Progresso Fotografico, an Italian photography magazine, contacted me out of the blue for an interview at the end of last year to feature in their upcoming black and white issue. They included a handful of photos and some of my thoughts. Here’s the full interview (in English rather than Italian).
When, where and why did your passion for photography begin? What kind of equipment did you use at first? How have these years of fervent technological evolution passed through your work?
I think I’ve always had an interest in photography – I remember when I used to go on holiday as a kid with my parents they would get me a disposable camera for taking some images. So it had always been in the background, just never really something I wanted to pursue in any depth.
What really got me interested was when I was given my first fully manual 35mm camera. I think the level of control appealed to me. Around that time I was developing an interest in skateboard photography, through magazines, so would take this camera out on skateboard trips to document my friends.
Eventually I moved on to shooting skateboarding with a medium format film camera and off camera lighting, which was very much the style of shooting skateboard photos around that era (2000-2005). I have still kept my medium format equipment, and recently invested in a large format setup as my approach is becoming more formal and I am slowing down and shooting fewer images.
What do you want to express, transmit or represent today through your images and your style?
My approach has changed from when I was exclusively shooting skateboard photography, which was the case up until 2009. Since then I have been focusing on long-term projects, in which I hope to show alternate views of well known subjects. All of these projects share one thing in common in that they are about subjects that interest me on a personal level or that things that I am involved with personally or professionally.
I must say that I have moved on from taking “easy” images. I am more interested in images that aren’t immediately pleasing, whether that be technically or aesthetically. I am now relying on deeper thought from the viewers, which isn’t for everyone.
Where do you usually get your inspiration from? How do you organize your photographic projects? Are there any curious or funny facts to tell you happened while you were shooting?
Originally my inspiration was other UK based skateboard photographers – Wig Worland, Leo Sharp, Sam Ashley, Andrew Horsely. Essentially the monthly print magazines. At one time I was subscribed to over a dozen of them.
When I started to get more interested in other photography I would purchase photobooks from photographers with projects that sounded interesting, visit exhibitions, partake in workshops and retreats to see other photographer’s bodies of work. Today my main inspiration would be other photographer’s longterm projects, which are often represented in the photobook form.
The organisation of my projects is somewhat organic. I will explore an idea for a project over a short period of time, perhaps a few months or a year or two. This is usually informal and I will take a camera and just shoot a handful of images of the aspects that interest me. If I think it has potential I will then work on it in more depth, in other words visit places or events with the explicit intention to shoot photos. After a number of years I usually have enough work to start thinking about a long or short edit.
I have a few stories from when I was shooting skateboarding. There was one time when I had just bought a new fisheye lens for my Hasselblad. I had saved up for months to get the Zeiss version, so I could be sure I was getting the best image quality and most coverage possible. I wanted to take a few test shots with it so we went to a local skatepark. I asked my friend to do some tricks, I got in place, my friend approached on his board, and then whack – the skateboard hit my brand new lens causing a big dent in the front element. I always said that if you weren’t afraid of getting hit when shooting with the fisheye lens then you weren’t close enough, and on that day I was definitely close enough…
You have great skills in taking analogue pictures where lots of photographers would have trouble even using modern digital equipment! How did you decide to put yours hands with analogue into skateboarding, indoor music and so on? And, more than this, it’s not so common to find a programmer so devoted to chemical photography! When I found your images on Github I was definitely surprised…
I’ve always used analogue equipment in photography – since I became interested in it when that was still the common thing and before digital really took off. I’m not so bothered about what the medium is, be it film or digital, and I haven’t moved on from film completely because I haven’t been compelled to – I like shooting with medium and large format cameras, and the digital equivalents are either prohibitively expensive or not the kind of shooting experience I am interested in.
So when it comes to shooting a project, or just taking photographs here and there, I use the equipment I have. There’s nothing new or special here – photographers were doing it decades ago, shooting in dark jazz clubs, or shooting skateboarders on the streets; it’s just that maybe the number of images they shot would be an order of magnitude lower than digital allows. Which can be both a blessing and a curse.
I have a programmer colleague who is also an enthusiastic analogue photographer, even more so than I am since he works with colour chemistry. I’ve known a few other programmers over the years who were interested in analogue photography. It’s probably more common than you would think, but when it’s a niche within a niche you’re less likely to see or hear about it. My own website has only been around for a few years – for a long time I would not upload any of the work I had been shooting to the internet.
Does technical equipment influence the aesthetic result of images and projects? Can you please tell us what is today your standard equipment for professional commitments or for a personal job?
I believe the type of camera will influence your approach, and this is especially important if you are working on long term projects. Using a large format camera will cause a very different approach to using a small format camera; the large format camera will force you to follow a particular aesthetic, perhaps slower, more considered, more formal.
Of course it’s possible to work around that – I have heard other photographers argue that medium format cameras are for studio use and not action cameras, but I spent almost ten years shooting skateboarding on the streets with one! It just requires a change in mindset.
My standard equipment depends on the nature of the project I am shooting. For example I have been working on one project for almost a decade, that is entirely shot on a 6x6 medium format camera with colour film. Another project I have been using a panoramic film camera, with pushed B&W film, and for another project I am using a small format mirrorless digital camera.
When I receive professional requests I will often rent or borrow high spec small format digital equipment, because i’m not necessarily there to put my own particular stamp on the job unless the client is after a look that they reference from my own existing work.
In your opinion, what is the most important element that could make a photograph look great? (Light? Composition? Technical perfection? … Development?)
This is an difficult question to answer, as I am no longer interested in single images. I am more interested in bodies of work, long term projects, photographic studies, and so on, in which many images are required to build up a work of value. There can be images that defy the conventions of what we are told make a “great photograph” but those images can be very strong within the context of their surrounding images.
The problem, or perhaps opportunity, that exists today is that technical perfection is no longer good enough to stand out. The barriers to that level have lowered over the years, which is a good thing, meaning now it is the ideas that set great photographers apart from the rest.
This should not be surprising, and I think that’s part of what’s interesting about the current place photography finds itself. 150 years ago photography was a rich person’s play thing and something involving a chemical process that had a good chance of killing you. Then it moved to the box brownie, so it was there if you wanted it. Most people still didn’t want it though. Now? You’re practically handed a camera at birth if you live in a developed country. So originally being successful in photography was a case of “you have to be a bit crazy to try this”, then to “you have to be able to afford it”, then “you have to want to do it”, then “you have to be there”. Now it’s a case of “you have to have an idea”. At least if you want to stand out, because everyone is everywhere all of the time with a camera and taking exceptionally well composed, nicely exposed, sharp, beautiful photos isn’t going to get you anywhere in the art world because that’s no longer interesting. In fact it’s utterly mundane.
So to answer the question I would say an interesting, new, or alternative idea is the most important element for me. Perhaps showing a known subject in a completely different way.
What is, for you, the meaning of B&W in photography in comparison to color? Is it just a matter of ‘simplifying’ the real world that we see or does it include a deeper feeling or intent?
B&W for me was always a way to have full control over the process, and a way to economise. It has also usually been that case that the subjects I shoot do not contain that much interesting colour information – dirty streets when skateboarding, mountain landscapes in the winter, a dark jazz club, programming conferences, and so on.
Since we started in taking pictures (on film, in my personal experience) we heard about B&W as it was a more ‘artistic’ way to take pictures. From a very practical point of view did you ever think that performing B&W photography could be easier or harder than color?
I think the “artistic” association with B&W photography is more a relic of it being the only option for a long time. So the work we know as “serious” photography being shot on B&W was not because of it being B&W but because the photographer was limited to only being able to shot in B&W. The association was a constraint, not a choice in many cases. The work is good because of the approach, not because it was shot on B&W film. There’s an unanswerable question of the form “would these photographers’ work have been more or less well known had they been able, or had chosen, to shoot in colour?”
Colour photography is much more difficult I think. We see in colour. The world is in colour. When we shoot a colour photograph we have to work much harder to see the unexpected things and get a reaction from our viewers. The lazy way to do this is to post process the images in a way that exaggerates the colours, beyond what was really there.
B&W by comparison is easy.
Both in analog and digital photography, we need to develop the results of a shooting session. This in mainly true when speaking about B&W in comparison to color: what is your approach to development / editing in B&W photography?
My approach to shooting and developing is one of consistency – I shoot with only three different film stocks and I develop with only type of developer for each of those particular film stocks. I have done this for years, so I know how the end result is going to look. Most of the time the tonality of the end result is down to the shooting process, for example the jazz club shots are on Ilford HP5+ pushed to 3200 or 6400 ISO, so they have quite strong contrast and not much detail in the shadows.
When it comes to editing I keep it relatively simple – negatives are scanned and then corrected to remove dust, etc. I usually do some levels/curves adjustments, contrast changes, and localised dodging burning, much like I used to do when I had access to a darkroom.
Do you try to maintain through your projects and works a coherent aesthetic style? How can you do that? Which are the linking elements through different works?
I maintain a consistent style, or aesthetic, within a project but not across projects. For any given project it will be shot with the same camera, lens, and film. However one project might be shot on a panoramic camera in B&W while another is shot on a large format camera with colour negative film. It all depends on the nature of each project.
I would say the linking elements through different works are the thought process and method of operation, not so much the actual visual or stylistic elements of the photographs.
In a certain way the approach to shooting, developing and printing of Zone System is very similar to today’s Shooting-for-Data that is commonly used in Raw photography. How important is nowadays thinking to the aim of an image when planning a shot?
They probably share the same goal – retaining as much information in the negative/file to give the most flexibility when working on the image for print/screen. Adams’ zone system was all about the darkroom print, but it ended up becoming a bit of a crutch for photographers trying to make boring photos more interesting. If the caption for a photo is telling me it was metered at zone 7 then developed at N+1 or whatever then it’s probably not an interesting image. And if the image you’re showing me is a scan of a negative and not the final darkroom print then what is the relevance of that information?
The same can be said of digital photography – if the most important information is what the model of the camera it was shot on, or the lens, or how you had to boost the shadows in the lightroom, then really what makes that photograph interesting other than as a technical exercise?
Is still the print the prefered destination for a B&W shot? What are the best printing practices that you’ve come across so far?
I think the print is preferred destination for all photos, regardless of what they have been shot on. You can take this to mean exhibitions, photobooks, personal prints, whatever. Not just because they’re the best representation of the photographer’s vision, but also because they go some way to fighting the ephemeral nature of the photographic image these days. A print on my wall I will see every day, whereas a photo I scroll past on Instagram I will never see again, or if it is on my computer or in the cloud I will rarely see it unless I make the effort to find it.
My printing process changed when I moved to Switzerland as I could no longer easily access a darkroom. Prior to that I would often make prints the traditional way, but now I have settled on a hybrid process – I have a printer in Lausanne who scans my film with a high quality scanner and then works on the adjustments to my requirements. Most of these adjustments are localised levels and curves and some dodging and burning. These are similar to what I would do in a traditional darkroom but the resultant prints are far better than I could ever achieve as the level of control is far more precise.
The final print depends on the subject. The paper choice, size, use of borders, and so on, all depend on what works best for the image in question.
Talking about your specific photographic genre, not only to B&W photography, what are the main limitations of newbies photographers who try their hand into your genre?
The main limitations are probably not knowing when the technicalities matter and when they don’t, or getting too bogged down in following established “rules” for shooting a photo rather than taking an alternative approach.
Please give to our readers some tips for getting the best out of their B&W photos. If you’d like the most, instead of these tips, you could tell us 5 good reasons to choose B&W photography and / or 5 good reasons… not to!
If we’re referring to B&W film photography then I would say a good reason to do it is that it is cheaper than shooting colour film and the processing is generally easier. As for some tips for shooting B&W film:
- Pick one or two film stocks and stick with them
- Likewise, pick one or two developers and stick with them
- Don’t have a lab develop your B&W film, it’s trivial to do at home and much cheaper
- Err on the side of over exposure
When it comes to shooting B&W with a digital camera I can’t offer any advice as I have never taken a colour digital image and then converted it to B&W. The few times I have shot digital B&W images I have used the camera’s in built B&W mode and then used the resulting jpg files rather than playing with the RAW images. The small digital camera I have uses an electronic viewfinder and I find this quite useful when shooting B&W digital images as it’s a form of pre-visualisation.
Can you choose a “Favorite Photo” from your archive and tell us how, where and when it was taken? Why do you love it? Tell us something more about it…
I don’t think I have a particular favourite photo. I have some I like more than others, and some I think work better than others, and some that bring back good memories even though they’re not actually that interesting to viewers. But choosing a single photo is not something I can do.
Thanks so much.