Shooting Film in the Lonely South

I started shooting film around the time I was 22 or 23, so about 10 years ago. I had taken photos before that with Polaroid cameras and the Kodak Ektralite 110 camera my mother had when I was a kid, but as a young adult it was the early days of the Lomography style that got my wheels turning.

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Growing up poor in rural Alabama (mama worked hard to make sure I had Nikes), one thing you learn to do is make the most of what you have. As a kid I would mow the yard for $5 and get to choose what to spend it on at the flea market. I could choose between two new comic books or a stack of older issues from the quarter box. This attitude towards money and material possessions stayed with me and has never left. So when I starting getting into shooting film, cheap cameras and cheap film were the logical choice and it’s been my style ever since. I’ve rarely ever bought a camera brand new. Almost all have been from thrift stores or yard sales.

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There’s plenty to disagree with about the American South. Religion, politics, you name it. Being a liberal / progressive leaning person, living here puts you in a tough position on a daily basis. Photography has always been my way of reconciling that for myself. When I take photos of old gas stations or beat up cars or whatever, I’m really saying a couple of different things with the image. I identify with the loneliness and isolation of the scene while at the same time I’m telling it “Hey, you did this to yourself. You refused to keep up with the times, and you got left behind.” For me the subject matter becomes so much more than inanimate objects; they represent someones’ dreams or accomplishments or lack thereof, and now they just seem like props in a particular scene and that’s what draws me to it.

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Every Saturday I try to get out and take photos. I wake up around 8 or 9 and make coffee and gather all my film and cameras and hit the road. I usually carry 2 or 3 cameras max. For awhile now a Minolta Hi-Matic AF 2 has been my main camera. I generally keep it loaded with expired Fuji Superia 200 or Kodak Gold 200. I’ve been shooting some really expired Ilford HP 5 that I’ve had for years as well. I go through phases of shooting with my old Instax 7s. It’s usually a matter of money and I have to choose between buying Instax film or getting 35mm rolls developed.

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There’s a couple of thrift stores that I hit up every week to check for new cameras or CD’s to listen to in the car. A cool thing about where I live in Birmingham, Alabama is that from the middle of the city you can drive 30 minutes in any direction and be out in the country. It makes exploring easy and there’s always some new small town with one traffic light to check out and take photos of. I’ll usually leave the thrift store and just keep driving until I don’t recognize anything or I’ll take the interstate and start getting off random exits.

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I’m usually pretty careful when I’m out in rural areas by myself driving around and shooting. I have a $5 pocket knife that I always have on me and that’s the extent of weaponry that I own. I’m naturally prone to anxiety anyway but shooting in these unknown areas can bring on the paranoia when you’re creepin’ around some little town and the locals are looking at you with suspicion. It’s a funny contrast to how my family is scared of coming to the city for fear of getting robbed. I try to practice getting closer to subjects but a chunk of my photos are taken from a bit of a distance out of anxiety. Luckily I’m not really interested in taking photos of people or I’d really be in trouble. Something that I encounter a lot when I’m shooting around new areas and talking to people is that there’s a lot of fear of folks they don’t recognize. They’re weary that I’m some sort of VICE reporter there to mock or exploit their little slice of heaven and let’s be real, in certain ways I kind of am (not the VICE part obviously.) So to me it’s important to be respectful of people while still doing my thing. Personally I’ve never been enticed by the whole street photography method of sticking your camera in strangers’ faces but that’s just me. My mission is to document as many artifacts both big and small before they’re gone forever. I guess you could say I’m a hoarder of scenes and places in time.

I intend to keep exploring the South and wherever else my camera and curiosity take me. You can follow me on the ‘gram at @casualsceneryzine if you’d like to tag along.

Dirty Sheets Never Made for Comfortable Rest

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Following a conversation with a friend, I realised that I kept painting myself as the victim and didn’t take any responsibility for my own well-being. This body of work mirrors the way I began to hold myself accountable in order to aid my own mental health recovery. The phrase ‘you’ve made your bed, now lie in it’ is one that has echoed in my mind throughout the creation of this project, and I feel that these images rebel against that. We are able to take autonomy over our own actions and we do not have to lie in our own mess. 

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I have used my own mental health as a muse in my photography before. Documenting the bad days. The ones where doing the simplest of tasks felt impossible. This time, I wanted things to be different. This project was the result of a change of mindset, an epiphany if you will.

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One major source of inspiration for this project was a painting by Sir John Everett Millais named Ophelia. It depicts Ophelia, a character from Shakespeare’s Hamlet who was driven mad when her lover, Hamlet, murders her father. As Ophelia was picking flowers, she falls into the river and slowly drowns, singing all the while. Her face looks hopeless as she lets herself sink into the river. I could see myself reflected in the painting, which shocked me a little. It acted as a wakeup call that I didn’t have to let myself slip, that I could help myself.

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Recovery is a long and tiresome process. It requires you to constantly challenge negative thought patterns and behaviours. Therefore, I wanted to use a method of photography that I felt gave this process justice, one that would require me to slow right down and think about each composition in detail. Hence the choice of medium format analog film. I had never successfully used medium format prior to this project, so the prospect of doing so conjured feelings of both excitement and anticipation. The weeks building up to my planned shoot date, I spent time getting to know my camera, a Bronica ETRSi that I had borrowed from college. It was a small, lightweight and easy to use. A nice introduction to the world of medium format. Then came the time to shoot, a warm early evening in June. The act of setting up the tri-pod in various locations, getting a light meter reading and composing each frame felt cathartic, as if the very process of photographing mirrored what I was trying to portray in the photographs themselves.

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I wanted these photographs to be a reminder to myself that I am in control of my own recovery. It’s strange to look back on in retrospect, as a few months have passed since the creation of this project and I still find myself dipping into old habits and ways of thinking. But I am still a strong advocate that the process of making photographs can act as a form of therapy, a way to ground yourself and connect with the world around you.

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To keep up to date with my work, you can find me over on my instagram page.

 

 

My First Time Developing Film

A couple weeks ago I developed my first roll of film. This is something that has been a goal of mine since I started shooting back in February, I just never committed to it before now and for those on the fence I would highly recommend it. I wanted to take this opportunity to share some thoughts on getting into developing as well as results from my first session.

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To back track a bit, like I said I did my first at home development session a couple weeks ago. I souped up some HP5 pushed one stop with Ilfosol 3. I’m lucky to have a bathroom with no windows to act as my darkroom, and let me tell you those few minutes in my “darkroom” trying to get my negatives onto the SPOOL? were extremely stressful. But that’s not the focus of this short writeup.

I actually think at home development isn’t that hard. I get this sentiment from a how to video I stumbled upon while doing some research. This video more or less portrays developing like this:

  1. Just like learning photography you can pick up the basics pretty quick.
  2. But to become a pro it takes a long time.

That first point was what I connected to because what I’d heard before this video was that developing was this whole ordeal that required precision and instruments and experience, while that has merit, it’s also a skill that like anything else can be grasped quickly and should be honed over time.  I’ve felt that developing was always a logical next step from just shooting and that video is spot on – it’s not that hard to develop at home. Sure it’s stressful working in the dark but everything with the chemicals is just following some instructions.

I don’t mean to take away from the skills required to master a darkroom. Like the second point above, becoming a pro takes a lot of time, energy, and experience. I know I have so much to learn but really for those on the fence, I’d recommend giving it a shot.

The biggest reason why I think you should try it? I can say with confidence you will feel a connection to that first roll you’ve developed more so than most of your previous work. Just like the first roll you’ve ever shot, the first roll you shoot and develop is new, it’s a fresh feeling and you’ve been the one to get it into a medium you can view, share, and love. The next step for me is to get better at printing my work, which is a whole other beast. Let me know if you’ve developed, would love to chat about what you’ve learned in the process.

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All these shots were taken on my Olympus OM10.

Much love,

Learning to shoot film in Japan

I got inspired to write some thoughts on my experience learning to shoot film in Japan because of the way I shared my work with my family after my trip. Like any good business school graduate I created a slideshow with maps, information, and of course my photographs as a means to share my stories. In the process of creating this I was able to relive not only my experience in Japan, but my journey learning this medium and becoming a stronger photographer.

So I thought it might be fun to share some of those thoughts here and hopefully leave you either:

  • Inspired to pick up a film camera and shoot or
  • Laughing at my misgivings if you’re a seasoned photographer

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In early 2018 I embarked on a three month trip to Japan. I wanted to be in one country for three months to soak up the culture as best as I could and Japan’s culture is awesome. I mean that quite literally – Japan is an awe inspiring country full of natural beauty, massive urban centres, welcoming people, and an allure that comes from perfect balance between history and modernity.

Was I a photographer before this trip? 100%, unequivocally, no. I owned a Nikon D3000 for a few years but never spent the time required to learn how to use it properly or develop any photography skill. So when I left for Japan without that camera I forced myself into choosing to pick something up upon arrival or go about my journey with my phone and my notebooks.

It was pretty early into my trip that I realized how fortunate I was to be in such a cool country for so long and I was eager to find a way to capture the charm of Japan. My good friend Sam (you know him as the other half of Box Speed) pushed me into getting a film camera, “Japan is the film mecca”, I can still hear it in my head. He recommended that if I want to get into this I should try to find a fully manual SLR, which is now my recommendation to anyone who asks me how to get into film photography. I cannot thank him enough for the introduction to this medium.

Unbeknownst to me I didn’t really take his advice though because what I ended up getting was a Yashica Electro 35 CC, a decent rangefinder that shoots aperture priority only. I meant to buy an SLR but my broken Japanese, the store owner’s broken English, and a shit Google translate did nothing to help me out, paired with my literal zero knowledge on cameras I walked out of this cute shop with my dinky rangefinder. It did the trick for two weeks until I realized the light leaks were terrible, and exaggerated in any amount of daylight.

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My 0th frame on an analog camera

This is how my first four rolls went:

  • 1st roll: some good shots, loading, shooting, dropping off for development was seamless
  • 2nd roll: loaded incorrectly but didn’t know until development results were 100% blank
  • 3rd roll: (see 2nd roll)
  • 4th roll: finally back to seamlessness but started seeing the leaks
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I actually like this shot but you get the picture

Luckily I found a good deal on an Olympus OM10 from a store in Kyoto called 三條サクラヤ写真機店
with a manual shutter speed adaptor and the rest is history – well kind of. I shot 15 rolls of whatever Fujifilm 400 speed was available with my OM10 over the course of roughly two months but this is the start of where learning something equally complex as it is rewarding, like film photography, in a foreign country and on a time sensitive trip is a double edged sword.

On the one hand when I look back at my work from Japan I still feel that romance I love with film and I can put myself back into my shots and remember the sights in my viewfinder and the feelings I had pulling the camera away from my face. But on the other hand I knew I left things on the table by not taking advantage of what you can do with film because I wasn’t focused on truly learning.

I try to conceptualize this in two buckets:

Not testing things out

First of all I didn’t shoot any black and white with my OM10 while I was there (thank you for the gasp, I too regret this). I also didn’t shoot any professional grade film. Is this the end of the world? Of course not but if I had the chance to do it again I’d experiment more, I’d try harder to get out of my comfort zone and create works of art that challenged me.

And not trying to get better

I also didn’t have any access to editing software, like Lightroom which I use sparingly now. I’m not a huge editor of my work, I prefer to keep things simple but what I enjoy the most about using Lightroom is cropping and analyzing my work with the rule of thirds, golden triangle, etc. Whether or not I end up actually cropping is another matter but I find value in comparing my work with those well established standards to find trends and get better. I definitely relate this to my previous thoughts on being more intentional when you shoot.

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I’d like to leave you with reiterating what I was saying earlier because albeit not perfect, Japan was an amazing place for me to fall in love with film photography. Every setting you could want to shoot you can find in Japan and as my good friend told me, it is the Mecca for film. Next time I’m back I’ll be applying what I’ve learned and developed since being back home to create pieces that inspire me – and I hope to be back soon.

Much love,

Nick