film photography

Diana & Lomo surprises

By | photography

To many people nowadays who have discovered the enchanting possibilities of film photography with what is essentially a plastic “toy” camera, the following will come as a surprise. What they think is a sympathetic hype and reaction to all the perfection and manipulability brought on by the sweep of digital imaging and high-tech camera’s, has started in the mid-1960’s at Ohio University in the photography classes and has never been away since!

In those days it was the Diana, a basically all-plastic toy camera from Hong Kong, which came in cases of 144 at a price of little more than a dollar a piece… a nice handout for educational purposes. The blur, flares, wrong exposures, light leaks and scores of unexpected effects were so exciting to the young and rebellious art students already used to the near-perfection of the materials of the day. I myself for instance used Kodak Tri-X with my Leica’s and Nikons (still do, what more can you wish for, actually…). The Diana grew more and more popular, and many (also very serious) photographers used one at some time as a sort of underground activity. I have shortly played around with a toy camera that took a fast sequence of 4 shots, but after some time the plastic lenses came out, if I remember well.

There were competitions and photobooks of exclusively Diana photographs; “Iowa” by Nancy Rexroth ©1977, distr. by Light Impressions, New York, is a remarkable book I bought in those days. Beautifully done, and the subject (childhood dreams) wonderfully fits the imagery that the Diana camera delivers. There have been other plastic camera’s since, like the Lomo of today, and there is another generation of photographers, fed up with the predictability of the “perfect” camera that “thinks for you” and instantly delivers the sharpest picture possible, without nasty surprises. Point is, however, lots of people love surprises. There’s a kick to be found in the unexpected, and sometimes you’ll find a gem…

random beginnings

By | photography

When you put a new film into your camera, you take 2 or 3 shots after closing the camera back, to make sure that the piece of film sticking out of the cassette is wound up. No attention was given to the (manual) settings, like exposure or distance, and you pointed mostly to the ground while taking the necessary blind shots. Now a fresh part of film which has not seen any light was ready for the first take. 

After printing the whole film on a contact sheet when I had finished the 36 or so frames, I always looked at those first two unplanned images with wonder. These blind shots showed a strange world with light flares, blurs, unidentifiable objects, often unsharp, or my own feet on a variety of pavements, grass, lights and shadows. It kind of fascinated me always, but something told me not to use any of it, because I felt somehow that I did not really create these pictures.

Still I sometimes printed the occasional mysterious frame which preceded number 1 (which in those days – the 1960’s – came with the intriguing numbers 84 to 88 on Agfa film. If you were lucky it might even have a large film type perforation right through it, adding as it were something of an identification, some importance, to a piece of irrelevant reality that had portrayed itself.

Of course, I wasn’t the only photographer to notice the interesting film beginnings, so one day I saw a collection of prints made by a number of well-known Dutch photographers of such random images that had appeared on their first few frames. The chosen results indicated that not everybody was willing to show completely uncontrolled imagery, however. Some obviously insisted that even their “unintentional” frames were “part of” their output, potentially interesting, or that it looked like their known work, their “normal” photographs, but only a bit “off”…

Giving up all control, and showing the unpersonalised picture must have been asking too much of them. You have to be free and certain about yourself first, to get on friendly terms with coincidence, it seems.

love and desire

By | photography, street photography

When William A. Ewing, the author of the the photobook “Love and Desire” (Chronicle Books / Thames and Hudson 1999, and a number of editions in various languages) asked me if he could use one of my house parties pictures, he wanted to know, did I perhaps have more photographs that could be grouped under this heading. O, sure, was my instantaneous reaction. Come to think of it, in fact most of my photography is about love and desire; especially when you think of it in the widest sense, apart from the purely physical or erotic connotations. Photography may well be seen as an act of love and desire; the love of life itself in all of its manifestations and sudden beauty, the desire to experience and partake, to observe and understand, to capture and share and maybe even own some of it.

This is what I also realized when I recently looked once again at some books by Garry Winogrand. To me he remains the greatest observer of life’s miracles at street level, but who elevated photography far above the business of making a buck or making an impression. His maniacal search for images of life going on all around him (he left a third of a million pictures at the time of his death) could only be stopped by his untimely passing away, and even his closest friends could only guess what he was striving for in the images that he had taken during his latest years, once they looked in bewilderment at the proofed and printed results from the bagloads of undeveloped films they found at his house. If you could call him an addict, he wasn’t addicted to photography, but to experiencing and getting to grips with life where he discovered it: on the very streets of his own life.

positive about the negative

By | photography

In the world of archives large scale digitizing of black and white photographic negatives is going on at the moment. Specialized companies are explaining to the experienced and unexperienced public alike that this is urgent business, because these photographic negatives would be deteriorating. (Question: doesn’t digital material deteriorate, and at what rate do both methods compare?). Moreover, they point out, “the negatives are often hidden in badly accessible archives, and the digitalized files are easier to handle for non-technical staff”. This being true or not true, the big problem is that much valuable and irreplaceable material has already been destroyed and this is ongoing…. No film photographer will want to throw away his negatives, and will be shocked to hear that others do. Only today a friend told me that she had thrown away a large group of old family negatives that supposedly were “no good anymore”, and the children had prints of most photographs anyway. Maybe people think it is, or soon will be impossible to have b&w negatives printed anymore. Another piece of history gone.


By | photography

People like to say something is obsolete, for it gives them the illusion they can be cutting-edge.

posted on JMG Galleries “Film is dead. No really!”

filmist and digitalist brazenness

By | photography

Looking at random street photography sites on the internet, it suddenly struck me that there is something of a tiny subcategory of pictures in which passers-by look very disturbed at the camera, and therefore at you, the onlooker. All of them seem irritated, or at least worried “what the hell is this for?” I don’t understand, are these uneasy pictures supposed to convey a deeper meaning (“look how worried people go through life”) or is the photographer merely showing us his “courage” (and in fact possible lack of respect and consideration for the other)? Personally I usually avoid these kind of looks, because I see no use for such images in the context of what I make, and I prefer not to upset people. Empathy and being able to read body language are essential. Shooting people no matter what I’m sure wasn’t what Garry Winogrand was thinking of when he said he “photographed things [read: people] to see what they would look like when photographed”. It’s proof of an unsettling egocentricity when the thing that interests you is to read the reaction on some stranger’s face to your brazenness. Apart from that, any filmist can take a whole film (for the digitalist: that’s 36 takes) in some 30 minutes in an average town center, if he dares photograph people at extremely short range in passing. But street photography is not for testing or proving courage, I hope.

special delivery mystery film

By | photography

When I was in Egypt, in 1989, towards the end of my 5 weeks journey I ran out of film. No problem, I thought, after all I was in Luxor which is a tourist center with a lot of shops. I went to a local photographer, who said that black and white was a long gone item in Egypt, no one had asked for it for years!  I noticed that he cast a quick glance at my Nikons too see if maybe they were antique too… To my surprise none of the photographing tourists I had spoken to that day used Tri-X, let alone had some spare stuff to sell to me. The friendly Egyptian saw my disappointment, and said he could phone a family member who took official photographs for passports, and was bound to have some black and white film left. The only problem was that he lived in another town, I forget which, but if I paid a little extra for the trip if he could deliver them before tomorrow. At first I thought this was a clever con trick, but since he did not ask for a prepayment of the amount of money he asked – which was indeed reasonable – I agreed.

As promised I was contacted late that night at my hotel by the good man who proudly produced 5 or 6 refilled plastic cartridges with black and white film of mysterious origin. I was both glad that he had gone through all the hassle for me (for the little extra money) and disappointed by the fact that it was not sealed and packaged film (and so little of it) with no proper name and a date on it. After thanking and paying the man I inspected the material closer. The cassettes had probably had a long and fulfilling life of endless refilling because the felt entrance looked as worn, flattened and dirty as the hotel entrance carpet. After all I did not dare put them in the one Nikon body that had survived the desert sand storm of a few days back. So I rationed the few remaining Tri-X’s I had left…

a beautiful girl sure helps

By | photography

On one of the house parties a visitor came up to me with an “understanding” grin and shouted in my ear (because of the loud music): “I was watching you, and I see what you’re doing, you’re only photographing the beautiful girls!” He seemed to be rather proud of this observation, which in fact said more about him than about my photography; as usual the observer only sees what he expects. Of course I did not avoid the beautiful girls, I like to include them in my photographs whenever it is opportune. That certainly was no problem as there were so many, but what really kept me occupied was on a different level as I was trying to read the intricate patterns of behavior, trying to see the subtle signals, the symbolism, the body language. I was busy understanding these people and everything going on, trying to make sense of the shapes in the dark and the flashing lights, even sorting out my emotional reactions while exposing film after film, constantly checking my gear amidst the crowd. I realized I could never adequately explain, no use trying, so I gave him the thumbs up.

what a waste

By | photography

Hypes and changing fashions can lead to stagnant sales and overproduction, as can declining consumer spending, we all know that better than ever. This may happen just as easily to clothes as to photographic film material. A tv-documentary showed the containers and shiploads of fashionable clothes that had become superfluous and – after the labels had painstakingly been hand removed – were now sent far away, hopefully never to be seen again so they might not be linked to their makers and not be competing. The documentary showed yesterday’s computers and never-used printers being disassembled for the valuable gold of their contacts that had served no purpose. The photographic films had been sold to another company that would take out the unused silver. The many big boxes with all the bulk film were opened by a patient man, who took out the single films one by one , calmly pulling them out of their cassettes, the whole length. Perfect film, not obsolete. Never used. Heartbreaking. The commenting voice said that mentally handicapped people were good for this job because it was repetitive, and they weren’t bothered by all the waisting that was going on. Indeed, the man said he liked what he did.  Come to think of it, I probably would go mental.

refill (still can)

By | photography

Yesterday, when photographing in a crowded street, I noticed some youngsters’ curious looks when I opened the back of my Contax, took out the cassette by the film end sticking out and put in an undeveloped film from my pocket stock. Is this already becoming an exotic sight in this digital world, I thought. And would they consider it old school, nerdy, maybe cool… Anyway I love working with these Leica, Contax or Nikon cameras and hope that film will stay around, so I can keep doing my photography the way I like.

As my film was nearing the number of 36 exposures I always hoped that I would not be running out of film at the very moment it “got interesting”. I also remember the horror of a camera malfunctioning or a film breaking inside because of the winter temperatures once. Good thing I often take a lot, and it happens very fast, so that I do not remember every lost picture. Those are the risks of analog photography, but I love working on film. Sometimes, when you want to make sure you don’t miss any opportunities, it helps to work with 2 cameras. It gives more certainty and you have another 36 to go before you have to reload. Winogrand’s remark “There’s nothing happening when I’m reloading” may sound silly but the fact is that the photograph you haven’t made does not exist, except maybe in your imagination. Better to concentrate on what must be done, i.e. reloading! To every other photographer who likes analog, I’d like to say, keep pushing that film.