shooting film

Argentique 1
learning to pay attention

Photography, for almost 200 years, has enabled people to record and share their own vision of the world. More recently, the convenience and pervasiveness of digital photography has transformed most of us into a potential and constant photographer. And in the last few years, we have become empowered with the ability to exhibit these images nearly instantly via online platforms like Instagram, facebook and twitter, contributing to the shared culture of what Marshall McLuhan described as the global village.

However, the great tragedy of these last evolutions is that, by making the act of taking and developing pictures so easy and accessible, digital photography and social medias have also made them worthless. As digital photography became painless and forgiving, the sorting process is now a dreaded task, one that we rarely get around to doing. The cost of storing large amounts of photographs is now much less than the cost of reviewing and eventually deleting some of them, so we tend to archive huge folders with thousands of pictures in them, most of them pointless.

Social medias have also changed how we deal with our past self in photographs. Most of our online profiles, by default, keep a permanent trace of all the content we share through them. Photographs that are now 4 or 5 years old end up on the same page as ones that were shared a few minutes ago. Pictures in which we have been tagged also appear in this personal timeline, for all our friends and friends of friends to see. This leads to two opposite reactions to being photographed: the first is when we try to stage these images, anticipating what they will say about us in a form of identity performance where the audience has yet to be determined. The other reaction is where we mistrust the photographer and his intention and flat out refuse to let some truth and honesty shine out as a protection mechanism, instead withdrawing into ourselves. Both of these behaviors are not new to photographers. They are close to Susan Sontag’s pre-internet description of the photographer as aggressor and can equally be traced back to the origin of portable film cameras (“those damn camera lunatics!”). But it is safe to say that the internet and its public platforms fuel our suspicion toward photographers of all kind.

This picture I took in Prague is a great example of the photographer as aggressor. The little girl’s expression and body movement is almost certainly the unfiltered reaction to a camera pointing in her direction. This is the moment when the photographer steps into the scene and changes the nature of what is captured without actually being in the frame. Argentique 2

shooting with film

For these reasons, I believe that film photography still makes sense. Aesthetic considerations aside, shooting film means paying extra attention to the scene, knowing that each picture counts whatever the output may be — in terms of time and money, buying rolls, processing them and printing/scanning the film is infinitely longer and more expensive than shooting with a digital camera. Futhermore, from the subjects point of view, a film camera is usually perceived as less threatening than a modern DSLR. Its potential for damaging the reputation and dignity of the person that’s in the frame is much more limited, since taking the pictures out of the camera and on the internet is such a tedious process. On another level, when shooting in the street, smiling and acting naturally is a fantastic way to go unnoticed but a DSLR usually blocks most of the face of the photographer because of its size (while also being noisy). I have found that using a small and old-looking cameras is perfectly suited to blend into the surroundings. While there is definitely a “hipster bias” toward a young person using a Rolleiflex or a Lomo camera, this actually helps to be accepted in someone’s direct environment. One proof of this is the great success among street photographers of digital cameras such as the Fujifilm X100, whose design is clearly inspired by the earliest models of 35mm film cameras.

I remember snapping this picture at the minimal focusing distance of the lens, at 70 centimeters. In this situation, a small and retro camera is the perfect tool to fade in the background, while a cloth shutter makes a pleasant and unusual sound very unlike the typical click of a DSLR’s mirror folding up and down in the chamber. Argentique 3

One summer a few years ago, I worked in an activity centre for toddlers to afford my first film camera. I was really enjoying photography as a tool for expression and a means to see the world in a different light. I had just been introduced to Alexey Brodovitch’s Design Laboratory and some of its students, among them Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand and I was struck by the honesty of their work, the way they seemed to just document the world around them with a low degree of involvement. But in retrospect, I don’t think any picture should — and could — be labelled as “true”. Rather, a photograph is the subjective mark of an experience at a precise moment in time shown through a specific framing. It is an image that both the photographer and the spectator invest with their knowledge, their passion and, hopefully, a message. Some photographs may look like documents but, in the words of Walker Evans, they merely adopt a style.

setup and output

Anyhow, Arbus and Winogrand’s work fascinated me to the point where I got a similar setup to Winogrand (Leica M camera+fixed lens+black and white film) and started shooting frenetically. I spent about a year living with a camera around my shoulder, which amounted to 99 rolls of processed film (11 in color and 88 in black and white, most being 36 exposures long). Of these 99 rolls, the vast majority was Kodak TRI-X 400 ISO pushed at 800 ISO with Tetenal Ultrafin film developer. Each of the 3378 resulting negatives was scanned with an Epson v400, then edited in Adobe Lightroom. Among these 3378 scans, 96% depict people in unstaged settings (mainly, the street). Finally, of the remaining 3250 pictures with people, I estimate 80% to be featuring people whose name I don’t know, and nearly all of them unaware that they were being photographed.

The very first picture I took in this year-long experiment. Going in the street with a new camera and a fresh roll of film, I met this very nice man. We talked a little bit and I asked if I could take a picture. Argentique

The street contained most of the raw material with which I composed my images. Making these photographs was all about arranging what I could find to phrase a message. I started by asking people if I could take their pictures because I wasn’t too comfortable with shooting first. Of course, it didn’t work but it helped me see that what I wanted from them was honesty and authenticity, two traits that are very difficult to act when asked. My approach was then to be as visible and natural as possible while looking for pictures. My camera was usually in clear view in order to state my intentions to potential models, and I adjusted the settings — speed, aperture and focus — constantly to always be prompt to frame and shoot.

Waist-level shooting can help when the situation does not allow framing in time but in this one it is more about the perspective that it brings. The focus is not where I wanted it to be though, I underestimated the distance by around 40cm. It doesn’t matter, really, because I find the jacket with speech bubbles adds something more to it. Argentique The most unexpected places are often filled with intriguing scenes. The supermarket seems to be a spot where most people disconnect and just wander without paying attention to one another — the less social interactions, the better. The light is usually pretty bad, though, much too diffuse and clinical. Argentique

Experimenting with the frame led me to discover different composition techniques and how they can change the interpretation of an image. The rule of thirds, as simple as it is, works wonder to guide the eye and make something pop-out. I have found that symmetries create an image that is more pleasing and stable, while using diagonals helps add energy. Tilted framing is also interesting but difficult to work with, it is often too much or not enough. Repetitions add rhythm, which in turn can enhance the message. Another tool that I enjoy is an emphasis on negative space to stress on the rest of the composition. I also remember reading this tip from french photographer Jeanloup Sieff about enclosing the picture with darker zones, to keep the eye from drifting away. This can be done when editing but it is more impactful when this comes from the composition itself.

The other thing is inspirations and references. I remember a few times where, while framing, I had a déjà vu of another image. Brodovitch’s advice in this case is “not to click the shutter”, which is reasonable enough, but I think using references to other pieces of art (paintings?) or to photography itself is both powerful and expressive.

Composition-wise, these silhouettes fall on the two horizontal thirds lines and the top vertical third line. It creates a near-perfect symmetry that helps in telling a story. This one was shot at the Museum of Natural History in New York with a very fast film (Neopan 1600) and a polarizing filter to boost contrasts. Argentique Arles, on the dam along le Rhônes. There was something really graceful in the movements of the dress and in the girl’s steps, especially when compared to the man’s. The sun shining on the water acts as a convenient light reflector. Argentique This one was shot in the harsh sunlight of mid-day with a polarizing filter. Lifting the camera to my chest, setting carefully the aperture, speed and focus at a guess and swiftly framing. A good example of the use of negative space and of placing elements (here, the eyes) in a diagonal. Also, the right eye is at the cross section of the bottom-right thirds. Argentique A visitor looks at his smartphone next to 5 busts by Picasso at the MoMA in New York. I remember thinking about Elliott Erwitt when taking this one and staying around this spot for a dozen minutes before getting this shot. It’s a nice example of repetition, but otherwise a very simple composition. Argentique

However, describing photographs purely in terms of technical refinement and composition is missing the point. These elements are just part of the studium, the generally universal, rational and easily explainable reasons for a good photograph. But what makes a photograph great is the affect, the empathy that the viewer feels and how it touches him/her, how he can relate and mix his personal experience with what he is shown. Barthes describes it as the punctum that hits you, the accident (“ce hasard” in French) that grabs your attention for good. My experience is that the more I try to add a punctum to my pictures, the less it is there. As cliché as it sounds, shooting when it feels right — not when it looks right — is the best way to get an image that has the potential to connect with somebody and trigger an emotional bond.

This is probably the most rewarding thing: when someone comes up to me to tell me that this one photograph made an impact on him. When it happened, I was fascinated to discover that I had clearly never looked at my images before. I am so used to them that I can’t get enough distance to just see them for what they are. Winogrand was adamant that you should never look at your pictures right after you shoot them. In his words, you need to wait a least a year to distance yourself from the original scene and just see the photograph as it is. I don’t know of any digital photographer who can afford that luxury, though. At least, with film, you take the picture and go on with your life and roll — the reviewing process has to happen at least a few hours or even days later.

I don’t remember when and where I took this picture, apparently it was while crossing the street, Place de la Bastille, in Paris. I really like it. I like the veins on the hand of the woman, the look on the baby’s face, the way the cloth is wrapped around him and the feeling of comfort and pleasure that he must enjoy. I too like the fact that it’s all happening in a very small part of the frame. There are just enough elements to get the imagination going, but not enough to find any satisfying explanation. Argentique Another picture from New York. The punctum for me on this one is the pigeon on the bottom right and how he changes the reading of the rest of the scene. While I am not sure I intended for him to be that important when I pressed the shutter (did I even notice his presence in the first place?) to me he is just as much a vital part of this picture as the two women. Argentique My parents. This is probably the only picture I have of them that I can look at without thinking I got it wrong. The others, more frontal pictures I shot don’t do them justice. They say so little while I want to say so much that I can’t possibly be satisfied with them. This one, on the other hand, is completely open for interpretation. It doesn’t try to say much, yet a lot of things can be understood from it. Argentique This one was taken in Gare du Nord while walking on the platform. I was struck by this intimate moment in such an impersonal place. The detail and delicacy on the face and hands contrast strongly with the harsh geometry of the space. Everything is just straight lines and precisely bent metal sheets, except for these human figures awkwardly applying mascara on their faces. Argentique München, Germany. There’s a lot happening at once. For starters, the posture of the woman in the middle is startling (just look at her knees!). I am in awe of the way the fingers on her right hand are placed next to one another. She is also wearing two rings, one for each ring finger. What could this mean? The blurred elbow on the far right of the frame is interesting because it gives a sense of depth, while the man on the bench right next to it looks ridiculously small. The woman holding the Winnie the Pooh backpack looks just as out-of-place and hesitant. And then there’s the two little girls who look the other way, the older trying to lift the younger so she may stand on the stone wall. This results in a passionless hug, one that seems bound to fail because of the height of the wall. But nobody is taking notice, except for the camera that captured that short moment and made it last in its eeriness (unheimlichkeit?). Argentique Inside the St. Vitus cathedral of Prague. I realize now that this detail is important because what these women are looking at are Alfons Mucha’s stained glass paintings. Mucha, an emblematic Art Nouveau artist, was acclaimed for his paintings of women. Their hands are usually incredibly detailed and elegant, and they look confident and at ease. Now back to this photograph, I am amazed to see how obvious the correlation is. The way these women act, the beauty and intricacy in their hands, and the look on their faces, I didn’t see this link until I wrote it down but it appears self-evident now. Argentique A picture taken through a door handle. One of the simplest yet improbable picture I took. Argentique Another unlikely picture: this one is both straightforward and powerful. I like the contrast between the texture of the jacket and the face that pops out of it. The single tear on the cheek makes it look like a child’s typical fake drama. Argentique I am not very comfortable with shooting under the rain because of the camera but it’s a shame. The world looks completely different, and it is frustrating not to be able to use my camera in this situation. Also in this picture, biceps. Argentique In the subway in New York. I was astonished by the unintended beauty of the scene and shot 3 pictures in a row. In a normal situation I usually just take one and call it a day, but I really wanted to see what this one would look like in a photograph. On the first negative, a lady crosses the scene at the worst possible moment. On the last, the woman with the stroller looks at me and it just doesn’t work. But this picture is almost what I wanted it to be. The framing is poor and the light is harsh but what a scene! Argentique

valuable lessons

Photography is the perfect medium for empathy: see what I saw, think what I thought and feel what I felt. A photograph is the testament to an intent, where the trace of the reality that was captured becomes a mean to convey a message. The situation, the framing, the moment, each parameter is chosen meticulously in order to best express a particular meaning. What is more specific to street photography, though, is the absence of set-up. Compared to a studio photographer, the street photographer has almost no control over the material he is working with. He has to catch it on the spot, make something out of what he is given. It is ingenuous to go out in the street with a precise idea of what it is that you want to say because the chances that a situation that fits this message happens in front of the lens are incredibly slim.

During the course of this life-as-an-experiment kind of project, I discovered a few things about myself. First, I am obsessed with hands. I love their incredible variety, how they can tell stories just by the way they look and how meaningful their postures can be — hands really say a lot about their owners. Second, I am definitely a detail-oriented type of person. Most of my pictures start with a small detail and expand out of it. Indeed, the photographs I like most are the ones where my eye jumps from one detail to the next and tries to make sense of them as a whole. I only care about composition as a tool to get some elements to stand out and become more significant than others. Pictures where I am visually told what I should look at bore me. And last but certainly not least, I am fascinated by other people. Taking pictures of strangers is a way for me to try to understand them — who they are, what they like, what they are thinking about… This is what I like to think of as the second kind of empathy through photography: the will to contemplate what the people in the photograph feel, their desires and beliefs, and see the world from their point of view. Forget the photographer and focus on the authentic reality of the scene (or at least the apparent authenticity).

a tale of two paradigms

Which brings me to think of two paradigms in unstaged photography. The first one — let’s call it witness photography — is the act of using the camera to record and share the genuine everyday life. In witness photography, the frame is an enemy, one that threatens to change meanings and twist our comprehension of a scene. This is the kind of photography that fits both smartphones and the internet best: social medias selfie, Instagram #food or reddit /r/pics/ photography. And this is probably what the Google Glass will most excel at: showing real life as close to how we perceive it as possible.

But there is another paradigm, one that is not concerned with objective reality. It could be called looking-glass photography in reference to the following quote by the late english photographer Tony Ray-Jones:

Photography can be a mirror and reflect life as it is, but I also think it is possible to walk, like Alice, through a looking glass and find another kind of world with the camera.
Tony Ray-Jones, Photography Year 1973, LIFE Library of Photography by Time Life (Editor) , Page: 220

This is the description that fits me best. Framing, in this approach, is just one more tool to explore this other world. Similarly, shooting in black and white instead of color helps take a step back from reality and assume the transformative power of photography, while film grain is an element to remind the viewer that this is just a picture, photons hitting a light-sensitive, silver-coated film in a specific arrangement, one that depends on a huge number of parameters.

However, what seems to be the most enduring lesson when learning to see “through the looking glass” is not about photography. Photography itself becomes the excuse to start being aware of what is so essential yet hidden in plain sight. It helps us operate in a different mode, a mode where we see the world not as our usual, boring everyday routine but as a foreign place that is at once captivating and appalling.

And this, of course, is a necessary step to learning to design. But more than that, it is a necessary step to appreciate life and enjoy its intricacies, its deceptions, annoyances and grievances as much as its wonders, astonishments and bliss. During the writing of this article, I went through two dozens different tag lines before realizing the very first one, the simplest, was the most accurate. And it really is what most of my projects and this life-as-an-experiment-in-photography is about: learning to pay attention.

references

— See this great research paper on performing identities on early social media platform Friendster: boyd, danah and Jeffrey Heer. “Profiles as Conversation: Networked Identity Performance on Friendster.” In Proceedings of the Hawaï International Conference on System Sciences(HICSS-39), Persistent Conversation Track. Kauai, HI:IEEE Computer Society. January 4 — 7, 2006. Available here: danah.org/papers/HICSS2006.pdf

— See Susan Sontag’s seminal “On Photograpy”. Excerpts here: susansontag.com/SusanSontag/books/onPhotographyExerpt.shtml

— Excellent research by Bill Jay on the public indignation following the apparition of portable cameras at the end of the XVIIIth century: billjayonphotography.com/PhotographerAsAggressor.pdf

— From an interview by Leslie Katz with Walker Evans: “You see, a document has use, whereas art is really useless. Therefore art is never a document, although it can adopt that style.” See memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/fachap04.html

— This is obviously a nod to Charles Eames’ definition of design: “[Design is a] plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose.” Neuhart, J., Neuhart, M., “Eames Design; The Work of the Office of Charles and Ray Eames,” Abrams First Edition, 1989.

— See the classic “La Chambre Claire” by Roland Barthes.

— Great article from the BBC: Self-portraits and social media: The rise of the ‘selfie’: bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22511650

— Some expressions were borrowed from DFW’s excellent This is Water monolog: moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words

disclaimer

Most of these photographs depict people in public spaces. They are not used for any commercial purpose, nor are they shown in order to harm the reputation or dignity of the persons portrayed (as required by the french law). Please contact me if you would like me to remove a photograph.

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