Tuesday, January 20, 2009

An interview with Marcel S. Pawlowski of the blog Eight Minutes Old

I enjoy reading Marcel's photoblog as much as I enjoy looking at the images he produces. His commentary adds insight and depth into his work. I love learning about the thought behind the image. Even the name of his blog—a reference to the time it takes for light to travel from the sun to your camera's sensor (or film—more on that later)—suggests a unique point of view.

Marcel kindly agreed to answer a few questions and share some of his work with us (and by "share" I mean "show"—please respect his copyright). I hope his insight will inspire you.

Why do you choose to shoot black and white rather than color film?
There are many reasons for this decision. When I started, I used both color and black and white. I gave the film to a lab to develop and print them. Prints were of varying quality and if I wanted a second print, it often looked totally different. The negatives need individual changes in the processing (e.g. developing times), which is seldom done in mass-processing labs. As my skill developed, I became dissatisfied with these results.

I decided to develop the film myself, which is pretty easy for black and white, I can do it in my bathroom. Color processing is much more tricky and the chemicals are more dangerous.
Printing, on the other hand, requires a fully equipped darkroom. Missing enough space, I bought a good scanner. That made is possible to combine the advantages of film and digital photography, and it enables me to present my pictures on the blog.

I could use color film, e.g. slides give pretty nice colors. But black and white has a special feeling to it. I think it is a more honest representation of the scene I took the picture from. To reproduce the true colors is almost impossible. Usually a film / camera chip records three broad band color ranges, red, green and blue. True colors show a much more detailed spectrum.
Colors also increase the possibilities in editing, which on the one hand allows for more artistic freedom, but on the other hand results in more parameters to control and keep in mind, resulting in more work while editing. That might distract me as a photographer. Many photoblogs suffer from too much variety in the presented photos, lacking a personal, recognizable style.

Finally, what might be most important for me is that black and white emphasizes structures and forms. Colors might distract from the graphical character of some photos. Take my Touristscope Series for example: The public pay-telescopes seem to smile at you.

An example of Marcel's Touristscope Series

Another example is silhouettes and shadows. In the photo with a man standing in the monument at the German Corner in Koblenz, colours would have emphasized the background behind the person, especially the yellow crane to his right and the partially blue sky.

Silhouette of a man in Koblenz

Do you do any post-processing once you have scanned your negatives?
One thing is mandatory: removing dust. There always is some dust on the negatives. That’s truly a disadvantage of film photography.

After that, I tweak the curve a bit, usually to increase the contrast. Some parts might need dodge or burn, too. All in all, I do what I would do in a darkroom, but in a much more convenient manner: The changes can be undone or affect parts of the picture only: I might want to increase the contrast in the sky more than in the other parts. At the PC that’s easy. In a darkroom, where the contrast is mainly determined by the paper you use, that’s a much more tricky task.
And for the web the photos get sharpened a bit.

Do you still look at the different colors around you while you are photographing even though you are shooting in black and white film?
As said before, including colors might result in more parameters and thus work while editing. The same is true when shooting: to find a scenery where all colors fit together is more difficult than to find one where the shades of gray lead to a good black and white photo.

But of course I still look at the colors around me. I enjoy colourful scenes and I’m not sorry I can’t record them with my camera with black and white film loaded. Not everything has to be photographed. We should always be ready to enjoy what we see, enjoy the beauty of the moment.

Even when taking black and white pictures I have to look at the colors in frame. As you described in this month's first post, pictures from digital cameras consist of three color layers. When converting them to black and white, the ratio between the different colors determines the result. The same is true for black and white film photography, but here this can not be done later, in post-processing at the screen. It has to be done when taking the picture, using colored filters. These transmit more of one color than of another.

For example, in the picture with the contrasty sky (taken in Brittany this summer) I attached a dark red filter.

Landscape in Brittany

It transmits red very well, but blue becomes dark. I have to look at the colors in the scene to determine the effect of the filter. In the example, I saw that the sky is blue and decided to use the red filter to make it look dark. The white clouds were not affected in the same manner, which results in a strongly increased contrast. There was no need to increase the sky contrast in post-processing.

If I take pictures of people, a yellow-green filter is better, just as you described in your post. The filters change the contrast between different colors, so I need to look at them. But I do not depend on them the same way I would if I were shooting color: If in a color image there is one spot in the frame with a bad color, it might distract the viewer and destroy the whole photo. Shooting black and white, I do not have to care for such details.

What are the steps you go through from start to finish when photographing?
I need to feel relaxed and have the time to let myself drift. I can not photograph when I am in a hurry. That’s why I take most pictures while traveling.

First I have to know where I’ll be and what I will take pictures of. This determines my equipment (carry a tripod, which filters, which lenses?), the kind of film I load and what I expect. Most of the time I try to be flexible. Everything can change and I don’t plan my photos in advance at home. The general idea might exist. For example, when I know I’m near the sea, I take my tripod and a grey filter with me. I love to experiment with long time exposures.

It was afternoon and the sun already went down at the beach in Brittany. With a grey filter that blocks 99.9% of the light, the exposure time became 1000 times longer. Using a tripod I took a long time exposure of about 10 seconds. You don’t see anything when the filter is attached, so the focussing has to be done before. The rather short time left some structure in the sea, what I prefer over the mirror-like results of longer exposures. This way, the movement of the water becomes visible.
A long exposure photo in Brittany

Afterwards the exposed films might wait weeks until I develop them. They ripen like a good wine ;-). They are developed in the bathroom or in the university’s darkroom. Once the films are dry I scan the ones I like, and the negatives then go to my archive.

What kinds of subjects are you interested in shooting?
Landscapes, especially near the coast. Urban scenes, you might call them cityscapes, too. This often includes a sky with high contrast and some clouds, at least those are my preferred shots.
I also like street photography a lot, but most of the time I don’t dare to take pictures of others. And I’ve not presented any of these photos on the web, to avoid legal issues.

To sum it up: My subject is reality. The world the way it is. No posed scenes, no artificial light, no manipulation.

Are there any photographers that have inspired your work or continue to?
No, not really. I never understood the concept of idolising someone, so there was no inspiration in a strong sense. There are many photographers whose work I enjoy, most names I forgot (I’m not good at names). This might count as a weak form of inspiration. A legend would be Henri Cartier-Bresson, his work is amazing. One less well known is Dave Beckerman, I follow his blog constantly. In general I try to visit many exhibitions (and photoblogs of cause), where I tend to like black and white photography most. But there are many works in color that can fascinate me just as much.

And for the “really” in “not really”: There is one photographer that did inspired me strongly: My girlfriend Julia. I’m very thankful for that. She actually inspired me to start photography, and still does when we are out to take pictures together. It’s much more fun together than alone.

Is there anything that you want people to learn or gain by looking at your photographs?
In a specific manner: no. As said, my photos are not planned in advance usually. I don’t come up with a message first and then think about how to convey it in a photographic way.

But in a broader sense my photography has a message: The world and reality is beautiful. It needs no hiding behind a transcendental fog, it’s just there in front of us. We only need to take the time to look. Just as there are no simple answers there is no fast-paced beauty.