FILM TALKS #13: Brandon Thibodeaux | Photographer (Dallas TX, USA)

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© Brandon Thibodeaux. From the series When Morning Comes.

1. The narratives and photographic language of both your documentary and portraiture works seem solidly grounded into the particular aesthetics of film – especially black-and-white negative film – and through a rich diversity of formats and uses: can you talk a little about your current film-based photographic practices? Have they changed since you started photography?
My photographic upbringing was firmly rooted in 35mm film. Between 2001 and 2004 I studied black and white photography at my hometown university in Beaumont, TX, and worked part time as a staff photographer shooting color film for one of the local daily newspapers. So while one half of me was immersed in the history of the medium and learning how to print in the darkroom, the other half of me was chasing news events, scanning negatives (until the paper went digital in 2003), and living on deadlines.  And when I wasn’t in the lab or on assignment a small group of friends and I would explore our neighborhoods shooting our Pentax K1000’s and trading prints.

Today I see that this split in production still persists, though I’d say the two main changes in my process are the increased reliance on digital in the workplace and the move toward square format in the personal space.  I make my living freelancing as an editorial and corporate photographer in Dallas, TX. Because of the evolution of the industry it’s been out of necessity – with the exception of a few clients – that the bulk of my paid work is 35mm digital.   All of my personal work as of the last five years is made using a Mamiya C330 and a Holga.   And in fact, as of this fall I’ve come full circle and re-enrolled at that old university to have access the darkroom.

In terms of the personal work on film you’re right, I have experimented a good deal with a few different techniques.  For instance my Mississippi work is a very slow process, it’s a lot of watching and waiting. The C330 has been an invaluable tool in this respect because its pace is roughly the same as the subject matter.  I use the waist level viewfinder and I’m slow to focus, giving my portrait subjects time to settle down and relax. And I think the waist level viewfinder helps with staying under the radar in certain scenarios.

Also, most folks aren’t familiar with the twin lens so there’s a level of intrigue somewhere in there. In a way I think they feel like we’re making something special together, using this unique looking device.  I like its weightiness, it’s heavy and solid and I think that’s also helped me control what I’m doing.  It’s a total shift from the way I used to work with a 35mm, fast and trying to capture lots of layers.  In fact, since I started using the C330 I’ve noticed the composition of my 35mm has simplified in a lot of ways.

On the other hand, a project like raccoon hunting has demanded a faster, more flexible tool.  I started shooting this project on digital.  I was mixing long exposures with quicker high ISO shots but in the end I wanted something with a fast fall off and a camera I could risk losing in a swamp.  So I started using a holga with a ringflash and Ilford 3200.  This opened up the possibilities of long panoramics, double and triple exposures, and if I dropped it in a swamp I wouldn’t feel so bad about losing it – which I did in Kentucky earlier this year.  To up the quality of my coon hunter portraits I recently started bring out a Contax 6×4.5 with a Profoto 7B pack and Profoto ringflash, something I’m really looking forward to expanding later this winter.

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© Brandon Thibodeaux. From the series When Morning Comes.

2. For most people, the recurring question on the topic of film photography is why? Why photograph on film in 2013? What do you think (besides why not)?
Personally for me it’s the process of procuring the image, it’s the tools I’m using with the film, and it’s the preciousness of the final object.  Like I said earlier the tool I use has really taught me to be patient and I think that that’s an invaluable quality to have in this fast paced world.  This is a question I’ve really been asking myself especially now that I’m back in the darkroom.  I’m printing digital and silver, they both have their respective value in terms of craftsmanship, I’m learning that the hard way.  I mean I get just as frustrated learning how to calibrate printers and profiles and all that mess as I do adjusting filters and noting down exposure times.  But I tell myself that in a world flooded by imagery now more so than ever, that it’s ok to think about the object.  It’s ok to do something because you want to do it even if it means your overhead is higher and you might fail.  I like where the whole process takes me mentally and that’s enough for me.  Maybe I’m wandering a little off topic but now that I’m getting into the world of printmaking I feel like I’m really falling down the rabbit hole.

3. You are also an experienced digital photographer and videographer having worked several times on commissioned projects for the Wall Street Journal: How do you rationalize photographing on film VS digitally?
This is where we talk about product and market demand.  I’m really striving to find a spot in the marketplace for my medium format work.  And again it’s not such much that I’m selling the aesthetic quality of film but more so the way I interact with the subject when using this particular method.  I have some clients that see this and we’ve successfully bridged that gap.  But lets face it the square image isn’t always the right fit.  I’ve always related cameras to tools in a tool belt.  You use a hammer for a nail and a screwdriver for a screw.  Some clients are more adventurous, some have lengthier deadlines, and some in the case of newspapers just need straight up good photojournalism delivered on time.  I’m happy to do both, and I’d like to continue building bridges between my personal work and work for hire.

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© Brandon Thibodeaux. From the series When Morning Comes.

4. You live in Dallas, Texas and frequently travel the American South, sometimes for extended periods of time, for both personal projects and professional assignments: how is the film photography industry doing in the great Dixieland? Do you still find easy access to photographic labs and analog photography stores at home?
I think it’s alive and well.  My one complaint is that there’s a shortage of public darkrooms in the Dallas area.  You can enroll in a community college but that’s about it.  And don’t get me wrong I don’t travel to the Mississippi Delta without over packing 120 film, but of course B&H or Adorama are more than happy to cross the Mason Dixon line to ship me film if I’m in a bind.  Houston has a few film sources, Austin does, and New Orleans has a handful in its area too.  Those are the places I’m generally passing through.

All in all I have more friends shooting film, and buying medium format cameras than ever before.  I’ve had two friends in the past month call me because they bought a C330 after hearing my sales pitch.  And I was surprised the other day when I saw Impossible Project film on the shelf at the old used camera shop in Dallas.  I mean this place looks like a warehouse of parts left over from the 1980’s and here’s Impossible Project film because “the young kids are buying it”.  That’s just great to me!

5. How do you see the future of film photography? In what ways can it remain a relevant – if only artistic – medium?
How did folks see the future of radio when the TV came about?  It’s still around, maybe less important to society than it was, but the really great programming is on independent stations.  You know the ones with the pesky pledge drives all the time?  It’s specialty programing and you pay a small price for it.  I think that’s what film will be like.  The beauty of photography today is that it’s evolving in so many ways.  The digital revolution slumped Kodak’s sales of course, but it has also spurred an interest in photography by so many young people now that I truly feel like film will press on and spawn a natural curiosity about film.  It’s a thing unto itself.  Look at the resurgence of tintypes and ambrotypes today.  I know a small legion of folks my age or younger buying up potassium ferracyanide and all these strange sounding chemicals loading them up in their station wagons and jeeps and bouncing around in their own portable darkrooms.  Film may not have the hit-you-over-the-head sex appeal years from now that things like tintypes and ambrotypes have, but I think if there’s a will there’s a way, you may just have to pay a little more for it.

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© Brandon Thibodeaux. From the series When Morning Comes.

6. What have you been up to recently? Any recent achievements, projects, news?
The past year has been about promoting the Mississippi work, printing, framing, shipping to shows, starting talks about possible publication, maintain my relationships with existing clients and tinkering with loose ends on projects.  Between that and preparing for my wedding in mid-November 2013 you could say my hands and my heart are overflowing.   The Museum of Photographic Arts down in San Diego has a few prints of mine that they’re looking for funding for to add to their collection right now, its part of a program called Help MoPA buy this print.  And I’m really excited about being apart of the Currents exhibition going up at the Ogden Museum in New Orleans this December as part of the PhotoNola Festival.

7. if anything was possible, what would be your next ultimate project photography-wise (or else)?
Lord willing I’ll be able to make it through the workload I’ve made for myself already then I can start thinking about the next.  This is really the million-dollar question.  Truth be told, if I could hop a plane (or three) tomorrow I’d head up to this little Alaskan village called Shishmaref.  It’s about 120 miles northwest of Nome.  My senior year of college I opened a small business credit card (semi-foolishly) and went up there for my first real project.  This community was getting a lot of attention back in 2006 because of all the talk of climate change and here was this little barrier island three miles long and a half mile wide with 500 people living on it washing away into the Bering Straight.  I traveled there twice that year once in summer and once I froze my tail off in sub zero conditions during Christmas.  A few really wonderful families adopted me.  We beach combed for mastodon tusk, fished for salmon, picked berries in the tundra, ate fermented walrus, and drank moonshine on New Years night.  They told me the aurora borealis would change colors if I whistled loud enough that night.  Ha.  I’ve always wanted to go back and just never had the means.  It was my first taste of really building relationships and getting to know a community outside of my own.  That experience links directly to the way I work in unfamiliar communities today and I don’t even show the work anymore.  If I could, I think I’d go back there seeing the world the way that I do now.  And to simply reunite and be apart of those families again, that would be good for the soul.

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© Brandon Thibodeaux. From the series When Morning Comes.

 

Brandon Thibodeaux’s website

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FotoFilmic’s new FILM TALKS series is all about sharing experienced views, artistic endeavors, industry outlooks and how to reshape the contemporary practices at the center of the film photography medium today. FILM TALKS invite advanced artists, independent publishers, photo editors and art dealers, as well as the broad creative crowd of visual arts to engage in insightful dialogues with FotoFilmic about film photography in all aspects.