by Philip Bourke 22/01/2016
Once I got into a routine, the process and method of shooting to editing for me has changed little in an almost sixteen year time frame. I’ve always shot film and 90% of that has been street life documentation. While T-Max 400 was my go to film, Ilford Delta 400 has become my film of choice more recently, never pushing or pulling, just straight forward shooting at that 400 speed. I stick a roll into a camera, right now that will either be a Contax T2 or a Konica Hexar RF, head out on a ramble making sure I have focus before I do so and that’s a good start, and more often than not I like to shoot of a frame as fast as I can, this is a habit that I’ve had for many years, just shoot a frame as quickly as I can. I still feel that excitement going out and street shooting, and while the first few frames per roll tend to be rather tentative as I move through the city, soon enough I get into a rhythm, my mind gets into that zone and I loosen up hoping to peak somewhere toward frame twenty or so, and while the good stuff wont necessarily happen in and about that part of the roll the feeling of being comfortable and shooting with purpose kicks in. That “good stuff” is what fits into your philosophy, what not only catches your eye but also your mind. Hits you.
I did go through a habit of shooting one roll for a while and then that would be it until the next days venture out, I’d hit, shoot and move in a swift manner perhaps shooting 36 frames within an hour, depends on the dynamic of the day / mood I may or may not be in, lately, though, I may shoot two three or on the rare occasion four rolls. I’ll sometimes take a slight break between rolls, perhaps a coffee, maybe a slow pint. Pondering that next move. I’ll then go off again and the process of being tentative kicks back in at the start yet soon enough hitting with a purpose as if the film roll is its own entity and I suppose in some ways that is true, or at least that is the space I have gotten used to.
But what is there to ponder? Once I get back out on the street I’ve no idea where I will ramble to or towards, the images can and will happen at any given time, and on a constant, sometimes I’ll slowly pass what may appear to be a decent image, miss that moment for whatever reason, but surely another can’t be far away? I may come across aggressive or remain subtle. I can recall many moments where nothing works, perhaps out of frustration, perhaps because it may fail to fit in with my way of shooting, intuitively, and what you don’t shoot is as important as what you DO shoot, in my opinion. How many times do I put my camera to my eye and record nothing, but just to look, having 36 frames per roll has nothing to do with this, it’s the image, anticipating the image, if the feel is right than bang, hit it, if it’s not then… maybe not, probably not and on occasion definitely not. What does matter is that I’m shooting in a manner that I always have to produce the type of image that is familiar to me, the image that fits in with a body of work, impossible to force, that would come across quite obvious in the images. I’ve always shot in a very simple way, let the image find itself, retaining the feel that puts that stamp on my work that makes it mine, identifiable, finding the idiosyncrasies, the traits that I have noticed in my work through those years shooting, the subtle and cryptic nature of what turns me on when on a ramble, the things that raise the red flags and then I shoot, collecting the pieces, tripping over moments, asking questions later on.
And then I’ll leave this for maybe a few months, sometimes I stick the rolls in a box and not come back to them as long as a year down the line, I don’t see the rush, I don’t see the panic, it’s important that I step away from freshly shot images, to forget them, which in turn can allow me to be somewhat objective when it comes to sitting down and editing, when I did start out sixteen years back I’d process as I went along but in hindsight I felt too many distractions that were hindering my judgement of the work. Eager to see what I had just photographed. For no other reason than just being eager. Yet not as bad as the endemic on social media when an image is posted as soon as it is taken and this pisses me off, the current wave of shoot now, share now, get likes and “wows” is nothing short of a pointless exercise, banal wall paper without meaning, and I’ve been extremely vocal regarding that already so need to go there. Putting the film rolls away and being completely relaxed about that is an important step in the process itself. I may even spend time not shooting whatsoever, remove myself completely from the entire process.
Regarding the system of shooting and leaving the process stage for a period, I’m not in any rush, I’ll come to the images when I feel like it, that detachment is vital on many levels, and strikingly, when I finally get to having the work processed and proofed (always process my own film, always proof my own negs) certain things come running back in my mind. Often I’ll leave a mark on a roll canister to remind me of something but the markings are so random this becomes a pointless exercise yet I continue to do so. And all of a sudden I will recall something that made me want to remember a certain roll, or a certain image on a roll, yet never anything too significant, just a sporadic moment that I was trying to grab onto.
Months later, I’ll put my hand into the box and grab some rolls to process, if I grab five one goes back. I’ll process four at a time. That has always been the way. Once processed (now using XTol which I love using with the Delta 400) then its proof time and first view of the freshly processed film is one of excitement, then it is onto making contact sheets. First viewing of contact sheets has never changed, first view of contacts is always a major disappointment.
Casting a quick eye over the 36 frames on each contact sheet and seeing nothing, absolutely nothing, the flaws, the tentative frames, the not getting in closer image which at the time seemed perfectly fine…. The utter shit and the many “what was that all about?” frames. But once the lupe is out and time is spent getting to grips with the contact sheets during editing then the images start to stand out. With the exception of that first frame, the incoherent nature of that random shot grabbed to warm up if nothing else. But casting a eye over the rest of the contact sheet I settle on the frames that tie in closely with a way of working, it’s an intuitive thing, a slow process for me but once time is spent with the contact sheets they start to unravel and picking out an image here, two there, perhaps none on what may appear a distracted unfruitful day, then the pattern emerges in an almost effortless manner. And yet again that distraction may then make sense in an overall bigger picture sense, something to go back to and unravel, just in case. If I was distracted then what sums that up? Can it be used in the context of a set of images and the overall body of work? And seen in the cold light of day many months later then it may even make some sense in a sequence of images, complete sense.
One image per roll is often the target but in a confident manner I may stride towards four, five, six… and another day zero.
It’s a process that will hardly change, it has stood me in good stead, and while shooting can be often hurried, if only in the head, the overall process is methodical, consistent, patient, frustrating, rewarding.
And that is something to think about later on, in Part 2
You can read more about Philip Bourke here