I follow a lot of really talented people online. I wish I could just put everyone I follow on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter into a room and have a party. Someone I would totally want to invite to that party is Jess Williams! Jess is a 20 year old photography student (and actually the roommate of who the last Groove Slang post I did, Sam Lichtenstein. Yeah, I'm obsessed with them both and live vicariously through their college experiences together online. Is that creepy? Probably.) She is a talented music photographer and journalist as well, but what really caught my eye was a Facebook post she did one day with some of her film photography. I loved the pedestrian quality to her work, and instantly was nostalgic for the times that I got to study film photography in college. I unfortunately only ever got to learn how to properly shoot, develop, and print black and white film, so I was very drawn to her color work and honestly a little jealous!!
I emailed her a few questions and asked her to send in some photos, and I am really obsessed with everything she sent back. Check out our Q&A below!
What is your name/age/current profession (talk a little bit about where you go to school, what you're studying, etc.)
My name is Jess Williams. I a 20 year old student/photographer/journalist living in New York City! I got to the New School here in Manhattan, where I am part of what’s called the BAFA program. Essentially, it’s for people who can’t decide between art/music school and regular school… so we get to do both! I go to two different colleges within my university and I study photography at Parsons (yeah, the Parsons from Project Runway) and Journalism at Eugene Lang.
I wouldn’t say I’m a professional photographer or journalist yet (though I have aspirations to become professional), but I do music photography for multiple publications as a hobby outside of my schoolwork and I do music journalism as those same publications as well. My life outside of school consists of a lot of concerts and listening to albums and reviewing everything that one can associate with music, pretty much!
What type of film equipment do you use? Do you process/develop/print your film yourself?
I have a pretty basic set up for most of my film photography. Most frequently, I’ll shoot with my Canon AE-1 Program and I have a 50mm f/1.8 lens on it. I had a 28mm f/1.8, but it needs some TLC and repairs so I haven’t been able to take as many wide shots. However, through my school I have access to some pretty amazing film cameras. For the entire fall semester of my sophomore year of college I was shooting black and white and color 120mm medium format film on a Hasselblad, which is what every photographer dreams of (if you ask me). Later in the year I became familiar with medium format rangefinder film cameras and I fell in love with the Fujifilm 6x9 camera. It’s a little tricky to use since the way it works is basically layering two photos on top of each other in the viewfinder and you have a little circle, with a diameter of about 2 centimeters, to line up the photos properly. If you don’t line them up properly than the entire photo will be out of focus. Rangefinder cameras are definitely a little more challenging, but I love them because they force me to take my time with the film.
As for developing, my school only has a black and white darkroom so when I’m shooting black and white I can process, develop and print all of my film free of charge, which is amazingly convenient. But when it comes to color film, I have to send it out and that can be time consuming and a little pricey, not to mention that it’s like sending your first born off to school for the first time when you leave your film to be developed by someone else. When I am home in Philadelphia there is this great little shop called Indie Photo Lab that is run by fellow photographers and that’s where I take all of my film to get processed and developed because they know what they’re doing and they do a great job. I do still print all of my own photos from the color film I get processed. Once I get the film back, I digitize it through the scanners at my school and then I can work on the film through programs like Photoshop and Lightroom and then I can print the photo like I would print any other photograph!
In your opinion, what is the most frustrating aspect of shooting film? The most liberating?
After living in New York for the three years that I’ve been here, you patience for literally everything begin to wear away. For me, the amount of time it takes when working with film is the most frustrating. On the other hand, the most liberating aspect of shooting film is that you snap a photo and you never quite know if it’s going to turn out ok. You might have your f/stop, ISO and shutter speed all set but you’re never truly sure until you get the film developed. The best feeling, to me, is when I develop a roll that I’m questioning and it ends up being on point and properly exposed. It’s like Christmas morning, honestly!
Do you have a preference on shooting color film or black and white? Why?
I do have a preference, but then again I think it also depends on what I’m shooting. For example, I did an emotional personal series and I shot it entirely on black and white film and I don’t think it would have translated as well if it was in color. But I do tend to lean more towards color film. Overall, I’m really inspired by the role of color in photography, both digital and film. To me, the kinds of images that I try to create are inspired by the works of the film photo greats like Stephen Shore and William Eggleston. The contrast and use of color in their photographs is always something that I am trying to achieve.
What is your opinion on photographers who don't learn film before digital?
I can’t say that I think any less of them because I am one of them. I never took a photography classes through my high school, I took outside classes at a local art school in Philadelphia. I was taking intro level digital photography classes to get familiar with how a DSLR works. I was essentially a self taught photographer until I reached college, where I learned how to confidently work in analog.
I don’t think that it makes sense to think less of a photographer because they began with digital over film. To me, what matters is that you learn the essentials of photography which is the f/stop, ISO, shutter speed, some depth of field knowledge and having a creative eye. I think that you can study and learn those things from both digital and film cameras. Obviously, film is more time consuming and you feel like you’re becoming one with the art because there’s more of a process behind it, but I don’t think that beginning with digital photography hinders your growth as a photographer at all.
Film photography can be an incredibly tedious process. Have you ever had any nightmare experiences while shooting/developing/printing?
When I was first starting out with medium format film just over a year ago, I had various nightmare experiences. I would go into the pitch black room to unload my film and get it onto the reels to develop it and there were many times where I felt like I successfully got the film onto the real without any of it touching, but I was dead wrong. When you’re unloading film from the camera, you lose your sense of sight and it’s all about listening to and feeling things to make sure everything is just right. But there are so many times where something can feel right, but it still isn’t. So since some of my film was touching, the developer and fixer and such couldn’t access all areas of the film, so I just had these gaping sections that were left undeveloped and I would lose parts of and sometimes whole images because of it.
But most of the time I try to turn my nightmare experiences into happy accidents. I’ve done accidental double exposures countless times and I just roll with it. Sometimes I’ll roll my film back in my AE-1 and I’ll think it’s done but it’s not and I accidentally expose a section of the film and end up having this gnarly light leak happening. There’s a lot of unknowns with film photography but that’s kind of what I like the most about it.
How do you want people to feel when they view your photographs?
It’s interesting because I don’t consider my film photography related to my music photography at all and I always want the viewer to feel two different ways when viewing the different types of work. When people view my film photographs, I want to convey this sense of nostalgia. I’m really interested in pulling inspiration from the 70’s West Coast film aesthetic as well as pulling some inspiration from the film culture that was present around the skateboarding scene in the 90’s. But when it comes to making film photographs, I’m never interested in creating this amazingly powerful images that hits you and just makes you think really deeply about it. I’m not interested in throwing in an underlying message in my photographs. I’m more interested in just simply documenting what I see. For example, a picture of a skee ball game is just a picture of a skee ball game and the reflection of the light on the ground is just a reflection and not some metaphor for anything. I’m interested in making photos that don’t have meanings, if that makes sense.
What advice would you give to anyone just starting to shoot film?
I’ll start off by saying that film is hard. It’s taken me a long time to get to the point I’m at with my film photography and I still feel like I have room for improvement. If you’re just starting out with film, don’t feel discouraged because you don’t have the access to darkrooms or certain cameras or other such things. It is still achievable!
I highly recommend beginning your journey with film photography in black and white. I would strip color out of your life when shooting film and try and see things in black and white. This is exactly what I did. Working only with black and white when starting out, allows you to pay more attention to the shapes and forms of things and really study what makes a good photo through framing and other such things. Often times people delve right into color photography and it can become overwhelming. Once you have a good grasp on shape, form, framing, etc then I would suggest moving into color and repeating the process. Begin to look at form and shape, but with the added layer of what story or mood the color within the photograph portrays. Even though I try and make “chill” photographs that seemingly have no meaning, there is still a lot of thought that goes into the photograph concerning the framing and the color that is used, etc.
Film requires a lot more thought and patience than digital photography. It’s nothing like snapping a photo on your iPhone or DSLR, but it is really rewarding and will greatly expand your knowledge of the art of photography.
Where can people view more, purchase, or keep up with your work?
People can always view my work on my website, Tumblr blog, Facebook page or follow me on Instagram (although my Instagram feed is predominantly music, when I go out and shoot a lot of film, I do post a lot of it on there). I don’t have a print store available as of right now, however I am constantly making prints for people who are interested in purchasing. You can always shoot me an email (email@example.com) with the photo that you’re interested in purchasing, the size, the finish and anything else and I am happy to accommodate! Supporting your local artists is a really rad thing to do and I highly encourage everyone to do it!
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