Published on May 1, 2015.
FotoFilmic: A remarkable aspect of your work, besides its highly reflective and open-ended qualities in addressing and representing America’s post industrial reality in the historical Rust Belt, is its conceptual and aesthetic constancy: since the early 1980s you have favored working with a flexible 6×9 medium format very similar in ratio to photojournalists’ ubiquitous 35mm SLR film cameras (24x36mm). In fact, while preparing this interview it wasn’t entirely clear to us which format exactly was used for what as you also used 35mm systems before switching to 6×9 (a dilemma itself wonderfully evocative of film photography practices in general). The fact that you photograph both handheld struck us as a perfect case in point against the many trends and “schools” that have since often advocated large format as “The” adequate tool for photographic documentation. Can you describe how your artistic practice still resonates with this particular format, and how the film medium itself might inform it?
Andrew Borowiec: I think people often overlook the way that a photograph’s meaning derives, in part, from the tools that were used to make it. I want to make pictures that look like the real world and to do that, I need to use a camera whose technology gets in the way as little as possible. When you look at the ground glass of a view camera or a DSLR, or at the screen of an electronic viewfinder, you’re viewing with the lens wide open and you see a reduced version of reality: flattened, with only one plane in focus while everything that’s closer or further away is blurry, so you tend to structure the photo based on that truncated view. But that’s not how we see with the naked eye, and it’s not how I want my pictures to look. I use cameras with optical viewfinders, little windows that allow a clear and detailed view of the subject with everything sharp from foreground to distant background. In 1977 I traded my Nikkormat SLR for a Leica M2 rangefinder camera and have continued to use rangefinder or viewfinder cameras ever since.
When I began photographing places (rather than people) I found that 35mm film wasn’t capable of describing the nuances of light that I was seeing, so I started using a 6x9cm format camera. It was a relatively easy transition, as the camera I used, the Fuji GW690, was like an overgrown Leica, with the viewfinder in the upper left corner and the shutter release in the center of the film advance lever, and with the same 2:3 aspect ratio as 35mm. I’m interested in making photos that show the world’s complexities and contradictions and I find that the elongated rectangle of the 2:3 format is better suited for that. The squatter proportions of larger formats such as 4×5 and 8×10 often seem to lead to a simplistic or reductive view of things, with a single subject in the center of the frame.
I’m not sure why large format is considered the appropriate tool for photographic documentation. I suppose it might have to do with the view camera’s ability to correct perspective distortion, or maybe that prejudice originated at a time when smaller cameras couldn’t match the detail of an 8×10 negative. That’s not true for modern emulsions, unless one wants to make prints the size of buildings.
I prefer to use handheld cameras because I like to move around a subject, looking though the viewfinder from different vantage points before pressing the shutter. Often the best position is where it’s impossible to set up a tripod, such as leaning over a fence. I suppose it’s a way of working that comes from my early days as a street photographer. If I need to use a tripod—when using a panoramic camera, or at night, or with the 6x9cm view camera that I sometimes use for perspective correction—I still use a handheld optical viewfinder. I walk around until I’ve found the right spot, mark it with a bright yellow tennis ball half, then I go get the camera and tripod.
I’ve been using film for over forty years and I suppose my working methods derive from that. I shoot relatively few frames, though probably more than someone using an 8×10. It’s a balancing act between wanting to be frugal—every click of the shutter means additional expense and, more importantly, additional time in the darkroom—and wanting to be open to accidents, to the possibility of making a picture unlike any I’ve made in the past. Typically, I might make two or three photos of the same subject (I never bracket exposures). You’re not going to do that with an 8×10 when each shot costs $30+ for film and processing.
F/F: Your series “The New Heartland” started in 2004 brought an important change to your work and discourse: color photographs, whereas all your prior production adhered to black-and-white film. Several ensuing series since, such as the ongoing “Lincoln Highway” project or the “Post-Industrial Rust Belt” portfolio indicate a durable evolution here. At the same time, “Nights in Provence” shot in southern France between 2009 and 2011 remains a monochromatic work: how do you view the crucial differences between the two, and what is your rationale for choosing say color over black-and-white film?
AB: In 2004 I was making pictures of the gentrification of Cleveland’s blue collar neighborhoods but the people to whom I showed them were missing the point. In black and white you couldn’t tell the difference between wood and plastic siding. In a sense, I began working in color so that I could show vinyl’s many variations of beige. More to the point, we see the world in color, so color is inherently more convincing. With black and white you’re reducing reality to a palette of gray tones, which results in a certain level of abstraction. Color adds another layer of description, and potentially of meaning, but it also brings challenges that you don’t have in black and white. For example, in black and white a crushed Coke can by the side of the road might be just another piece of gray debris, but in color the vivid red of the can could be visually overwhelming, drawing away from the rest of the photograph and changing its meaning.
However, when I decided to photograph the hilltop villages of France’s Var region at night, I went back to the materials I had used for decades, i.e. medium format Tri-X developed in D-76 and printed in the darkroom on Ilford fiber-based paper. On the one hand this was just a practical matter: all the towns in the Var are lit with sodium vapor lighting that leaches all color from the nighttime landscape, resulting in a monochromatic world in various shades of yellow. On the other hand, I think those pictures are, in part, about the layers of time and history in the landscape. When I tried to photograph in color during the day, the saturated hues of modern life—commercial lettering, road signs, cars—overwhelmed the more subtle traces of past centuries.
I came to color late in my career, partly because I’ve never liked the look and feel of RC prints: they remind me of the placemats that you find in cheap restaurants, with images laminated under plastic. Color film, too, has an artificial look, with colors that aren’t realistic and way too much contrast. By comparison, even the relative abstraction of black and white can seem more real. In black and white you can adjust exposure and development to get prints that look like how we perceive the world, rather than how photographic materials translate it. That degree of control isn’t possible with color film and chemical color papers. Consequently, I only started working in color when you could scan negatives and correct them on the computer to arrive at a realistic images, and then make prints on real paper rather than plastic.
Ink prints on good papers are not only more archival than C-prints, they can be much more beautiful. However, I don’t find that to be case with black and white. Although I’ve seen black and white inkjet prints by many renowned printers, I have yet to see one that matches the subtlety, beauty, and quality of light that you get in a silver gelatin print. That’s why, as long as I keep working in black and white I will use film and make silver gelatin prints in the darkroom.
F/F: As a renowned published artist with three wonderful books (and counting) under your belt, a respected faculty figure (University of Akron), and an internationally vested organizer of photographic education (Les Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie in Arles, France), what is your own relationship to digital technology in the field of photography? Do you photograph digitally as well, and if so for what purpose?
AB: I worked for the Rencontres in 1979 and 1980 when nobody I knew had even imagined digital photography! The crisis of the day was the invention of RC paper, with all the manufacturers saying they were going to discontinue traditional papers.
I embraced digital technology in 2004, partly because I wanted to work in color, partly because I didn’t want the photo program at the University of Akron to become obsolete. It was already apparent that digital printing would become the norm and that C-prints were headed for obsolescence. I read dozens of books on Photoshop, scanning, inkjet printing, and color management and I gradually integrated digital techniques into our curriculum. I put in the school’s first digital photo computer lab all by myself, using computers discarded by the graphic design program and printers that a local business gave me when their warranties expired. When I left, ten years later, the program had a state-of-the-art facility and a majority of the upper-level photo majors were using full-frame digital cameras. However, the first two years of the program continue to be film- and darkroom-based.
In 2009 the local camera store lent me Leica’s first professional-level digital camera for a week, and I was completely hooked. The camera was designed almost exactly like the Leica film cameras, with a bright rangefinder window and manual focusing and exposure controls, and using it was a seamless transition from the Fuji medium format camera that I’d used for the previous twenty-five years. I could even use my thirty-year old Leica lenses on it. I bought that camera and haven’t shot a single roll of color film since. However, my basic working methods haven’t changed. On an average day of shooting with my digital camera, I release the shutter about as often as when I use film, and I spend more or less the same amount of time correcting a file on the computer as I do developing and proofing an image on film.
These days most of my work is color, so it’s mostly digital, but I also have a darkroom for black and white. I think people make too much of the film versus digital issue. There always have been photographers who are primarily obsessed with equipment and technique, but I’m interested in photographs. The tools and techniques are just a means to an end; you learn how to use them so you can make the pictures that matter to you. Mostly, people don’t know how to use the tools well, which I think is what leads to the film/digital debate. There are many ways to abuse the tools of digital photography to get disastrous results, and the same is true of film (I’ve seen students go to great lengths to get grainy, underexposed negatives for that “early 20th Century look”). What matters is having a clear idea of what you’re doing as a photographer, and understanding how to use your tools to achieve that.
I’ve met photographers who disdain digital, who are incensed at the idea that you can take a photograph and then view it right away and reshoot it. There are even “purists” who use digital cameras but refuse to review their images on the screen (Leica makes a digital camera without a screen for those guys). However, in photography’s early days, that’s exactly how it worked: after you had painstakingly sensitized, exposed, and developed a wet collodion plate, you could look at the result and, if you didn’t like it, you could scrape off the emulsion and make another picture. In that sense, at least, digital is taking us back to photography’s early days!
F/F: You are based in Akron, Ohio and New York, NY but travel both the American Midwest and the world quite frequently for your projects for extended periods of time: how is the film photography industry doing at home and in the places you visit? Is it still relatively easy to find good processing labs and film retail stores there?
AB: You can still buy 35mm film in Akron, mainly because photography students still use it, but that’s always been more expensive than mail order, and it’s been at least two decades since you could buy medium or large format film locally. There is still has a lab there that develops color negatives but, as they only run the processor a couple of times a week, the results are very uneven. None of the labs make C-Prints any more. New York City, on the other hand, is probably the best place on the planet for traditional photographic technology: you can get virtually any film here and there are labs catering to every photographic need.
Even thirty years ago I never depended on finding film during my travels. I always brought it with me, which was sometimes logistically tricky: 600 rolls of Tri-X 120 takes up a lot of room in carry-on luggage, even if you remove each roll from its box. On long trips I would also bring along film developing equipment so I could occasionally process a roll at night in my hotel room, just to make sure that my camera was working properly.
I’ve never sent black and white film to a lab, as they wouldn’t have processed it the way I wanted. That was one of the reasons it took me so long to get around to using color: you have to trust someone else to develop your film. When I started working in color there was a lab in Akron where I would take my film but, as the years went by, they grew increasingly sloppy, so that I had to spend hours on the computer retouching dust and fingerprints from the scans that I made from the negatives. Now, with digital, I don’t have to do any spotting at all.
F/F: FOTOFILMIC is dedicated to supporting and promoting the new generations of photographers attached to the film medium today: what essential advice or recommendation would you have for them?
AB: Well, as I said above, I’m not sure that the issues facing film photographers are different from those for those working digitally.
Don’t be seduced by what happens to be fashionable at the moment. It seems that we’re living in a time of unprecedented interest in photography, with countless contests to enter and awards to compete for. But fashions change and today’s award-winning photo stars will likely be forgotten in a few years; they aren’t the photographers you want to emulate. Instead, look at the work of great Twentieth Century photographers: Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Garry Winogrand, August Sander, and especially Eugène Atget. In the end, I think you can learn everything you need to know about photography just by looking at Atget.
Instead of looking at photographs on the internet, get out to museums and galleries and look at actual prints. I recently saw an exhibition of photos by a relatively well-known, award-winning, young photographer, whose work I had seen on-line and quite liked. However, what looked great as a 1024 pixel-wide jpeg was a disaster as a 20”x24” print. I know that these days whole careers are build exclusively on-line, but I also know influential museum curators who refuse to ever look at photographs on a computer, they want to see prints. What matters in the long run isn’t a fleeting mention on a blog or website, but making work that lasts and that will be seen by future generations, and for that you need to know how to make a good print.
F/F: Post-Industrial Rust Belt” is currently on view at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska until May 17, and the “Provence” work recently garnered many top reviews from The New Yorker, The New York Photo Review and A Taste for Art: any other recent news or exciting projects on the horizon that you’d like to share with us?
AB: My book The New Heartland: Looking for the American Dream is being published by George F Thompson Publishing this fall. As for projects, I’m juggling several at the same time: I’m still working on the Lincoln Highway, though I should be finished in a year or so. I’ve also started making pictures in New York City. What I’m most excited about is that I’ve recently gone back to photographing the Ohio River Valley and other places from twenty or thirty years ago. I’ve realized that I’m not done with what I call the Post-industrial Rust Belt, and that I never will be: that landscape is my life’s work.
F/F: If anything was possible, what would be your ultimate dream or project photography-wise (or else)?
AB: I guess I’m lucky because the Post-Industrial Rust Belt is pretty much my ultimate project. Still, although I was born in New York City, my formative years were spent in Europe and I’ve spent my whole adult life dreaming of going back to photograph there. I would love to thoroughly investigate a small town in France or Italy, or a great city like Prague or Istanbul, the way I photographed Cleveland; I would love to follow a river such as the Danube from one end to the other; I would love to make pictures in Russia, in Poland, really anywhere in Europe. I hope that Nights in Provence is just a beginning for me and that my next big project will be somewhere on the other side of the Atlantic, in black and white or color, on film or digitally.
© All photographs by Andrew Borowiec