Feature Friday – Liam James

by | Apr 9, 2021 | Interviews & Features | 0 comments

Hi Liam Can you tell us where you’re from and how long you’ve been shooting film?

Hey! I’m originally from a small town in West Yorkshire near Leeds, before I moved up to Glasgow a good few years back. It’s in Scotland that I started shooting film allllll the way back in 2014/2015, and I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I was so clueless about film that I bought a Canon AE-1 Program ahead of an internship I was set to do in Iceland. I returned from 3 months there super excited to see my pictures only to find that the film had never even proceeded past the beginning of the spool! Once I’d figured out the general rigmarole, I just took photos of things, places, people constantly until I got better at composition and learning how to work with film, which (hopefully) I’ve gotten better at, before I decided to upgrade my gear slowly but surely (and frugally).

Your portraits are so powerful and up close, what’s your process for directing these shots?

I think, more than anything, my portraits are always guided by a general fascination with the world and with people, and a desire to know what makes them tick. Whilst I definitely use photography as a vehicle for self-expression, for me the guiding principle of portraiture has always been to document someone’s being, their soul if you will; I’ve always thought of portraiture as a form of documentary. I always try to tell someone’s story in how I capture them, and to that end I generally like to keep portrait sessions really informal and to take time to get to know them and build up a picture of who they are, both the identities they present to the world but also their vulnerabilities, hopes and fears, aspects of them that fall through the cracks of the person they’re trying to come across as. I often arrange just to meet and chat and have a drink with that person so I can engage with them and build a rapport before we start a shoot.

My goals in trying to fully realise a person in the photos are also partly the reason why I use very little extra/artificial lighting, and go for pretty extreme close-ups, so as to keep the photo pretty raw and natural and a fair and unembellished representation of that person. I really admire people who can do ‘loud,’ super evocative fashion photography/portraits with a lot of external lighting, fancy makeup and costume designers etc based around a central theme, but ultimately it’s really nice and rewarding to see photographers like Rosie Matheson (feel like it’s a bit of a cliche to bring up her deservedly super-popular photography) who are using a lot of similarly relatively unadorned film photographs to pursue the same goals, and it’s a big inspiration to see that people can be so successful with this approach. Finally, on a more technical level, I use cameras that have adjustments to allow for close-up photography, such as ones that have bellows systems or allow for close-up lens attachments (such as the Rolleiflex TLR).

Do you ever stop strangers in the street for a portrait? If so, how do you go about that?

I’m a pretty extroverted individual, but one who ultimately struggles with a lot of social anxiety, and generally talking to and approaching strangers is my worst nightmare! That being said, I feel much more motivated to do so when it’s related to photography (and when COVID isn’t a thing), and the beauty of using these pretty archaic-looking cameras is that people are generally interested and inquisitive about them, and will ask about them accordingly.

When that person opens a conversation, I feel much much more open to transitioning into asking them to take their photo. I’ve had random people stop me on Scotrail train services, a guy operating a plate/large format tourist camera in Strasbourg, taken wedding portraits in the US, shot the cashier serving me in LIDL and many other photos in the UK and Germany, all from people asking how old my Rolleiflex is and other such questions. That, in turn, helps me build my confidence up! I’m also massively influenced by street photography and consistently see amazing work from accounts/friends I follow as well as taking huge influence from the classics, the whole magnum roster, Robert Capa’s war/street/documentary photography, Stanley Kubrick’s old photojournalism stuff, Weegie, Robert Doisneau, Robert Frank, Raymond Depardon, the classics.

I think people-centred street photography is just as much about capturing the subject in their most honest state as portrait photography on the street, and it’s so beautiful, artful, textural, well-composed and well-expressed.

Have you changed the way you shoot film since you started?

Absolutely, I started out taking tons of photographs on crappy £1 Poundland Agfavista 35mm film and using expensive and inexperienced ‘1 hour express photos’ labs and was nearly always disappointed with the results.

Discovering good-quality films, beginning to develop and scan myself and making the switch to medium format (which I mostly shoot) really changed the way I shoot and made me much slower and more methodical in the way I shoot too. Generally, when shooting a series of portraits of someone, I believe I can get all of the photos I need in 10 shots (10x 6×7 format on 120 film) and I try and make every shot count, to be different from the last and to feel some sort of emotion (mostly excitement) when I’m shooting it.

Nowadays when I’m shooting 35mm, it takes me ages to finish a roll because I firmly believe in being economical and only taking that shot when you have something to say in it. I think I’ve got better at knowing what looks better in a shot too, and what works well with film, for example always overexposing with negative film, how it renders shadows/highlights and diffused light etc, but I’m still always learning new things about the medium, there really is a whole world to explore in this old tech.

Do you prefer shooting landscapes or portraits?

Portraits, 100% – shooting other people gives me a sense of excitement that’s really hard to beat, and a feeling of creative freedom and so many avenues to explore what with tone, colour, texture, presentation, composition etc. It’s harder for me to take photos of natural landmarks and landscapes in a creative and not-well-worn way like that. That being said, I do like capturing landscapes that evoke something in me and that I have a personal connection with. For example, when I visit the areas of rural Calderdale where my family live back home, it feels refreshing and slow-moving and a bit idyllic compared to the city. For me, people live closer to the land there, and are more influenced by that rural space in the way they navigate life. I try to take landscape shots that express that connection and my own emotions being within that environment and find that really rewarding, even if it’s an entirely personal connection and one that other’s won’t pick up upon.

What’s your go-to camera/lens/film combo?

For portraits, by far my most heavily used camera is the Mamiya RB67. It’s massively, supremely heavy and pretty damn complicated, but reliable, rugged and a total workhorse. Thanks to the bellows, I can capture extreme close-up shots whilst the rotating back allows me to easily switch between landscape and portrait, and I really prefer the 6×7 ‘perfect’ film size to the square 6×6. With that I have three lenses, the 90mm C, 180mm C and the 150mm K/L. I really like the K/L as its the same optical formula as the amazing, super-sharp Mamiya RZ67 lenses as used by pros like and Luke Gilford & Rosie Matheson, but without the mammoth cost of picking up a RZ67 system, plus it’s got great bokeh and a wide f/3.5 aperture. For other purposes like street photography, some portraiture and general stuff including landscapes, I use an old Rolleiflex K4A Automat from 1951s. It’s got a really versatile 75mm Zeiss Tessar lens, is a great size for medium format and I can use the rolleinar close-up lens attachments for close-ups.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to get into shooting film?

Shoot, shoot, shoot! By far I’d say the best way to get better at taking photographs is to keep taking them, and to use your gut and emotions to identify what you’re not happy with and try to slowly correct it and improve with each roll finished.

There’s always new opportunities to learn, don’t rest on your laurels and don’t stick to doing what you’re used to. Experiment with different ways of doing things, different films, different developers, different lenses until you find something that ultimately clicks and you find is representative of what you want to do, then take it further and further.

Currently, for example, I’m unhappy with the colours obtained from my scanning software so investigating digitising film with a digital camera and using Negative Lab Pro software, as well as trying different portrait styles based on themes that I’ve not explored before. I’d also stress that it’s important to do as much as you can to keep all artistic control over the end result, and learning to develop/scan yourself is a big part of that, or at least just picking a lab that provides you with consistent results that you like.

Finally, if it’s what you love, don’t be afraid to put money into it! Film photography has left me broke a couple of times but ultimately what is life if not pursuing the things we do that make us feel alive?

I hear Berlin has a strong film community, what’s it like to shoot there? Do you have any lab recommendations?

Berlin is great for film photography! I read somewhere that it’s the first major city with more people shooting film than digital? Not sure if that’s true or not!

There’s a great, mutually-supportive film photography community here, even a big facebook group/instagram page called ‘Berlin on Film’ that’s great to check out, as well as an actual print magazine based on it! In terms of photo labs, I really love Foto Kotti, I feel like that place is a little home for me, they do great prices on developing and scanning and the scanning itself is beautiful and high-quality and super-sharp (price is a big factor too). Safelight Berlin are also fantastic, they’re a set of super nice folk who do great scanning and are great at setting you up with a suitable film and/or camera.

Fotoimpex also have a truly amazing selection of analog gear, tons of films (I think they also make ADOX film) that’s almost unbeatable in Germany. Lastly, Fotoklub Kollektiv have fantastic facilities for those more interested in fine art printing, with darkrooms, film packages, self-service and super-professional imacon/Epson scans. It’s a really hands-on experience that can teach you the real nitty-gritty of darkroom printing and scanning and making physical art from your photography.

Thanks for reading – if you don’t already, follow Liam on Instagram and check out his website.

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