Christmas came early!

My film foray continues, and with it new ideas about how I want to work and the personal projects I want to use it for.

For a few years now I’ve had a hankering for a camera which had no reliance on batteries. Unbelievably, in all my 30 years as a photographer, every camera I’ve ever owned has needed at least a couple of LR44 button cells to make the shutter work.

It was never a problem, but when looking at secondhand film cameras now (s/h being the only option since nobody makes a 35mm SLR or rangefinder film camera any more), we’re talking about cameras between 20 and 40 years old which all have electronics in them, and circuit boards being rather delicate, specialist parts, it’s less likely they’ll be repairable in years to come.

My very electronic Canon EOS 1N cameras are going well and I’m confident they’ll keep going for several years to come, but an all-mechanical camera, albeit an old one, is still more serviceable than one packed with fine ribbon circuit boards, motors and silicon chips.

Which is why when a Nikon F2 popped up in my Facebook Marketplace, I stopped in my tracks and took a good look.

The Nikon F2 is something of a legend, but I won’t bore you with the full history of this model right now. Suffice to say, it was ‘the’ camera of choice of photojournalists from the early 1970s to the 1980s (when the battery-reliant F3 came out) and finding one in good condition now is getting tricky; they’re actually becoming collectible (aka stupidly expensive). It takes a couple of button cells, but they only work the meter. The shutter is completely mechanical, so if the batteries die, I still have a working camera in my hands.

The particular one which popped up in my Facebook feed looked to be in fantastic condition and even better, it wasn’t a million miles away from me. So I dropped a tentative line to the seller about having a look at it, while assuming I’d never hear back.

Far from it, the seller called me almost immediately and we got chatting. Long story short, we met an hour later and I bought the camera (with 50mm lens). An early Christmas present to myself then, albeit one with some serious intent.

Even though it’s had little use since it was bought in 1973, the camera will need a service. The slower shutter speeds are a little dodgy and it’ll do it no harm to have the original lubricants cleaned off and replaced along with any decayed foam seals (though the film door and mirror box foams look incredibly good).

The camera is already booked in to be serviced by the one person in the UK who specialises exclusively in servicing and repairing Nikon F2s, Sover Wong. Sadly his waiting list is over a year, but he’s assured me I should be fine to use the camera while I await my slot.

The downside of it being a Nikon is that I can’t use any of my Canon lenses on it, but that would have been the same if I’d bought Canon’s last mechanical camera because Canon changed their lens mount system for the EOS autofocus cameras, so my EOS lenses don’t fit older Canons. Complicated, ain’t it?!

Thankfully, I’m only interested in using a very limited set of lenses with the Nikon and I can build these up over time.

In the meantime, I’ve put a couple of rolls of Kodak Tri-X through this amazing machine and I’m happy to say it seems to be working just fine. Even the meter is accurate, which isn’t bad for a 45-year-old camera. Yes, it’s only 7 years younger than me, but it looks prettier and less wrinkly.

In time I’ll be using it for personal projects and personal work where the scream of my Canon’s built-in motor-drives are perhaps less appropriate. Keep watching for updates!

So, what I said before…

Only the post before last I posed the question of whether or not I ever stop. Thinking about photography, that is, and the answer surely is confirmed as a resounding NO.

At the end of that post I mentioned the rolls of film I was waiting to process from my holiday in South West Brittany, France, and just writing that line gave me the uncontrollable urge to get those rolls processed. So I processed them and here are the results.

Looking at these photos you might assume I had a rather peculiar holiday, but I actually really enjoyed it. But when I take pictures in my down time, I’m still working on approaches and processes. It’s a constant exercise in “how about” and “what if I”. I’m also developing a new method of digitising film, which will be useful when it comes to putting the Saxonvale book together, so a definite research angle too.

On this occasion I was working with basic kit, with a single stock of film, and exploiting the properties of the film to get a very graphic look from what I shot. This in turn influenced what I photographed and here’s a gallery of some of the results.

For those with the technical interest, these were all taken on a Canon EOS 1N camera with a 40mm lens, using Kodak Tri-X 400 rated at 800iso and push processed in Rodinol. A classic combination of film and developer which yields beautiful results.

Holiday over, back to work.

Don’t I Ever Stop?!

Even when I’m not taking business photos for clients or shooting a personal project, when I go away on a break I take yet more photos. Which would be fine except that I obsess about not taking the kind of holiday photos I ought really to be taking.

If I tell someone I’m going for a break in wherever, the common reaction is for them to suggest things I should take pictures of while I’m there. It might be the pretty houses, the beautiful landscapes, the amazing night lights by the river or whatever. The problem is, most of these photos can already be seen on Google, so why would I just repeat what someone else has already done?

I’m not entirely sure it’s a healthy state of affairs, but whenever I go away I end up treating it like some kind of mini assignment. A good recent example is when my wife Helen and I went to Kent for a music festival she was performing in. We decided to make it a weekend as the weather was glorious and we were very close to Dymchurch Beach.

So instead of a snap of a sunny beach and blue skies, I zeroed in on the detectorist who was kind enough to chat and be photographed.

And during the festival, instead of photographing the beautiful little church where the music was being performed, I honed in on the side details of the event. Which would be fine if that just meant drinking the tea and eating the biscuits, but I came over all Martin Parr and took wry, dry observational shots of tea cups, trays of mugs and helpers in the cake tent.

Just to make it even more of an inconvenience for myself, I took all my photos on expired film (yes, I still have some from my Saxonvale project).

Now you may ask what the heck’s wrong with me, but the thing is a break is about enjoying yourself and having freedom to do what you want. It just happens I enjoy shooting film (expired or not) but with the freedom to explore a subject however I want.

It might not be everyone’s idea of a break, but I fid it liberating even though there’s still a background static of wishing not to fail to get good shots.

Am I weird? Probably. Perhaps I need a break. Which reminds me, I’ve got four rolls of black and white film from my holiday in France to process.

What Happened Here

I’ve settled on this as the title for my Saxonvale series because it sums up the nature of the project; a semi matter-of-fact record, with touches of humour, drama and sadness. The title hints at the disappointment that land which should have been developed decades ago was left to ruin, but perhaps I should be thankful it wasn’t or the project would never have existed.

Things are definitely winding down in terms of new pictures and the site has now been almost completely boarded out. I’m seeking a final few closing images to round out the project, but I really have to get the next stage (a book) moving.

What has struck me is the incredible timing with which I came to start the project. Early on I wasn’t sure I had a project, but once it became obvious it was happening I knew I had enough expired film to get me through about a year of shooting it. Sixteen months later and I’m down to one last roll of the original batch of film (I did find a second source, just in case it overran) and the site has been bought, boarded and awaits demolition and reconstruction.

Unless Saxonvale is about to enter another extended period of neglect, I think my timing has been incredibly serendipitous.

So while I’ll try not to bang on about it too much on my Instagram account (@takeagander) or here, do watch this space and I hope to bring occasional updates regarding the progress towards a book. When the time comes, I hope you’ll be able to support it!

Goldfish Ate My Cat

How’s this for a blast from the past? A project from my college days, February 1991 to be precise, which involved mocking up a newspaper front page using pictures and stories I’d covered during the course. Well, two real stories at least; read carefully and you’ll notice some fake news too.

I stumbled across this while having an office clear-out. It’s pasted into the back of my first ever cuttings book, so it’s not been shredded or binned along with the eight-year-old bank statements, receipts, accounts and long-defunct business cards from long-defunct businesses.

The purpose of the exercise was to think about page layout and to get to grips with the newly-emerging technology of desktop publishing. In fact I recall this was done on something like a Mac 1 (or thereabouts). Looking at the caption for Norma Major’s photo you can tell I wasn’t all that impressed with the image quality available at the time.

The lead story about Don McCullin was clearly the one item I was taking seriously in this exercise, given the rather pretentious journalism I employed when writing it. But I still have a proper silver print of that photo I made at the time. It sits inside the cover of my signed copy of McCullin’s Unreasonable Behaviour.

Luckily no one came forward to claim the space shuttle prize and I’m afraid the competition closed in March 1991.

Get Shorty

Even this short blog post is longer than the super small Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 lens, my absolutely favourite lens. It’s tiny, sometimes referred to as a pancake lens, but so sharp you could cut your thumb on the images it produces, yet costs just £200.00 new. I got mine for £90.00 secondhand.

It’s been the most-used lens through my Saxonvale project, but whenever I get the opportunity I use it for corporate photo sessions too, including portraits as well as for fly-on-the-wall work.

And in my experience it’s tough! I once slipped and fell and landed with my camera (40mm mounted) between me and a mud bank. I heard a click which I thought was the lens mechanism breaking. It wasn’t, it was the sound of one of my ribs fracturing! That hurt for a few weeks, but the lens was fine.

I wanted to write this post after seeing Neil Turner’s post about his favourite lens. Go here to find out which one he reaches for most.

So if I’m ever on a job for you and I put this dinky lens on my camera, check out the smile on my face.

 

On My Hobby Horse

When a professional musician isn’t gigging or recording, they’ll be practicing; running up and down the scales, trying new techniques, working on pieces they may have to (or would like to) perform some time. When they do this, we don’t consider them to be indulging in a hobby, it’s just part of being a professional.

Professional photographers also need to practice between gigs. Of course we can’t sit in a room or studio and just run up and down the shutter speeds on the camera for an hour or two. We have to find pictures to take, pictures which stretch our abilities and keep our brains photographically sharp. That’s where the personal project comes in, at least for me.

I’m not very good at just going out with a camera and taking random photos. In particular I’m not very good at photographing pretty scenes just for the pleasure of it. I have to find a theme and work to that, but sometimes when I’m doing this I’m told “It’s nice you still have photography as a hobby.”

Ok, I’m not massively irked by this kind of reaction. It’s understandable when photography is such a hugely popular hobby. I’m even aware of people who think that being a professional photographer is simply a case of translating one’s hobby into paid work. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy meeting people and taking pictures for businesses, but I’m not sure I’d spend a day taking head shots against a white backdrop just for the giggles.

However, this mode of thinking ignores the possibility that a personal project has the potential to turn into something with a value beyond just being practice between gigs. Currently I have a number of projects on the go which pay nothing up-front, but about which I’m hugely excited and I hope will excite other people too, once they come to fruition.

The problem could be in the term “personal work” or “personal project” which implies I’m only taking the pictures for my personal photo album, but it’s the term most widely recognised by photographers and publishers to mean a project which is exploring an idea without having a defined end point or deadline, or a pre-determined place for publication.

For now at least we have to stick with the term, so perhaps I should just get off my hobby horse and await the day when the terms are more widely understood and photography between gigs is recognised as having a value.

It’s fair to say that over the last year or two, my actual hobbies (cycling, playing guitar) have been rather squeezed out of my life by my personal photo essay work. It’s up to me to re-adjust that balance, but photography is definitely not my hobby.

Analogue Dialogue

Yes, I’m back to talking about film. Except this time I’m talking about me talking about film, so it’s all getting a bit meta as people like to say these days.

Getting to the point, after I had an article posted on Petapixel back in January this year, I got an email from Bill Manning at Studio C-41 asking if I’d like to do an interview with him for their podcast. The opportunity for me to talk about myself? Well of course I didn’t say no!

Studio C-41, based in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, is a fun and informative regular podcast (available on iTunes and through the C-41 website) which discusses news, developments, ideas and artists mainly, though not exclusively, involved in analogue film photography. It’s worth having a listen if you want to know what’s going on, and more especially if you want to hear hep cats like myself spouting forth on the subject.

Well rather than me writing a load of words about me talking a load of words, head over to the podcast and hear my pearls of wisdom for yourself. It is 39 minutes long, so you might want to arm yourself with a cup of tea and a packet of digestive biscuits. Here’s the link for you.

 

It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

Just when I thought my Saxonvale project might come to an end it seems it’s not over yet.

My original plan was to shoot the project until either my original stock of expired film ran out, or when the site got cleared or developed. Well the site got partially cleared and I’m down to the last few rolls of film, so it would have made sense to bring the project to a close.

However, the site is still accessible and the story is still developing as a couple of “tenants” have moved onto an area which has yet to be cleared and secured, and so rather than reaching a conclusion, the story has simply evolved.

Because of this I took the decision that I wasn’t prepared to let my film supply run out just yet. I put out a plea on a Facebook group for photographers and one in particular, a notable veteran of documentary photography David Hoffman, came forward with a very generous offer to help. This morning an intriguing mixed box of film arrived which should keep me going for quite some time yet!

There’s a freezer drawer at home which was starting to look rather empty, well it’s about to get indigestion.

So… 2018

Having looked back at 2017 in my previous blog post, it’s time to gaze into the crystal ball, check the tea leaves and the alignment of the planets and hazard a guess at what this, my 20th year as a freelance photographer, will bring.

It’s always hard to predict. Each year brings surprises, both good and bad – mainly good thankfully, and if the last couple of years are anything to go by, I will continue to find new clients while work from others will go quieter. It’s the natural cycle of business and no longer terrifies me the way it used to.

I look forward to working with new people just as much as I enjoy undertaking repeat work for established clients and I know there will be a similar mix this year as ever.

2017 was incredibly busy, and it’ll be interesting to see if 2018 can match it, but even if the shape of the year is different I’m sure it’ll be just as much fun.

What will make 2018 quite different from previous years will be the level of personal work I hope to undertake. The Saxonvale project continues to grow and there’s a possibility it will come to fruition this year, though I have a funny feeling it will continue into next year. It partly depends on how much longer my stock of expired film will last.

In addition to Saxonvale I have ideas for other, possibly smaller, self-contained mini projects which I would like to pursue. One thing is certain, my personal projects will be shot on film. Getting back into shooting film has transformed my approach to personal work and I find it a great way to separate the personal from the commercial. It also informs my commercial work and keeps me fresh, so there’s no going back to digital-only now.

Whatever 2018 brings for me, I hope it brings my loyal readers, clients and friends every success in whatever they set out to achieve and I look forward to hearing from some of you over the coming months.