“JR shares his journey as a photographer, his love for film, and also his hope that more people would spend more time with their surroundings (not their phones).”
Leigh Lim: Hi JR! Thanks for taking the time to do a Q&A. Upon visiting your blog, I took a few moments to admire the subheading: “Rediscovering film while reclaiming my life”. Did you consider using other subheadings, before settling on the one you have now?
JR Smith: Photography has been the one constant, with some starts and stops, in my life. I went through a very difficult time 12 years ago and had to sell all of my cameras and photography gear. Once I put it all behind me, I started putting myself back together and rediscovered photography again.
Digital photography didn’t inspire me, so I set about rediscovering old film cameras and film photography. It’s been creative therapy for me. I lost myself for about a decade, and slowly I’m rediscovering film and finding myself..
LL: Can you give a quick summary in terms of how you got to where you are with Photography?
JRS: I started learning photography as a teenager. In those days, lots of people developed and printed their own film. I had very little money, used a hand me down camera and did odd jobs to buy the stuff I needed to set up my home darkroom. I think only through the process of taking a photo, developing the film and printing your images yourself, do you connect the whole process.
I started looking at the work of Ansel Adams and I read everything I could that he wrote. Adams was an artist and a scientist–always working to perfect not only the taking of the photograph, but the process of developing the film and printing his negatives to end up with the image he wanted. Through Ansel’s books, I learned about burning and dodging when printing–things you can do now in Photoshop.
Before the internet, I bought lots of books on technique as well as coffee table books containing the best work of photographers. I’d remember the images that pleased me–mostly landscapes, still life and found objects. I knew that was the kind of photography I wanted to do.
LL: If you were to put together a ‘learning plan’ or practice pack for someone who has never consciously paid attention when taking photos before, so they could have the capacity to capture photographs at your level and skill. What would it look like?
JRS: First, I would tell someone to slow down. Digital photography, by it’s very nature, encourages shooting lots and lots of photographs without thinking about them too much. When you load a film camera with 12 or 36 exposures, you have a limited amount of frames to shoot, so you tend to think more about what you are shooting.
That being said, I would suggest anyone that is serious about learning photography, start with a film camera. Get one with dials and levers so you get a visual and mechanical understanding of shutter speeds and f/stops. Pick one type of film and shoot only that. Learn it. Learn how to use your camera. Speaking only for myself, I would start with black and white photography because it forces you to learn how light is the very essence of photography.
Take the camera out of automatic mode and shoot manually–even if you goof up most of your shots. We learn by making mistakes.
LL: Favourite time of the day to photograph?
JRS: The books all tell you early morning or late in the day, because the shadows are more interesting. But some of my favorite shots were taken mid-day. My favorite time to shoot is whenever I have a camera in my hand.
LL: Do you plan when you take photos?
JRS: I do. I start out thinking if it will be a monochrome day or if I want to shoot color. I consider if I’ll be walking a lot and that will determine if I want to carry a heavy medium format camera around all day or a lighter 35mm one. When I go out, I only bring one lens. Too many photographers lug around a bag of lenses–and that just slows you down. And I only shoot with prime lenses. Zoom lenses are for lazy photographers and even the best zooms aren’t as fast as a good prime lens. I bring several rolls of film and my light meter.
LL: Do you have a favourite prime lens?
JRS: My 85mm f/2 Nikkor is my favorite. The focal length seems just right for most things. And I love the dreamy bokeh. Next up would be the 50mm Summicron f/2 DR lens I use on my Leica M4. It’s amazing that man could make a lens so sharp and so well made.
LL: How would you describe your style of Photography?
JRS: That’s a hard one, because my style is evolving as I am spending more time on making better images and not fooling around with lots of old cameras. A good friend of mine told me that my style is “lonely.” He said even my shots of flowers and sunlight beaches suggest a photographer who enjoys isolation to social interaction.
LL: Do you think that description is accurate?
JRS: When not taking photographs, I’m around a lot of noise (both technology and people wise). I suppose that is why I cherish alone time with my camera and why I’d rather photograph places and things rather than people.
LL: What are some misconceptions you find about you as a photographer?
JRS: That I am old fashioned because I shoot on film. I choose to shoot on film because I like the organic connection to the process, I like the look of film and I appreciate being able to use superb old film cameras that I could never afford when they were new and now can.
LL: Are you learning something specific at the moment?
JRS: I have finally set aside time to learn The Zone System. It’s fascinating and I have been inspired to learn more.
LL: What’s your go-to set-up?
JRS: My go to kit is a Nikon F2AS and 85mm f/2 Nikkor lens. I pick up the Nikon F2 more than any other camera because I know it well and I don’t have to think about
where all of the controls are. It’s meter never fails me and the camera literally disappears in my hand allowing me to focus on making the picture and not fiddling with the camera.
I use the 85mm focal length because it’s just the way I see the world.
LL: Did it take awhile for you to settle on the kind of set-up that you like?
JRS: Yes. Lots of cameras. Trial and error. A camera is a highly personal thing and it takes a while to find one that feels just right.
LL: Have any of your equipment undergone customisation?
JRS: All of my Nikons have been completely rebuilt by Sover Wong in the UK. Sover is the world’s best Nikon F2 repairman. He only works on F2s. Since these are old cameras, they require cleaning, lubrication and adjustment. When they come back from Sover’s shop, they shoot just like new. In addition, I add diopter correction to most of cameras to aid in focusing.
LL: When your Nikons were rebult by Sover, were they all done at the same time?
JRS: I acquired my Nikon F2 bodies at different times, so as I purchased one, I boxed it up and sent it over the pond to Sover. I trusted the US Post Office on the way over and The Royal Mail on the way back. While Sover is working on a camera, he sends photo updates via email, detailing his work.
LL: Do you have a cleaning, lubrication and adjustment schedule for your older cameras?
JRS: All of my mechanical cameras have been serviced. They’ll need no further service as long as I own them. They will outlive me. The cameras I own with electronics on board, film or digital, will die at some point. Newer cameras are disposable.
LL: What parameters do you use when choosing a camera bag?
JRS: Function and style. Most of my camera bags are functional and not stylish. I just went with one that is both: The ONA Berlin II for my Leica system.
LL: With film, do you stick with one brand?
JRS: For black and white, I shoot primarily Kodak Tri-X and Plus-X. For color, I shoot Kodak Ektar 100. I practice what I preach–find a film you like and shoot it often so you get to know it. Trying lots of film is fun, but adds variables.
LL: Should photographers take the time to test out printing services?
JRS: Wherever you live, do online research and read the reviews from other photographers about the labs they use, why they like them and why they don’t. Find a good lab and stick with it. They’ll get to know you and develop and scan your images the way you want.
LL: Do you have a piece of equipment (or software) that you thought was a good buy at that time, but you eventually didn’t use it as much as you hoped?
JRS: I bought a Hasselblad 503CX because I wanted to use the fabulous Hasselblad Carl Zeiss lenses. I haven’t used it much because it’s big and heavy. It’s a wonderful camera though. I have purchased a few other cameras that were classics and I wanted to try.
A few I sold and a few I have gifted to other photographers. It gives me great joy to see one of my cameras being used by someone discovering old cameras and film.
LL: Have you been always mindful of ergonomics each time you shoot?
JRS: I haven’t given it much thought other than I am aware of how a really heavy or awkward camera can slow me down enough to keep me from taking good shots. I have learned to carry the lightest camera possible and pack only what I need. Some photographers think you have to bring everything you own every time you shoot. I don’t.
LL: Equipment Maintenance and Storage?
JRS: Cameras are in a cool, dry place in their camera bags or cases. Film is in the refrigerator.
LL: Do you keep prints of your photos?
JRS: Mostly no. I archive everything on iPhoto and online on Flickr. I have made huge prints of several of my favorite shots that I have hung in my home. I may print more soon as I have been asked to do a show here in Northern California (Yikes!)
LL: Is that (The Zone System) a future blog entry?
JRS: I touched on it briefly in a recent post about my light meter. But I intend to write more as I learn more. It’s a complicated process and if I can share what I learn in easy to understand terms, maybe it will help someone else.
LL: Do you keep your negatives?
JRS: I keep some, but primarily keep the scanned images on CD.
LL: Do you have a regular schedule of posting blog entries?
JRS: I mostly post when I have something interesting to say and think it something my readers will like to read. I do try and post every Monday–I call it One Minute Monday and it’s a quick read post to start the week.
LL: Is there a way to search your blog?
JRS: Funny you should mention that–I added some additional search functionality this past weekend.
LL: Did you go straight to a .com?
JRS: It’s WordPress hosted.
LL: Was it a no brainer to choose WordPress?
JRS: It’s my first blog. I really didn’t know what I was doing at first and am still learning. I went with the easiest choice
LL: Has your approach to learning changed?
JRS: I find myself doing a lot more research now before I buy a camera or lens or try a new film. Prior to that, I would always just dive head first into things and wonder why I wasn’t getting the results I wanted. Again, slowing down has helped me.
LL: Are there certain things you ‘geek out’ about?
JRS: I could go on and one about everyone’s immersion into their smartphones these days–but no one will listen because they are too busy staring into their phones. I’ve noticed over the past decade that my local coffee shop has turned from a place where people sit and chat to a place where no one talks–they all just fiddle with their phones.
Technology has created it’s own form of isolation. Even though I love my quiet time, it would be very pleasant to have a conversation in line at Starbucks rather than just look at a bunch of people texting.
LL: Is there a topic that would get you talking endlessly?
JRS: I’m more of a listener. I learn so much by listening to what people have to say.
LL: Are you a big listener of music?
JRS: As photography left my life for the past ten years, so did music.
I spent some time as a disc jockey on the radio and music was important to me. After, I moved on from radio and still listened to music all of the time. Then somehow, it just disappeared from my life.
Recently, I bought a vintage audio system and a turntable. I am rediscovering the music I loved from long ago and some new artists too. I have a couple of blog entries on this.
LL: Do you go out of your way to discover new things?
JRS: If I find a topic that interests me, I will chase it to the ends of the earth. I saw a short piece in a magazine about Phone Phreaks–those geeks from the 1970s who discovered that you could do all sorts of cool things with the phone system. Steve Jobs was a Phone Phreak. I bought a couple of books after digesting lots of stuff online and ultimately connected with a few of these fascinating people.
LL: Where do you go for inspiration?
JRS: I am lucky to leave near the beach, so I go there often to walk, think and photograph. I love the sound of the surf and the smell of the ocean. It re-energizes me.
LL: What’s your view about social media?
JRS: I’m not a Facebook or Twitter guy. Most of what I see on Facebook is just plain dumb and somewhat narcissistic. That being said, I do like blogs that have something to say, enjoy forums that share good information and chat rooms where interesting people gather. Unfortunately, most of social media should be called “I really don’t want to be social” media.
LL: What are your favourite sites at the moment?
JRS: Since I post to Flickr often, I guess I like it the best. I also visit the Nikon F2 Facebook page often because a lot of my Nikon F2 friends post there.
LL: Do you currently post at any Forums?
JRS: I post on a vintage audio gear forum, a forum for Leica users and a Nikon user group.
LL: What would you do when you need cheering up?
JRS: Put an album on my turntable, turn up my McIntosh amp and sip a glass of fine Pinot Noir.
LL: Would you be open to collaborating with other artists?
JRS: Would love to!
LL: Are you interested in technology?
JRS: I’m a Mac guy. I have a MacBook Air, iPad and iPhone. iPhoto, Aperture, iWork
LL: If you were asked to pick from the photos you have, which one would be your favourite?
JRS: I have many. If I had to pick just one, Horses on the Dunes which really delivered the mood of the day.
LL: For someone looking at a photo of yours for the first time, what is the message you’re hoping they’ll take with them?
JRS: I always think of photographs that I am attracted to as seeing a beautiful woman for the first time. You see her, are attracted to her and think to yourself–“wow! she is beautiful!” You are attracted and you want to know more. It’s visual. It’s physical. Just as I look back on, for instance, famous women that I have found attractive, when I look at them months, years later–they are still attractive to me.
It’s highly personal. If someone looks at one of my images and finds it appealing, that pleases me. For whatever reason, they found it attractive and I would hope that it would inspire them to create images that would please others as well as themselves.
LL: What feeds your soul?
JRS: The ocean. Good music. Fine photographs. Things that last.
LL: What do you find is the best way to connect with your audience?
JRS: The comments I get on my blog or to the photos I post on Flickr give me the most satisfaction.
JR Smith is a photographer currently based in Bodega Bay, California. You can also find his entries about photography here.
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