A big welcome to Walter Rothwell! Well travelled and widely exhibited, it’s a real pleasure to be able to share the work of such a relented and experienced photographer on these pages. Walter works in both film and digital, and is based in London.
He’s currently meddling (some would say), with the Hasselblad XPan but to say more would be to take words out of his mouth. That being the case, over to you, Walter!
Hi Walter, what’s this picture, then?
WR: This is a photo of the River Ganges at dawn in Varanasi. It was taken at about 5.30am after I had stormed out of my hotel in a foul mood having been woken up by screaming children in the corridor.
The hotel was right by the ghats and this was about the first thing I saw. I shot a few frames, carried on walking up and down the waterfront for a couple of hours and took some of my favourite photos.
Guess I owe those kids a thank you!
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
WR: I’m a freelance photographer based in London. I shoot digital and film but ultimately prefer film!
When did you start shooting film and what about now, what drives you to keep shooting?
WR: When I was about 18, I bought a plastic compact camera to take on holiday and really enjoyed using it. That led to a basic college course where we were required to use a SLR, develop and print our work.
I fell in love with the whole process and went on to study photography at art college.
For my street and documentary photography, where the vision of the photographer and integrity of the image is paramount, film is first choice.
There is an unquestionable quality that the negative possesses, it’s a moment burnt onto silver by light and while there is scope for interpretation in the darkroom, it’s minimal compared to Photoshop.
There are also the physical qualities of film that I cherish, from the smell of the air as the dev tanks are loaded to the fact I still have my first ever film and contact sheet, as printable as the day it was developed.
How many digital archives will be kept updated, in entirety, for the next 27 years?—
Any favourite subject matter?
WR: For pure enjoyment it has to be street photography, mainly in cities. I like the challenge of creating something from the everyday and to make it a little more interesting, I shoot a lot of it using a panoramic Hasselblad XPan.
I’m a member of the Street Photography International collective, it can be a lonely pursuit so being able to readily discuss work and ideas with likeminded photographers is great.
What’s the next challenge…your next step? How do you see improving your technique, or what aspect of your photography would you like to try and master in the next 12 months?
The work I have done with the Hasselblad XPan so far is pure chance street photography, I have been thinking for some time about shooting a more coherent project around a central theme, although still on the lines of street photography.
The panoramic format can be challenging but that’s part of the appeal, to limit but also stretch myself at the same time. I have several ideas mulling around regarding the subject matter but nothing that’s really grabbed me yet, the work must reflect the strengths of the format rather than just shot on it regardless.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll?
WR: I feel like I’m approaching that point already!
As a long term user of Fuji Neopan 400 I was massively disappointed when they announced its demise, I panic bought the last couple of hundred rolls I could find in the UK. I’m now working my way through that and starting to wonder where next, I have tried several different films over the years and never found one I like as much.
Having favourite materials withdrawn is becoming a problem, over years of using one product a familiarity builds up with regard to exposure and development, essential when foreseeing the final print.
It’s a bit like losing an old friend, its not just the day to day relationship that’s special, but the shared history and experiences.
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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?
WR: Without question, I would take a Nikon F6 with a 24-70 f/2.8 a roll of Fuji Neopan 400 and Ilford Delta 3200 Professional. This is the setup I use for the vast majority of my film work, the camera is pretty bullet-proof and the lens is superb.
Facing an unknown situation, the best camera is the one your most familiar with, the last thing you want to be doing is fumbling around. Both the films are versatile and take pushing and pulling well.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
WR: Most probably to a place I have been many times before, the Pyramids Of Giza. I have been shooting a documentary there for a few years now and it’s a place close to my heart. On busy days it is one of the most intense and hectic places I have ever been, when quiet, one of the most serene.
Conditions aren’t always great, the heat and light can be savagely harsh and there is nothing quite like the joy of changing film during a sandstorm!
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography and how would you set it straight?
WR: That shooting film will instantly improve their photography, it won’t. What it will do is teach a different working method, the physical steps involved necessitate a slowing down of work flow compared to digital. This removes a lot of the shoot, view, publish temptation where people are almost doing their editing according to ‘likes’.
When printing a natural editing process takes place, the contact sheet is examined, a few photos are then selected. Of these a decision has to be made about which ones to actually print large and of the prints, again, only the best will be selected. This gives the photographer time to examine and re-examine their work, to get to the final image takes physical work, materials and commitment.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
WR: We have a new generation for which many of the objects and articles that make up the strata of our lives are now virtual. However convenient digital formats maybe, they are missing the hugely important tactile quality that humans enjoy.
There will always be a certain proportion of people for whom this quality overrides convenience and the future of film is safe in their hands.
~ Walter Rothwell
There’s so much to take away from this it’s been hard for me to figure out which one of Walter’s comments to focus on. After a bit of thought, it had to be this one:
“…that shooting film will instantly improve their photography, it won’t. What it will do is teach a different working method, the physical steps involved necessitate a slowing down of work flow compared to digital.”
Myself, other photographers and guest authors who write here talk often – and at length – about the beauty of film and its ability to be able to lift a curtain on the mundane turning it into something else. Walter’s comments here ring just as true.
A bad photograph is a bad photograph, no matter who it’s taken by, or on whatever medium it’s captured with.
As has been said here and many other places before, film and digital have different use cases and rarely do they ever overlap. I wouldn’t take my film camera as my only image making tool if tasked with a Motorsport assignment but I’d certainly bring along my experience of shooting film to the event.
Take two photographers and give them a digital camera. One of them shoots and understands digital exclusively and one has had exposure and experience with the process of shooting film. I know which one my money would be on to shoot less and and get more keepers per shots fired – and that’s not me just being a smug film snob; it’s a reality based on my experience. I’ve seen it time and time again and it’s only a trend that’s getting worse.
A sports photographer I know regularly came off shooting events with 2-3,000 images stored across countless memory cards. When I’d comment on how high a figure that was (based on him actually using 2-300), he would often bring up another colleague who’ll have shot 10-12,000 images at the same evens from the same locations….insane.
Needless to say, only one of the two has a film background.
Thanks again to Walter for taking part and hats off to the amazing images he decided to share. Please take a minute to scroll back up and have a good look through them again. When you’re done, head on over to Walter’s Twitter and website to get to know the man a little bit better.
We’ll be back again very soon with another interview and in the meantime, please…keep shooting, folks!
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