April 9, 2024

My Experimental Film Image Chosen for F-Stop Magazine's Group Exhibition on Cities, Plus: "What is the purpose of photographs?"

Delighted that my image Steam and Birds, Manhattan was included in F-Stop Magazine's Cities issue. You can find my image if you scroll halfway down the group exhibit. Thrilled to have my work nestled amongst fascinating and varied views of metropolises.

Steam and Birds, Manhattan
This image is from a series shot using a 120mm lo-fi plastic toy camera called a Holga,  

However, I modified the Holga so I could shoot using 35mm transparency film. This is why the image bleeds into the areas around the sprocket holes. These are actual transparencies. No Photoshop. The scans of the transparencies were worked on in Lightroom.

One frame of 35mm film is 24mm tall and 36 mm wide.  One frame of 120mm film is a 56mm  square. I researched how to actually make the modification. I learned at Lisa Shea's HolgaPhotography.com how to make these physical modifications, using foam and rubber bands. Nicolai Morrisson on his site PhotonDetector.com presented a chart of how many clicks of the knob you need to advance the film between exposures. As the thickness of the film on take up spool thickens, you need fewer and fewer clicks per advance. You can see my check marks after I advanced the proper number of clicks. I loved the absence of a visual indicator as the technique relied solely on audio 

Life Will Not Be Denied, Brooklyn

(At the end of my day photographing in Brooklyn, I dictated this narrative into my phone.)

Arriving Brooklyn, driving under the railroad tracks with my daughter, the light was so beautiful, it was sunny, I saw pictures everywhere. After dropping her off, I set out in search of the rail line. Some areas around churches, the people seemed a little funky. But I’m looking down the street in the right direction, and there is the elevated rail line. I see where it goes underground, and I take a picture of the tracks through the fence, thinking of the picture that friend/photographer/collaborator Jaypix Belmer and I saw taken by the teens in Boston. I’m starting to do the 42 clicks or whatever, so I’m focused on that, and suddenly this guy in my face and says, “can you give me a buck for some fried chicken”? I said “no” and looking at my glasses he said “how about those Ray-Ban’s”? I almost started to say, “well they are prescription, and they won’t help you much", but he moved away. A little unnerving. And I lost track of how many knob clicks advancing film on the camera I had done. After this dollar fried chicken experience, I took a dollar out of my wallet and put it in my pocket so I could easily make a transaction without the vulnerability of opening my wallet.

Right On Time, Brooklyn
I kept looking for pictures, and there’s such a premium on the fact I have only 21 pictures on the roll of film. Kept having my friend/photographer/mentor Lou Jones’s voice in my head about needing access to people and their lives, or Jaypix talking about the importance of talking to strangers to get intimate photos. I went up on the Long Island Railroad platform, thinking of the Bernice Abbott photos taken from a train in Brooklyn that Jaypix and I recently saw at the Boston Atheneum.

I felt so much like I have to take a picture this way or I have to take a picture that way. It can’t just be a scene, there has to be action and people and shadows and complexity. I became angry and discouraged. And then I thought, “If it’s easy, everyone could do it”.

Stop, Look and Listen, Brooklyn
I took a picture of the back of a youth with cool hair and a shiny coat. But felt like a wimp. I came to the end of one street and there was a huge statue of General Grant on horseback, that added some liveliness. I was crouched down, waiting for six bicycles and 10 pedestrians with strollers to come by simultaneously. No such luck. People were scooting by on scooters and there were pretty good shadows. I needed to get to my next appointment, so I just decided, when this next scooter comes by, I’m going to get down low and snap a picture with the scooter in the shadow of the sculpture. So, I did that, but missed the scooter.

Ulysses S. Grant in Brooklyn
It was great then visiting friend/artist/photographer Keris Salmon and meeting her daughter and talking about our both having been stuck in a creative rut and the struggle of getting out of a rut. Seeing all of her art and all her books on art and hearing about the new project she doing, I left inspired and the light was getting even more gorgeous. I saw a tall thin building that was amazing, so I kept walking towards it. Tried to get a fire escape and a tree with the building, but again the very frugal with film, I didn’t take it. But then, looking up at the tree with a sliver of building, I think I burned the frame. 

Light So Thick You Can Touch It, Brooklyn
Got closer to the tall building and it was kind of interesting, but there was a huge crane and the light on it was just fabulous. So, I think I took a picture of the tall building with the crane. I also remembered at one point, that I could do multiple exposures, so I think I did one at this point. Then I did a double exposure of the incredible crane overlapped wigs for sale. 

Heavy Lifting, Brooklyn
I loosened up, had more fun. This was good because I realized I was so wrapped in what I should be shooting and how I should be shooting. It’s great to have a mentor and friends who are photographers, but I gotta be me.

Walk This Way, Brooklyn
That evening, during a massage I imagined building little boxes and having the film transparencies with images with the sprockets showing mounted in the boxes and there would be lights in the boxes making them glow. I first thought that it would be a standalone image, but then I thought of a larger piece of driftwood with maybe six panoramas in it.

Just before the massage I had gone into a branch of the New York Public library. There was an Aperture Magazine with an essay titled, “What is the purpose of photographs?” Any photograph is simply a record, it postulated, but are they art, as well? After my exciting day taking pictures in Brooklyn, I realize that the purpose of photographs is for the photographer to derive enjoyment from the act. Also, on the massage table I had affirmed to myself: I am a photographer. I am an artist. I can do whatever the f*ck I want.

Oh my God, the voices in my head.

Professor John Nordell teaches courses in the Arts, Media, and Design Program at American International College in Springfield, Mass. He blogs about the creative process at CreateLookEnjoy.com. Instagram: create.look.enjoy