March 22, 2019

Part 1: Shooting Film After All These Years - Process

In summer 2018, I visited friend and photographer Benjy Swett to use his scanner to digitize my negatives from documenting the mid-1980s rap scene in Boston.  (I invite you to also visit Part 2:  Shooting Film After All These Years - Pick Hits.)

New School Old School

I had a meeting scheduled with Boston historian and journalist Brian Coleman and UMass Professor Pacey Foster of the Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive to show them the images.  Big thanks to Brian and Pacey for encouraging me to dig into my 30 year old archive. Here is a sample:

Disco P and the Fresh MC

Benjy and I attended the same prep school and our creative writing teacher extolled the virtues of packing a small notebook for jotting down ideas and observations.

Not That Kind of Little Black Book

In my continuing explorations of questioning digital living, I decided to shoot film in summer 2018.  I found a notebook and jotted down ideas and observations about going back to my photographic roots, as, since 2001, I have used digital cameras for my professional work.  The following italic text is a transcription of my writing, which is sometimes just short phrases or hard to decipher words, denoted by (?).

Photographing in Times Square.  Trying too hard.  Need “bokeh.  Have the 1.4 lens.  What would Beth do? Keep trying for the US Flag but felt I should have some other element.  Silhouette - need to impose on a stranger.  I took a break.
Texting and Vaping

Ate some fruit.  Joked with some Asian girls - to get away, I went to the narrow flag side, working the out of focus lights.  I saw a perfect flag reflection in the windows of a yellow cab.  Thank you Shakti. After the fruit, I also did a wild panorama with the Diana.  Don’t like it as much since I need my glasses…  Felt I had to capture something.  For my film blog.

I don’t know if any of these film images will work.  The cameras are becoming much more familiar - the way the Nikomat back opens.  It is such a solid camera!  Seeing the billboard of Kayne and Beyonce - I thought that those kids in Boston paved the way for him.  And, the white kids who bought Run-DMC’s albums.

Times Square

I had wanted to shoot b/w in NYC - Benjy gave me a roll of Tmax100.  Not enough for night.  I put in a roll of 400 color thinking I can always covert to b/w.  However, just the nature of having film in the box made me see differently.  And, if the flag/cab photo is all that I hope, I am so glad that I was shooting color.

All That I Hope

I’m waiting in front of the red wall - the gal with flowered orange sneakers walks past.  I  go “click’, but the shutter is not cocked.   Just as I finish writing this, two boys in matching bluish shirts stride by.  I was thinking - it is weird to be writing (standing on the street).  Keeping me out of the moment?  PS I looked at some of Jay Maisel’s images last night - I am thinking with the red wall, “Where’s the light?” Color and gesture we have.

Light, Gesture, Color

The white light on white things, a man in a white t-shirt.  He pauses to be buzzed in and I have just enough time after gryeing(?) the exposure change for bright sun to snap a shot before he enters the building, making my canvas tableau no longer relevant.  Who cares?  Is this one of the four stages of narcissism?  A something(?) product, or, am I writing my blog in real time?

White Things

I was about to shoot a cherry/cheesy(?) reflection photo, but advance the film and was at the end of the roll.  Now, shit, back to b/w.  I was in a color groove.  ISO 100 no less.  I was just about to write 100 when I realized I had not changed the ASA on my Niko fucking mat, a stolid, solid camera that is over 30 years old. (Actually 40).  I was also thinking if I did not have this book, I would not be writing.  Just after I changed to b/w I saw some colorful fruit and thought, “That could look cool in b/w, maybe focus on the plastic windows!"  Needed my glasses to change the ASA - otherwise, blissfully, no need.  I did need to put my glasses on to write that.  I am not wearing them now.  Not wanting to use my phone, I asked a dog walking man with an Apple watch for the time.  It was a several step process for him.

Color in Black and White

Bill McKibben:  The quest…"by providing that American necessity, a goal."  I am shortly heading off to photograph in my old stomping (?) why stomping grounds?, Harvard Square.  Can I be goal-less, goal free?  Well… the light was not great and I only had ASA100 in the Nikomat.  Again the feeling, like at the Minuteman National Park, oh those mannequins backed with window reflections - Atget.  Waiting for someone to run through my carefully composed scene - Bresson.  I tried to capture John Harvard like Tommy Alcorn.

My Image - Harvard Square - Early 1970s

Amazingly, in break from my past, I did not take pictures of the endless parade of visitors posing with hands touching the lightened toned worn feet of John Harvard.  And I thought of working for Harvard, taking a portrait of a big donor backed by the statue, or something with my sister taking a picture of my mom by the statue, many years ago, on some assignment.  Later, in the rain, I did a quadruple exposure with the Holga, but I am not sure if in my excitement, I forgot to take the lens cap off.

John Harvard

Yesterday, with photographer friend Patrice Flesch, it was fun to shoot as she knew my process of framing a scene and hoping some late passengers would hurry down the gangway to animate my inanimate scene.

Spectacle Island Ferry
When we approached Boston, she could understand when I said, “I wanted to take a skyline picture, but the light is too flat.” However, as the ferry pulled in, I could twist to shoot the docks and reflections with beautiful light as the hazy humid buildings were now at my back.

Technically Crap and Out of Focus - Or Sublime?
I feel that I am writing with expertise and love about subjects I care about, just like the Bill McKibben I am reading right now.  I have shot multiple rolls of film so far this summer.  I do not know if my 40 + year old Nikomat works, or the $10 used Holga I bought works.  It will be exciting to get the film processed.  The shot of the memorial at the tip of Nahant and the one with the flag in the middle - we stopped because the dog was doing its business and I turned around and saw scenes I otherwise would not have.

Deep profound excitement looking at the scans.  The experiment worked!  That’s not my roll of film - what’s this demonstration - no, it is mine, the film had been in the camera for 7 years.  With a self portrait interlude.  Just love the feel of the images.  Wonder - are they actually technically crap and out of focus?  Or, are they sublime?  SUBLIME.  EARTHY.  ROOTSY.  REAL.  You can get only certain look with a f1.4 lens.  I almost wondered if I should dictate while I was looking at the images.

Professor John Nordell teaches courses in the Visual and Digital Arts Program at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He blogs about the creative process at