due to extreme diabetic ketoacidosis and was then diagnosed. Two weeks later I had moved from the Midlands to live with my parents in the Scottish Highlands. The years that followed are somewhat of a blur to me.
I had various vocations including a bricklayer’s labourer, steeplejack, lifeguard trainer and firefighter. None of these hit the mark for what I had set my mind on. I constantly rebelled in the early days, I was always a good person and have always helped anyone in need, but I have always had that ‘switch.’ I’ve always picked up the adrenaline as my go-to thing in times when I’ve had enough. This last year has taught me that this is not the way forward. I would most probably have realised this sooner if my Dad had not died in October 2016. I somewhat spiralled.
These days I work as a professional Fire Risk Consultant. I’m also a Photographer, partnered with Keith Moss, who has become one of the closest humans in my life.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
SR: 2015 saw me pick up Dad’s Canon AE-1 and load a roll of ILFORD HP5 PLUS, I said to Dad that I needed a project to focus me and potentially chill me out a bit. He suggested we head out for a walk at the weekend with our dogs, and that we did. When we got home we went up into the attic and found all his darkroom gear, and his Yashica Mat. I was hooked when I held this thing.
I went straight onto YouTube and made a playlist of videos as regards to developing. Within a month I had made a darkroom, accrued all the basic gear and chemicals. I was hooked from the first film I developed. The following week I was printing. I was fully immersed. The chemicals became my air, my eyes saw in black and white, and I craved the calmness of red light, agitation became muscle memory. I don’t think I did any fire-related work in over a month.
I then did the same with colour film – although it’s also super cool, and without doubt, more technically challenging – I just don’t see in colour.
Shooting is part of me, it’s one of the things I go to sleep thinking of, I dream of it most nights, and I wake up with it on my mind.
I keep shooting film owing to two parts:
Part 1: I need it, it drives me, it calms me down, it helps me to define the essence of myself, and it helps me know myself.
Part 2: Dad. I can’t just call him on the phone or go see him anymore. During that year or so, we embarked on so many adventures together, we really pushed the boundaries of adventure and danger, and we had a hell of a time together. He would always set a challenge and as soon as it was achieved, it would evolve into something else, this is ingrained into my photography. Shooting film for this part is also coupled with my urge to create photographs that I love.
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
SR: I saw one of David Allen’s shots through Twitter, he was doing all this double exposure upside-down stuff and I really got drawn into it. I later messaged him to ask what it was all about and then started trying it out. I took the Bronica and Lomography Sprocket Rocket into my son’s Judo hall and realised very quickly that this technique was really going to shape me.
Dave and I messaged back and forth and knocked ideas off each other for a few months. He then came over from sunny France to windy AF Scotland, where we had planned a week-long trip of madness fused with large-format analogue photography. I’ll write more of this in a future featured article ‘Searchlights’ but essentially our trip saw us hack our way through heavy vegetation and abseil off a fence post to gain access to the WWII Searchlights guarding the Cromarty Firth – a challenge set by Dad.
Dave continues to inspire me, I love his work – even when he phones every couple of weeks to tell me he’s won another bloody plastic camera. I’d take a bullet for this guy.
Keith Moss is also an incredible person. His photography is pretty-damn on point too. We hit it off together when I attended a large-format workshop last year. I took Keith to a couple of gnarly locations including some abandoned and dilapidated WWII installations and an old lorry park where I had once put a sizable fire out (I didn’t start it).
Keith is well known for his black and white analogue street photography. He’s been everywhere and is always keen to help you learn and progress. There’s no bullshit with this guy. He’s been through an incredible amount in his life and, he absolutely gets me. The last 8 months have seen us come together to create photography experiences in the Isle of Skye, where I now spend half my time and further afield.
Recently we shot a massive arts conference in Brighton together, we took Dapper Dan and Daisy Duke our respective darkroom vans and dropped in on the guys at the Intrepid Camera Co. Seeing them at work is very cool. We picked up our cameras and spoke about their (then undercover) enlarger – this is soon to be fitted in the darkroom vans!
I haven’t looked at iconic photographers yet really, I don’t feel the need to. My photography is organic, self-taught and self-grown. I love being in the presence of Dave and Keith, we are the extended team – they continue to inspire me.
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
SR: I recently saw a product that you slap on your digital camera, it’s connected to a bank of thousands of photographs and will analyse what it detects through the lens, then it will select what it sees as the best settings for you and take a photograph – WTF! Enough said.
I can’t be arsed shooting digital. What’s the point? That said, I simply don’t see how one can survive financially without shooting digital, weddings and the like, pay the bills. I loathe heading back to the studio to process digital shots. My wedding workflow in digital consists of shooting candidly and making sure I’m technically on point and therefore I know I won’t be doing much in post-production. Thereafter, I’m quick to pick up the Mamiya RB67 or large format and shoot the rest of the wedding on film.
Film is a pure process, you’re inherently hands-on and eyes closed from the get-go. You smell and feel the thing you’re going to make photographs with. Manipulating the film through its many processes is a form of meditation to me, it’s mindfulness, I am connected to the world and sometimes sheltered by my camera from the things that cause me to experience anxiety and negativity.
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?
SR: Collodion, wet plate! BOOM – well, hopefully not explosively – that would be really embarrassing given my other day job. I’m stoked to be learning this art form – over the next two months I need to be fully on point with it all – this will be a steep learning curve, but that’s what makes a challenge and I intend to nail it.
Keith is staying with me in Skye for a week towards the end of October 2018 where we will shoot a few locations and portraits. We will then be introducing Collodion into our photography experiences, giving participants the opportunity to shoot large format, develop and take their photography away.
As far as improving technique – I don’t believe you ever stop.
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
SR: I’m firmly set in the style that I described in the first question. Personally, I just want one or two aspects of my photograph in focus. That’s where my interpretation of art is.
I don’t mean that I’m always going to put the aspect of the photograph that I want people to feel or appreciate in focus, I must be as close as possible, and I don’t mind what I’m shooting, however portraiture is something I find myself shooting more and more.
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?
SR: Canon T-90, 15 mm Fisheye FD, ILFORD HP5 PLUS and Kodak T-MAX 100. My war-to-wedding combination.
Camera selection is due to weight and functionality – the multiple exposure mode is a beast. The lens is amazing and also has built-in colour filters, so no messing about.
The HP5 will probably be shot at 1600 ISO with a red filter on, wide open – the T-90 allows for a fast shutter speed – I’m thinking the theatre of war here.
T-Max will be shot at stock – I’m thinking weddings here.
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?
ILFORD HP5 PLUS, because it will do anything, and I started with it. One location! Am I going to be stuck there EM? Maaaaan.
I would go to Nigg Bay in Ross-Shire. Oh wait – there are ticks there. Okay – that’s okay! Nigg has a beautiful beach and in the winter when the ticks are done, it’s clifftop exploration time!
Nigg has an immense amount of history to offer, from geography and geology to extreme feats of wartime engineering. The ‘Searchlights’ article will detail some of the latter.
There have also been shipwrecks off the coast, and plenty of sea caves to explore, one of which is named the ‘Kings Cave’ – legend has it that there is a great deal of wall-writing, and one is expected to leave a candle for the next person. I haven’t made it there yet. Perhaps that’s the next adventure for Dave and I?
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
SR: Firstly – that’s messed up EM! I would shoot ILFORD PAN F Plus on medium format following the route down to the Searchlights, and of the crossing from Searchlight one to Searchlight two (see the video on Dave’s YouTube channel). I would choose the most extreme weather day I could.
Why? Two reasons, to document the journey for others on film, and ultimately to re-experience where I started with my Dad. To feel close to our adventures again.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
SR: That it’s difficult! It’s not difficult. Job done?!
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
SR: It’s resurging, for sure. Film won’t die out, no way. One can see new film being made. New large-format cameras are being made, each of the manufacturers has something different to offer, they’re all cool guys and from my experience with them, genuinely respect one another. That’s one amazing thing about analogue photography for me – very rarely is there any bullshit – it’s all very chill and sincere, people go out of their way to help you.
Personally, the future of film photography is embedded with the exploration of mental health and well-being. I believe that film photography has helped me through some incredibly dark times and experiences, I know that this is also true of others. Ultimately if there is a way of helping people get through their struggles and film photography can play its part – let’s do it.
Shoot film. Peace.
I’m going to keep this outro short and sweet, as I hope to be able to bring you more of Simon’s words over the coming weeks, and they do a much better job of covering the topic I was planning on discussing than I ever could.
In the meantime, there’s more of Simon and David’s adventures over at episode 104 of the Sunny 16 Podcast. It’s well worth a listen. You can also check out some of Simon’s inner workings over on Twitter and Instagram. Please spend a minute to visit him there.
The next fresh EMULSIVE interview will be out in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, please check out this week’s new articles over at the top of the sidebar (desktop), or below the comments (everything else). Something, something EKTACHROME 😉
As ever, keep shooting, folks!
EMULSIVE needs you. If you’d like to take part in this series of film photographer interviews, please drop us a line, or get in touch in the comments. We’re featuring to photographers young and old; famous and obscure, so get in touch and let’s talk.