Four days in Suburbia

This family portrait was done way back in early 1994. I was studying photography at Uni and decided that I wanted to photograph a space totally alien to me for an assignment. Most other students were doing soft political stuff, street work etc. Reflecting on what to do I thought, I’m single, live alone in a small apartment in the centre of the city and have no commitments or responsibilities other than what I chose to do for my studies. The opposite would be to be married with a regular job, living in the suburbs with children, a mortgage, car payments and a pet of some kind.

The result was the photographic project Four Days in Suburbia. This portrait was taken as part of that project.

I lived with this family from Thursday evening until the following Monday afternoon and it was exhausting. I liked the family a lot but being in so close a relationship with all the tensions that families take for granted completely drained me. I think it was cathartic for them because by Saturday afternoon I had ceased to exist as a person and become a camera recording the family drama of their everyday life. This picture was taken early on the Saturday morning while Mark was at work and the family about to do the weekly shopping at the local mega market.

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The Importance of Shadows

The Writer Wilfried N’Sondé

This was a very interesting shoot. Wilfred had emailed me that he was very limited with time and suggested Nollendorfplatz Ubahn station because it was on his way to the airport were he was due to catch a plane for Paris.

He could give me forty-five minutes,

at a stretch.

To ensure things went smoothly on the day, I checked out the location the day before. I also read up on his books to get an idea of what to work towards.

This picture, which is universally liked, was easy enough to do. I set up a flash with an umbrella on the stairs at the little-used entrance to the U2. The bars are the doors that seal the stairs at night. I chose this because his most famous book was about a black man who is incarcerated for killing a policeman and I thought with this set-up I could show the author, who is a wonderful warm person, and his fictional creation,

All you need is Friends

This was an interesting shoot in as much as it never really a shoot per se.

What I mean is, sure, I took lots of pictures but it wasn’t something set up or pre organised, more a spontaneous coming together for an hour.

It happened like this. It was mid day and I was around a friends apartment, naturally with camera in hand and we got talking about a horror movie night thing he wanted to organise, and although I knew he was always organising things that never happened, I went along with it, even and urging him on for a awhile.

Excited he said “we need a poster” and I said shit yeh and being in the mood at that moment proclaimed and I’ll shoot it. His wife volunteered model duties, but then she always did. Nope he said, their neighbours girlfriend was young, blonde and perfect. Jumping up he left to knock on her door. Returning five minutes later having coerced the young woman into a staring role of faking terror and screaming.

Naturally the poster never got done, nor as far as I know did the horror movie night ever take place. But everybody had good time, and not only do I like many of the images shot in this session, but I return endlessly to them for experimentation.

Eastern Perspectives

In the first half of the last decade in the previous century I was in Prague for six weeks and naturally I visited the few galleries exhibiting photographs. Having recently thrown of the stupefying effects of foreign occupation, photography in Czechoslovakia was in the process of realigning itself with western style aesthetics; however, it had not historically had the same love affair with small format street photography that America had had.

The focus was on medium or large format pieces that explored the intrinsic beauty of the everyday, the tonal ranges between black and white and the way light creates form and dimension in a picture.

Both simple and complex at the same time, they tend to be quiet and meditative. Totally at odds with the freneticism of modern photography.

I have retained a long and enduring love for this type of work -, so much that when I once again picked up my larger format film camera, it was almost a fait accompli that I would begin with this style.

Bronica SQA, 80mm, 1/2sec, +1 filter, Classic Pan 200asa (10 years out of date) developed with Adox Rodinol, diluted 1/50 for 12 minutes

Getting it all Wrong to Get it Right

During the process of relearning the multitude of things about film and film cameras I’ve forgotten over the past decade (since I went digital), I have stumbled across photographs in the computer that have languished forgotten in obscure folders for years. Pictures like this one, which is terribly underexposed and therefore by today’s rules of engagement, useless. There was no better one taken at the time so the picture was ignored after downloading, lucky in fact not to have be deleted. Found only by accident because it was in a folder with older negative scans

With film I find myself constantly revisiting, reprinting, and reviewing the negatives  and when also is reviewing the scans one needs to look closer, it’s more labour intensive, requires more concentration, which is how this one was discovered.

In this instance the gross underexposure has worked (If the truth be known, the image is probably better for the mistake than if it had been correctly exposed) giving it a very W. Eugene Smith kind of aesthetic and I have always admired Smith’s work.

The camera is my old 5D and the lens is a cheap Sigma 28-300mm, which makes the picture a good example of money not being the key to a good image. To add to the lack of professional expertise, it was shot directly into the sun and through the window of our hotel in Gdansk.

West 43rd Street

Many photographers who shoot in the street like to catch people unawares, the theory being that it gives the image more authenticity. I don’t believe this, in fact I belong to a totally different school of thought. I believe people have the right to know when they’re being photographed and while this can still lead to abuses, it’s usually the photographer who is being abused. It’s this dynamic interplay between the photographer and the street that I believe makes the street photography genre both interesting and exciting. The best example of this school of thought is Dianne Arbus, who went far further than I ever will in engaging with her subjects.

Also, if like me you use a large camera with a waist level viewfinder and a wide-angle lens then you can’t hide and everybody knows what you are doing, which is why I like this format.

 

Bronica SQA, Tri-X 400,

Back to Basics

Rather than write a load of blather I thought it would explain more if I posted a letter I sent to a photography friend.

Hi Fee, I’ve had an interesting set of experiences the last week. As you may remember from my message I was in Vienna, ostensibly to see a large exhibition of Robert Frank photographs. I originally thought the exhibition was a retrospective but it turned out to the collection of some super rich dude from Switzerland. It was seriously interesting because many of the pictures I have never seen before as prints, especially as old 1950/60 prints. It’s fair to say that despite Franks disdain for convention he was a masterful printer of Black and White photographs. But enough of that, to the point.

As I’ve mentioned in previous missives I’ve been working a lot lately as an event photographer, plus the occasional portrait to keep my hand in. The work is interesting and I enjoy it, but the event stuff in the final analysis, really quite boring.

Engaging on the day, but not really satisfying long term.

I’ve also improved my P.S. skills to a sophisticated level, which means I can do more with a photo and do it fast. Sounds great, but the lack of challenge translates into a dwindling in interest in the everyday world of photography.

Solution, go back to my roots.

Hence I’ve once again taken up film. In fact the only camera I took to Vienna was a film camera.

The difference in picture making is profound. For a start, everything is soooo slow. I’m using my medium format Bronica, which means first taking a light reading, a maximum ISO of 400 and no auto focus assist in low light shots.

And there are only 12 shots to a roll, so one needs to choose what one shoots with care.

I set myself a limit of one roll of film per day, which seemed insignificant compared to the plethora of shots I shoot with my digital camera, but the daily limit proved to be more than I could accomplish.

Instead of indiscriminately pressing the shutter button it was, do I really want this shot, was this the best angle, was the light right, would it print, was there too much/little contrast in the scene and how was it going to look in B&W.

Back in Berlin I had some old chemicals at home so I carefully processed what I considered the most insignificant roll. The chemicals turned out too old to work.

The roll lost.

Despite the knowledge that there wasn’t much of value on the roll, there is still the nagging doubt that there might have been something.

The pain of not knowing is real.

Ya don’t get that sort of emotion with pixels.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not reconverting back to analogue. I love what I can do with my digital cameras, but for a break from reality, film is so engaging,

absorbing,

fraught with risk,

offers so little in the way of reward,

the rewards that come take time to materialize,

which is exciting in it’s own perverse way.

it’s full of surprises. I guess the trick is to let oneself continue to be surprised.

Cheers

Me

Bronco SQA, 80mm, f4, Classic Pan 400ASA( 9years out of date), processed with Adonal Rodinol, 1/50 dilution.