shooting film again. written 01/14/14 (mostly)

This is part 1 of the story about a new beginning. Where it will end up nobody knows. The problem is, I’m falling in love with shooting film again.

brian drell photographed with my first camera, an argoflex. probably spring, 1967

The expiration date on the film my freezer is “OCT 2004.” That means I haven’t shot film in a very long time. I gave away all of my color film years ago but I did save 20 rolls of black and white 120mm film just in case. “Just in case” is now!

I own a lot of vintage and antique cameras. They took up so much space in my home and storage room I finally packed up about 200 and shipped them off to be stored in my mom’s garage. She lives in the far out suburbs of Chicago. She has the space.

developing 4 rolls of 120mm film. december, 2013

Most of the cameras I kept in my apartment still function and use 120mm film, a type still available in every camera store today. I’ve shot with Brownie box cameras from 1900 and folding cameras from all eras including my favorite, a 1916 Kodak No. 1 Pocket folding camera. I’ve tried out my old Rolleiflex. My father bought it while I was in high school. It’s different from the other cameras. It’s a true work of technical genius with one of the most amazing lenses of all time. A Rolleiflex like mine was used by both Avedon and Penn to photograph for the fashion magazines in the 40′s and 50′s. I used this camera for many portraits and landscapes during the 70′s and 80′s. The images with this camera truly have a magical feel.

the rolleiflex my dad bought

Shooting with the old cameras is something I’ve tried to get going several times in the past decade but with little success. On May 1, 2002, during a shoot with Misty Copeland, I pulled out a vintage Brownie Hawkeye folding camera and shot one roll on my rooftop. I probably used a roll from the same batch of expired film that’s still in my freezer! It was fresh then! That shoot felt right, photographing Misty wearing a vintage dress with a 60 year old camera on the rooftop of a 90 year old building. But soon after that shoot I began the transition from film to digital. Taking on the effort necessary to shoot with 50-100 year old cameras was too much to add to the time I had to spend learning the digital process.

misty copeland on my rooftop. may 1, 2002

alison cook beatty in riverside park. august 30, 2010

It would be over 8 years later, on August 30, 2010 before I picked up one of my old film cameras again. At this point I had totally converted to digital cameras and hadn’t shot a roll of film in years. I photographed Alison Cook Beatty at my favorite location in Riverside Park. After taking thousands of photographs with my digital camera I shot one roll of film with a 1926 Brownie Hawkeye box camera. This was supposed to be the beginning of a new series of portraits using film and the results with Alison were wonderful. After years of shooting digitally, I was ready to begin a slow move back to film for some of my personal work. I have no idea why 3 years passed before I picked up a film camera again? Sometimes years go by as if they’re only a few months. The digital world moves so fast. I hoped shooting with film again would allow me to breathe.

oceane in central park with my late 1920's, kodak hawkeye folding camera

It began again last September with Oceane Hooks-Camilleri. For me, Oceane is perfection as a muse. The reasons are difficult to put into words and I’ve already raved about her in a recent essay. I knew I had to shoot film of her with one of the old cameras. I thought it might be the best way to capture her kindness and honesty. That is the feeling I captured with my digital images but on the film something different happened. The mood is more of strength and mystery. I don’t know where that came from. I was raised a scientist and I am an atheist but I still believe in a spiritual world; things that exist but can not yet be explained by science.

One of these moments happened while I was pointing an 85 year old camera at Oceane, posing at an old unrestored section of Central Park. Along with Oceane, something of the past was captured on that piece of film. I need to shoot more film of Oceane! I need to shoot film again at that place.

oceane in central park, photographed with the late 1920's folding hawkeye camera

Alida was the model for the next film test. I decided to make my life easier so this time so I pulled out the Rolleiflex. Even though the camera is 50 years old, it’s still a working professional camera, able to shoot in almost any lighting condition. After a year of friendship and shooting together, Alida is maturing into the muse I’ve dreamed of. I brought the film camera out at the perfect time.

alida in my living room. october 12, 2013

Alida responded to the old camera with a maturity I hadn’t seen during our earlier shoots. In the past, she seemed afraid to explore her sensuality as an adult person. Now in front of the Rolleiflex I saw her as a woman for the first time. Her gaze actually frightened me at first. I had never seen Alida with such emotional strength. I find the film photographs of her from this day, absolutely mesmerizing.

Many of the women I photograph hadn’t yet entered their teen years when I made the switch from film to digital. All they know is the instant gratification of point and shoot cameras, Iphones and Ipads. The thought of taking pictures you can’t see at the time they’re taken, is a mystery to them all. I think that’s one reason I get greater focus and intensity from my models when the film camera comes out, especially something nearly 100 years old.

I had two shoots with Hillary Ramos in December. I’m always amazed after a shoot with her how amazing the pictures turn out. It’s not that I don’t see Hillary as a beautiful, photogenic women. Of course I do. She’s one of my muses! It’s just that Hillary and I are such good friends, after we spend time together shooting and talking, I often forget about the pictures. At the last shoot we spent more time sorting through my sea shells from Florida than we did taking pictures.

hillary on the subway platform. december 12, 2013

The first shoot really wasn’t a shoot at all. Hillary and I spent the evening going to gallery opening in Chelsea and eating at my favorite Mexican restaurant. At the end of the evening I walked Hillary to the subway. I had brought along my 1916 No. 1 Kodak Pocket camera with me to test it out and see if it worked. It looked like new when I took it out of the box, but after almost 100 years, one never knows. I shot one roll of film of Hillary, 8 pictures, on the subway platform. It did turn out that the camera has some light leaks in the bellows but the streaks only added to the images. There was something different about these pictures than those taken with the other old cameras. They look professional but with a quality only found in cameras from that era. It was time to repair this camera and take another look.

The next shoot with Hillary was only two weeks later. This time we were in my studio and I had control over the light and background. I’ve been working on a series of portraits I call “raw,” because they are all taken on a simple white background, with little or no makeup and a simple shirt, if one is worn at all. The expressions are direct, right at the viewer. This seemed like a perfect subject for the new film project.

I was nervous about the light leaks in the old folding camera and I wanted these portraits to be perfect so I once again pulled out my Rolleiflex. Just trying to see through the viewfinder of the antique cameras is a struggle. I wanted to concentrate on the images and using the newer camera would allow that.

I shot digitally for a while to give us both time to relax. I hadn’t photographed Hillary in such a direct manner before and there appeared to be more emotion during this shoot than I had seen during our past work together. The emotions always evolve during my portrait shoots and at some point Hillary became the person I was looking for. I grabbed the Rolleiflex and shot two rolls of film. I knew then that the “raw” series could not be taken digitally. It needed to be captured on film.

Looking at the film now, these photographs of Hillary began a new series of portraits; antique cameras, hand developed film, modern women. The “raw” series is different on film and that is where is belongs. It evolves with each shoot. Where it has gone in the past few months is a story for the second part of this essay.

me with my rolleiflex. orchard beach, maine. probably 1984. photo: charlie seton

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