We all like to dress up now and again but I personally draw the line at stripes, especially if they’re red. Thankfully today’s interviewee has no such qualms, which when looking at his pictures, is a good thing in my book.
Here’s to Shawn Mozmode and his rather interesting brand of self-portraits (as well as a competition he helps to create – see further down for details).
Over to you, Shawn.
Hi Shawn, what’s this picture, then?
This is a self-portrait in the manner of Where’s Waldo. Can you find me?
Ok, so who are you?
I am a photographer from the Rust Belt of the United States that creates images in an effort to tell dramatic and comedic stories. My current focus is on a self-portrait project that helps illuminate the present-day narrative of the local geography.
When did you start shooting film?
I began shooting film when I was around 10 years old in 1981. I have 3 uncles that are photographers. I luckily received body and lens hand me downs as well as personal instruction from them. The learning process was so much different back then without the luxury of Google and YouTube. I often found myself reading hard to understand photography tutorial books that were written in a very technical style therefore my skill development really came more from the insights I received from my uncles.
At any rate, while I began shooting film at an early age, 2015 was the year that I truly returned to the medium in earnest. A long time friend of mine from Chicago was creating beautiful images with a beat up Nikon F2, grungy 50mm lens and cheap quality drugstore purchased film. After reviewing his scans I immediately knew it was time for me to return to my roots.
What about now? Why do you shoot film and what drives you to keep shooting?
I find myself shooting film now for three basic reasons. The first being film’s incomparable aesthetic value. There is a thickness to film images that simply can’t be exactly replicated with digital. This isn’t surprising given that film is a technology that was perfected over the last 150 years. Sure there are software packages that contain film presets but a digital preset Portra doesn’t look like a film shot Portra and a digital preset Rollei Retro doesn’t look like a film shot Rollei Retro. Additionally, the notion of taking a tack sharp, super clean, 36 megapixel image and applying a film preset to it just seems strange to me. If I want to build a brick house would I construct it of wood and then paint simulated bricks onto the wood?
My second reason for shooting film is based on the creative process that is employed with the format. After loading and advancing a roll of 120 medium format film to the first frame I know that I have twelve 6×6 shots and I will make each one of them count. Each shot becomes equally important because I won’t trigger the shutter unless what is in front of my camera is sincerely worthy of a frame that could be a “keeper”. In comparison, I can recall studio shoots where I filled a 32GB card in three hours only to spend several hours whittling hundreds of images down to 10 keepers. After finding those 10 images, more hours would then be spent obsessing over the processing of RAW files.
Conversely when I shoot 6×6 film I find that I generally will want to “keep” 4 shots out of twelve (I am a tough editor of myself) and finding those keepers literally takes me 5 minutes. Of course there could be an hour in the darkroom and 30 minutes with a scanner but even that can be outsourced if so desired thus eliminating those 90 minutes. I will sometimes make minor tweaks to scanned images such as adding contrast to eliminate the flatness of a scan but that takes less than 2 minutes because most of the processing already occurred in the darkroom.
A lot of film shooters talk about how film slows down a photographer in a good and meaningful way which is true for the shooting step of the photographic process yet I have found that film can in fact accelerate my overall process by making it easier to find keepers, increasing my keeper to non-keeper ratio as well as virtually eliminating digital post processing times.
My third reason for shooting film is profoundly personal. I find the feeling of holding a camera that has no batteries and light meter to be quite exhilarating and empowering. Not to be overly dramatic but slowly setting up a shot, using a hand-held light meter, manually focusing through a ground glass viewfinder and advancing film by hand all produce Zen-like emotions within me. In that moment of great emotion I honestly feel connected with the photographic community throughout history and thus become more able to focus on the art instead of the technology.
My drive to continue shooting is the creative process. My favorite photo is always the one that I most recently took today as well as the one that I will take tomorrow. I am not interested in reviewing my old images. I am interested in creating new ones.
Any favorite subject mater?
First and foremost I am always interested in telling a story either through a photo series or an individual image. In telling a story I also prefer to create the story rather than capture the existing reality around me. When I am not telling stories I find that I also enjoy making images that have a comedic value to them.
In either case, portraiture is always front and center for me because I want to delve into and share a piece of somebody’s life with the world. I love working with models however a lot of my more recent work has been focused on sharing my own story through self-portraits. The self-portraits came about through the desire to always be shooting.
I generally invest in a lot of pre-shoot planning (non-shooting time) when working with models whereas self-portraits merely require an idea, camera, film and a tripod thus minimizing my non-shooting time.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll?
I can never use film again? That’s mean. What are you, a sadist? Hahahaha.
I am fairly simple and straightforward. My last roll without a doubt would be black and white and it would be medium format. For the longest time I would have said that my favorite black and white film was Kodak Tri-X 400 but for my true last roll I think I would have to go with Ilford HP5 Plus. It’s easily pushed if needed and its grain characteristics are just right for my taste.
You have 2 minutes to prepare for an assignment. One camera, one lens, two films and no idea of the subject matter. What do you take with you and why?
You really ARE a sadist, aren’t you? All joking aside, I would most likely have a brief debate with myself about being practical vs. adventurous. My practical side would dictate grabbing the Nikon F5 with 50mm 1.8 prime however my artistic nature would ultimately trump any pragmatic notions as I found myself running out the door with Rolleicord in hand.
The Rolleicord has played a key role in my self-portrait project because I implicitly trust it. It’s well made, super easy to use and little can go wrong with it. When I pull it from my bag I have great confidence in its ability to handle many different situations. I also have a strong devotion to shooting 120 roll film for the creation of square images as I have found that having 12
shots to work with is a perfect sweet spot in comparison to the possibility of having less or more in differing formats. Also, and here is where I will reveal a little of my romantic side, there is something powerful about the way my Rollei smells, yes smells, when it is close to my face. It’s reminiscent of the stacks inside a large old library and it reinforces the importance of shooting for quality instead of quantity in my mind. From great smell to classically sexy TLR looks, it’s a primeval attraction. Lens selection is automatically built into my decision given that the Rollei has a fixed 4-element Schneider-Kreuznach Xenar 1:3.5/75mm.
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In choosing film I would once again quickly debate the merits of being bold vs. straightforward but this time pragmatism would win. I would subsequently rule out choices like slide film or infrared for the sake of flexibility and greater success. I would want to be able to push if needed therefore film with little latitude could be easily eliminated. Without knowing the subject matter for the shoot my instincts would ultimately dictate bringing along one roll of color and one roll of black and white because each have an opportunity to be more successful than the other in different environments.
Given all these factors, I would land on Kodak Portra 160 and Ilford HP5 Plus.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
Whew, back to “easier” questions! I am a big city person. I find that urban life gives me great energy and inspiration. I have been fortunate to visit many cities around the world but my heart belongs to where I once lived – New York City. It has every setting that I need and want for outdoor and indoor image making.
I love New York’s grit, size, soul and diversity. Manhattan alone is 13 miles long and the shooting opportunities in those 13 miles are almost limitless. Venture out into New York’s other four boroughs with unending film and I could easily keep myself occupied for several years. Is a fellowship also included with the film supply because I smell a project brewing now!
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography and how would you set it straight?
Interesting that you should ask this. I was recently talking to an all-digital photographer friend of mine and she told me that she didn’t have enough confidence to shoot film because it seemed too hard to her! Mind you that this is a woman that has a solid understanding of the exposure triangle and shoots in manual 100% of the time.
In my mind, shooting a Rolleicord is a thousand times easier than shooting a Nikon D810. I think because we are now living in a non-analogue age people automatically assume that all things digital are easier to use and/or are of better quality. As I said earlier, the technology of film was perfected over 150 years and as such, quality and ease has truly been built into it.
I told my friend that the only difference between her and a film shooter is that she saves her images to an SD card whereas a film shooter saves their images to film. I then gave her a Pentax K1000 with the sincere hope of one day stoking those Zen-like emotions in her from the experience of shooting it.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
I think the future of film photography is brighter today than it was a few years back. The Impossible Project, Ferrania and CineStill are just three examples that indicate to me that there is a continued interest and perhaps even growing demand for film photography.
I believe that the introduction of camera phones has expanded the world of photography and led quite a few people who would not normally seek out a professional camera to investigate the acquisition of a DLSR.
I further believe that a subset of those new DLSR users ultimately find their way to film after they realize the best way to build a brick house is to use brick rather than building it with wood and painting it to look like brick. Finally, I also believe that more and more digital only photographers are becoming less dismissive of film as they realize the two can coexist and even complement one another quite nicely.
~ Shawn Mozmode
And there we have it! Before moving on, I’d like to quickly let you know about a competition that we’re running, which in the most part, is down to Shawn’s kindness. Check out the details here to learn how you can win one of three of Shawn’s prints.
“…an all-digital photographer friend of mine and she told me that she didn’t have enough confidence to shoot film because it seemed too hard to her.”
I’ve found this to be a rather prevalent opinion amongst not only some digital shooters who have never known film outside of cereal packet 110 cameras and fixed focused 35mm Prakticas, but also amongst those people I know who have never picked up a camera in their lives.
Not casting aspersions on Shawn’s friend but after some deliberation, I have put it down to the idea that in the move to an instant-gratification society, people are – on the whole – either unwilling to do things without having their hands held for fear of failure or ridicule from their peers, or have somehow have managed to bury that human pleasure derived from the act of “finding things out”.
The novelty of using film in our digital world is largely only a novelty to those not shooting it and I for one will be passing a film camera onto a digital-friend in the very near future to try and help spread the word that film is not only thriving but that it is easy to use and is capable of producing amazing results.
It may not result in them making a permanent switch but it might make them think twice about using a roll or two on their next shoot.
I’ll be back in the near future but in the meantime, keep shooting, folks!
The community 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.