I’ll have to admit, writing a Film Photog Friday every week really makes the week fly by! Unfortunately, my Macbook was involved in a serious adventure which resulted in its retirement this past Thursday. A new one will be on its way, but until then I will try to keep the blog running as smoothly as possible. Andrew’s Macbook has a nice giant screen, much bigger than my 13incher. It’s nice to see everyone’s photos so LARGE!
This week’s featured photographer is photographer James Mignogna. James has been shooting primarily film for around 25 years and has dabbled in digital a wee bit. He was born in New York City, but was raised just across the Hudson. He is typically a black and white guy, but does love the vibrance of color from time to time.
How did you get started shooting film? [Note: It always feels weird for me to ask that, but I was brought up in a digital world, right when the transitioning was happening. My generation is split between learning photography on film or learning on digital.]
I always use that old joke when someone asks how I learned to shoot. “I got a PhD in photography from my father… ‘Push here, Dummy.’” My photography started with my pop. He was an amateur photographer and always loved to get a new piece of gear. So the first camera I ever borrowed on a family trip, probably a Nikon FM2, was his. After a while we kind of struck that place where we couldn’t relate to each other that well… you know, it’s not uncommon for fathers and sons. Even in the most awkward or strained times though we could always build a bridge though photography. I guess some have baseball or football… sports and stats to talk about, but honestly I never really cared about following sports, so for us we used photography to talk about things we otherwise couldn’t. He past away several years ago now, but even today I feel like through photography I still have that connect to him, if that makes any sense.
What is your favorite subject to photograph?
Well I do two kind of approaches. I love the New York School of abstract expressionist painting and wanted to address principles of color, weight, motion, form, rhythm and other aspects of visual design photographically as a kind of pure research. That abstract color work is the majority of my medium format stuff, but at heart I am a street shooter. I’ve always loved that tradition. Not only is it populated by these gruff, tough, salty old guys who you could tell knew quite a bit about the art of the thing, but weren’t likely to talk about it. They were “show, don’t tell” kinda guys, and I wanted to be a part of that. It is also maybe the kind of photography that is closest to the heart of recording the real, and all of my photography is about what is real in the world. That’s why I chose photography as my art. I might subvert it and play surreal games, but in the end even my abstract images are “straight photography.” Also the tradition of the kind of B&W street photography I do is very much rooted in the 20th century. I don’t know… Maybe i’m just getting old, but things just seemed to make more sense to me then. I learned on film. It’s not a throwback for me, but rather than learning new tricks and keep up with the latest and newest, I find my interest going backward. It’s not that I’m not still learning, but I like to think my knowledge of photography is going deeper rather than wider. I like going slower… more deliberately, and I feel like the images benefit from that. I’m also a romantic, so looking back feels right to me.
What camera do you typically use?
I’ve used several different cameras over the years. Dad was a 35mm SLR guy so I picked up his tastes initially. A quick rundown of the workhorses would start with the Contax 139q. It’s a small camera with a good meter and AMAZING lenses. The bodies are available very inexpensively and I often recommend this camera to people. When I went to college I bought a Nikon F3. Man, you could hammer nails with that thing. At this point I was getting a little more into photography and wanted to try medium format. I bought this cool little Ikoflex twin lens, that I carried around for a while and had a little love affair with, before it died and I moved on up to a Hasselblad. I guess that’s when I started trying to get regular paid work. That process frustrated the hell out of me and in a fit of aggravation I sold that kit (as well as an early 60s Gibson SG) for rent. Man did I regret that. Now I have two of them. I love Hassleblad C series, though they are a little specific use. They can be a little slow. By this time I was in my early to mid twenties and I was working at a pro camera store in Boston, called SBI. I don’t even know if it even exists anymore. Anyway, we as employees got deep discounts on the used gear that came in, and one day this Mamiya 6 walked through the door. I couldn’t afford it, but I couldn’t let it go. I got a second job just to pay for it… and even then I couldn’t afford a lens for a few years. So it was the F3, Hassy and the 6 for a long time. After my pop passed away I inherited his Contax G1. It’s an auto focus rangefinder, and because it’s a Contax it uses Zeiss optics which are, as I said before, phenomenal. That was the camera that fully put the 35mm rangefinder bug into my system. It was so light and discrete that I found I could take shots I couldn’t really get with a bigger system. So, small it was for me. Inevitably, missing shots to all the auto focus hunting drove me crazy though. My good buddy that I’ve had from the early Boston days always shot one, and he’s the guy that got me into street photography, so at this point I knew that I just had to bite the bullet and buy a Leica.
I currently shoot a Leica M2-R and a Leica M4. I’ve owned a few Leicas and even killed a couple… well, actually they are awaiting repairs that cost more than the cameras are worth. I had a bad habit of slinging my cameras over my shoulder rather than over my neck. Consequently, I had a bad habit of dropping cameras, which is a habit I have thankfully broken myself from… mostly. Maybe some day those cameras will come back to life.
My lenses are a 35mm Summicron and a 50mm Summicron, both absolutely fantastic, especially wide open at f2. I also shoot a 50mm Summitar, and a 90mm Elmar if I want to compress something. The Summitar is an old 1940s chrome collapsible thread mount lens from the older Leica series, mounted to my Ms with an adapter. It has a single coating and is just packed full of glow. I love that lens, and it’s not only the cheapest Leitz lens I own, but probably also the one I use the most these days. When I’m out shooting I’ll mount a 35 to one body and the 50 to another…that way I’m ready to shoot either situation without having to fumble with lens changes. I’ve been shooting Leica Ms for about 10 years now, and the instant I started shooting with them I knew that I had found the camera for me. These are the cameras I’m gonna shoot until I die.
What film do you like the best?
There are a lot of films that I have loved, many of which are no longer available. In the 90s I was all into chrome (slide film) and shot up a ton of Kadachrome. I also really miss EPH (ektachrome 1600), which was expensive, but very beautiful. That one is gone too. Today as far as color is concerned I shoot Fuji Velvia 50 or 100 if I can’t get hands on the 50. Velvia colors are so wonderfully exaggerated and if I’m shooting color, that’s what I go for. But mostly I’m a B&W guy.
Tri-X has historically always been my favorite. T-Max 3200 is also a film I feel quite passionate about. For developing I use D76 for the Trix, and either D76 or Rodinal for the TMZ (3200) depending on the look I’m going for. I think it’s very important to match optics to film and both of those to the developer. It really is a matter of crafting a look. That is why I develop all of my film myself. I want to own the whole process.
Lately I have been full of love for this B&W film from Czechoslovakia called Fomapan. I’m not sure if it has higher silver content, but I have this theory that the antihalation coating is either thin or almost non-existent. It has a tendency to flair in really beautiful ways and looks to my eye more like a film from the first half of the 20th century, which is a look I really go for. When you match that with the single coated Summitar from the 40s, you get something really lovely. I’m a big fan of that combo.
What do you think of the whole “film is dead” debate?
I think it is preposterous. I don’t know. I guess it is dead for most commercial applications. Product, sport, celebrity, even editorial and journalism have all gone digital, but I don’t think digital photography will kill film photography any more than film photography killed painting. It will however re-contextualize it as more of a fine art, just as photo did for painting or illustrating. I am on that side of the equation, so it works for me. I suspect most people who choose film are in it for the art. Professionally I see the film aesthetic returning for things like fashion, and maybe even in some cases for high end portraiture and wedding… anything that wants to be seen as being related to art.
Honestly, I don’t care much to fight the medium debate. There is room for everyone. I’m not a silver warrior (well… maybe a little). My only concern is loosing materials that I love, because the economies of scale won’t support the production of those materials. Film will not disappear, but I doubt we will return to the kind of film varieties and choice you had in the late 20th century. That is a problem.
What’s a good piece of advice for shooting film?
Be systematic. I had a teacher once who said “Make sure you change things, but only make one change at a time.” That was really good advice. If you want to get good at this, you need to be able to link the results to what you did. If you have too many variables you won’t be able to know what it was that caused an effect. Take notes. Some people embrace the whole “unpredictability” of film. Sure, the happy accident has it’s place, but I feel like this is more the attitude of digital converts tired of the automated sterility that is the hallmark of much of contemporary photography. If you are serious about film, you need to learn to respect it, to learn how to control it, and only then will you be able to subvert it with intent and skill. Oh, and shoot manually. Always.
—-> You guys can see more of James’ work here. Hope everyone enjoyed! Street photography isn’t an easy thing to do. The only thing harder I can think of photographing than someone I know, is someone I don’t know without them knowing. Kudos to James for executing it beautifully. Keep the work coming. I’m taking submissions on a rolling basis, so if you’d like to be featured please send me an email @ email@example.com 🙂