35mm, 4"x5", 6x6, analogue, black and white, documentary, Gowlandflex, Kodak Tri-X, leica, M7, New York, portrait, Rollei, street

Erica McDonald . Photographer

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Erica_McDonald_windowGL: How did you ‘meet’ the woman behind the window?

EMD: It happened close to the end of the time when I was working on The Dark Light of This Nothing. I had the bones of the series laid down but was out looking for the kinds of moments I had missed in the previous months. The woman just happened to be looking out her window – we saw each other and shared a moment.

The Dark Light was done as personal project. Up until that point I had been focused on the single image, and I had decided that I’d like to invest myself in a long-term story. Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey runs a site called Burn and he had been encouraging a group of readers to see what they could accomplish over a period of a month or so. I met with David and told him about a few of my ideas, and together we came to the conclusion that I should focus on this one; what was started as a month-long project became a several-year endeavor.

GL: There are two kinds of images in the series: street photos and more formal studio portraits. You look at the people in your images from various points-of-view. Where did this approach come from?

Erica_McDonald_06-2EMD: The series had a very specific arc. I had intended to shoot only large format portraits against white backdrop on the street – that was the initial idea of the whole project. I had been looking at Richard Avedon’s In The American West (which was shot over five years) and wanted to shoot a very miniaturized homage to him over the course of a month. Shooting the portraits on a street corner in NYC involved getting assistants, a permit and working around the weather as well as my schedule and in the end took a few months to complete.

I had hoped to shoot all the portraits with this amazing 4×5 Gowlandflex – it’s a rare large format camera that operates as a twin lens reflex camera, like the medium format Rollei I had been using regularly; this kind of camera is terrific because you never lose sight of the person you are photographing, even at the moment the shutter is released. It was my first time with a large format camera so I had a learning curve, and I was doing audio interviews and getting model releases and running across the street to get people to come over. There was a lot going on, and a little wind could knock down my portable backdrop, and passersby didn’t always have time to sit for the time it takes to make a large format image. So after awhile, I brought a second camera, my medium format Rollei, and did some of the portraits this way.

GL: The series is from between 2008-2011. Starting a long-term project is simple, but how do you know when to stop? What tells you that you have reached the end of your road with your theme?

00027032-SPP-TheDarkLightOfThisNothing02-009EMD: When I felt like I had built a representative body of portraits of the long-term residents of the area I scanned everything, did an edit and sat with the work for a month, and realized that what I had shot was only a part of the story I wanted to tell. Photographing the neighborhood consistently for a full year to cover the four seasons seemed like it would serve to express what I hoped for.

So I started that way, this time working with a smaller 35mm camera to be able to move more quickly and intimately in a documentary style. When this year was over, I sat and looked at the work again, and saw what I needed. The last handful of successful images came very slowly, over the course of two more years, but I was only going out looking for them occasionally. There came a point when I got several rolls of film back without any keepers and then I knew I had nothing more to say that would add meaning, and that the project was completed.

GL: Do you always reach for your camera when that happens? How do you react to what you see?

Erica_McDonald_07R_gatedEMD: I’ve always been what you might call a watcher. With or without camera, I’m framing and shooting mentally. My greatest weakness as a photographer might be that I sometimes get so involved watching that I forget to shoot, even though my camera is in hand; I try to train myself out of this, but I actually don’t mind it that much – sometimes this uninterrupted watching actually informs the way I shoot at another time.

GL: How did your choice of material influence the way the project took shape?

EMD: For The Dark Light of This Nothing reportage images I made an aesthetic decision ahead of time about what I wanted the work to feel like and that informed my choice to use Tri-X film pushed to 1600 ASA. The quality of light I wanted happened at, and after four o’clock in the afternoon, so that dictated my schedule. I knew how much I could open up the aperture when I lost the light and still be able to shoot above 1/30th of a second and built my project around these details – out at four whenever possible, and home when the light was really gone.

Structure really helps me, keeps excuses at bay and then within these confines I start to play little games to challenge myself. With this work, I had very set geographic boundaries that I extended by three blocks after the first year when I learned that some old timers thought of the boundaries of Park Slope differently. This was a huge gift to myself as sometimes I felt like a hamster on a wheel and would spend whole afternoons searching without even taking single image. The upside is that people in the neighborhood became used to seeing me, and if I was without my camera they’d ask why.

GL: What film camera did you use for the project? And why not digital?

Erica_McDonald_dl_partyhatEMD: In the end I used three film cameras for the body of work: the 4×5 Gowlandflex and the medium format Rolleiflex for the portraits, and the Leica M7 for the reportage. As this was my first long-term project there was no question that I wanted to shoot it on black-and-white film; so much of the work that has inspired me – Eugene Richard’s Dorchester Days, Bruce Davidson’s Brooklyn Gang and East 100th Street, was shot this way. Money wasn’t a serious consideration for the 35mm because I shoot very few images when I use the Leica and a friend was processing my film at his home affordably, and then I scanned everything. The cost of the 4″x5″ was killing me though, and this partly dictated my decision to also shoot the portraits with the Rollei.

GL: How much do you work with your images in post?

EMD: The goal is to get what I want in camera, so hopefully little post-production is needed. As for framing, all the images are as shot – I only crop if at the time I saw the image, I knew what I wanted but it was physically impossible to shoot it without the rest of the elements in frame – but usually these images aren’t in the final cut anyway.

GL: How do you measure light?

Erica_McDonald_howlEMD: Both my Rollei and Leica have built-in light meters, but I always carry a hand-held meter anyway and do my readings that way for street work unless the light changes swiftly in an unexpected way. There is a certain formality combined with intimacy that happens when you meter for a portrait that sets up the moment of shooting nicely – you move in close and talk with them for a second, they take the process seriously.

GL: How do you focus? Manually? AF?

EMD: The only time I might use auto focus is if I am shooting digitally – my film cameras don’t even have the option.

GL: The series is black and white. But you also do delicate color photos. What is your attitude to color? When do you go for black-and-white and when for color?

EMD: The choice to use color or black-and-white is usually easy to discern as an intuitive thing, but a bit complicated to explain. It has to do with the intended voice of the work and texture as well as the quality of light.

Erica_McDonald_parachutedropOne of the little games I play is that other than for an assignment, I can’t shoot with a camera or take an image unrelated to the project I am working on. I have a lot of miscellaneous films in the freezer, and cameras I don’t use for long stretches. Occasionally, when I’m not working on anything specific, I’ll load a camera and then purposefully forget if it is color or black-and-white, and just take note of the ASA – it is a sort of test to see if I can make strong imagery irrespective of the film color tone.

A reason that images can work without the knowledge if the film is color or black-and-white is because you are looking for elements beyond that to create meaning. And then the color becomes a bonus, or the black-and-white functions as it should because you are thinking structurally anyway, and that includes things like shade, and light and dark. It’s like when you take painting 101, you do what is called a value exercise when starting out, so you aren’t influenced by hue or actual color – instead you see relationships between grey tones. Vermeer did this in an elevated way by using his so-called “dead coloring” or underpainting method. Interestingly, it seems Vermeer may have used a camera obscura as part of this technique. Going back to the film question, it comes down to training yourself to see what is before you in terms of tonal value.

GL: I really like your ‘landscapes’ from the series (rain, snow, sleet). It’s dumb to put it like this, but they are ‘my kind of’ landscapes: landscapes/cityscapes with a context, not just pretty trees and stunning colors. How do you feel about landscapes in general?

Erica_McDonald_snowlightEMD: I’ve just returned from hiking in the remote wilderness and I didn’t photograph because the beauty is greater than I can translate through my camera – or perhaps simply already perfectly authored. Urban landscapes are made in conjunction with man, and I feel comfortable adding my voice to that equation.

GL: How much do you get involved in the lives of the people that you meet over such an extended period? How do you see yourself in such a project? Observer? Participator?

EMD: The experience of participating in others’ lives always has different meaning and results for me, and at times has yielded friendship and at other times taught me lessons about personal boundaries, but I always try to remain mindful about what my presence may mean for the persons I am asking something of. I know I have a responsibility when someone lets me see into their life.

GL: Have your subjects seen their pictures? Did you show them? Were they interested? How did they react? (People have such a hard time seeing themselves on pictures.)

EMD: Depending on the circumstance, sometimes I’ll make prints for the people I have photographed – I did that for Surf Manor, because these were the only recent portraits the residents had of themselves, and they very much wanted to see what I saw in them, and most displayed them proudly in their bedrooms. But that isn’t always practical, so I am sure to tell people my name and that I have a website, and the project name so if they are curious they can see if the image we made was part of the final story, and request a file.

When you work in a context where you will see the people again, it is terrific to get feedback. One man sent his portrait to his daughter, another significantly changed his attitude – for the better – toward the idea of me photographing ‘his neighborhood’, another thought his family wouldn’t like the image and asked me to take it down, so it varies but is usually a positive experience. On the other side, there is a man I run into weekly who I have photographed several times and interviewed, but he hasn’t taken the time to go look. I tease him that I’m going to stop him and make him watch the multimedia version of The Dark Light of This Nothing on the street one day.

(To see more of Erica McDonald’s pictures visit her website at ericamcdonaldphoto.com. All images © Erica McDonald and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

György is a cinematographer also teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit www.dslrphotographycourses.com.

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4"x5", 6x7, Afghanistan, analogue, black and white, color, documentary, Pakistan, Pentax, portrait, Sinar

Izabella Demavlys . Photographer

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Izabella Demavlys Without a Face

Without a Face

Izabella Demavlys started out as a fashion photographer. Years later, she is still interested in beauty; it’s just her definition of beauty that has changed. As I was looking at her portraits of acid attack victims in Pakistan, I realized: certain pictures you take (or see) and then you move on. But certain images you take (or see) and they pull you into themselves and stay with you.

GL: You photographed this woman in what seems like a traditional, painterly ‘Virgin Mary’ pose. Head slightly tilted, looking gently away. Her face is horribly disfigured. What is it like for you now, years later, when you look at it?

ID: I shot several women before I met Bushra. So, I was rather calm and focused. Bushra was also very comfortable with herself and we were actually joking around before I took this picture. She was one of the most grounded of all the women I shot for this particular project; she made me feel at ease.

The decision to travel to Pakistan had changed how I view things in life. I have an emotional connection with the ‘Without a Face’ series, more than with any other series I have done. It marks a huge shift in my life both spiritually and professionally.

GL: When talking about portraits we seldom discuss what they meant for the subject of the picture. There’s always a ‘contract’ between photographer and subject and a classical studio portrait is a combination of the photographer’s vision of the subject and of the subjects’ ideas about how they want to see themselves. Do you know how these women felt when you took their pictures?

Izabella Demavlys Without a Face 2ID: Because I was shooting with my Sinar 4″x5″, I was taking Polaroids as well, so all the women whom I shot for this project had a choice of seeing the picture before it was taken. Some of them didn’t want to see the Polaroids, some of them did and then changed their hair or make-up. Bushra, who is portrayed in this picture, actually changed the scarf and wanted the white scarf for the picture in instead.

I don’t know if it was a conscious decision to shoot her as the Virgin Mary. I think growing up and being surrounded with and collecting catholic iconography might have subconsciously made me portray her as the Virgin Mary when she put the white veil on.

To me Bushra represented a woman who, after so many years after her attack, had achieved a state of acceptance. She was smiling in all of her pictures and was hugging me and chatting away afterwards. She embodied everything that I went to look for in Pakistan – beauty and what that really meant to me.

GL: How do these pictures fit in your opinion into the centuries-old tradition of portrait painting/photography?

Bronzino - Eleonora di Toledo col figlio Giovanni - Google Art ProjectID: I grew up in a household where both my parents were interested in the arts and both of them painted a lot – I was surrounded by art books from all kinds of artist and painters, such as Van Eyck, Bronzino, Vermeer, to name a few, and they are painters that still inspire me today. When it comes to portrait photography I am inspired by Paul Strand, Alec Soth, Rineke Dijkstra. The interest in the tradition of portraiture and the aesthetics of the large-format camera will always be present in my work.

Looking back on my old fashion work, most of my editorials were portraiture/fashion stories inspired by other great portrait photographers and painters. I once did a whole black-and-white fashion editorial inspired by Bronzino’s – Eleonore of Toledo & her Son Giovanni de Medici – but it wasn’t too popular. Magazine editors always wanted my images to be sexier, when I wanted it to go the opposite direction. No wonder I got tired of the fashion world.

GL: An image, technically, is just the surface it takes up on paper or on a screen. These portraits simply do not allow you to stay there. It’s a vortex that pulls you in and I really cannot describe it in any other way, that what I feel is pure, unbearable pain. So, in a way, these are photographs that ‘undo’ themselves: they stop being stills, moments in time – they become an event, a history.

izabella-demavlys-ss3_8bitID: I didn’t want to reduce these women’s existence to one single event in time – though their stories and their scarred faces are parts of their identity. I want people to see this – as a reminder of what is wrong with our world and what needs to be changed.

I think when you look at the series of Saira in her home it forces you to try to understand what life after such event can look like, and that life still can mean happy moments spent with your family. Because life does move on for these women and they are forced to embrace and deal with these horrific events and they do that with so much grace and courage.

GL: You are also shooting a film about this topic. Instead of still images, you have decided to use moving images.

ID: I felt I needed to continue this project within another medium; I wanted to explore it even further and see if I could make a film about the same issue. Making a film is a totally different ball game and requires even more planning, structure and funding than working with a photography project. Suddenly, sound or what people are saying become a lot more important. I can shoot hours of film, beautiful cinematography, but without any interesting dialogue going on it stays just that – images. Editing is also a complicated process when it comes to film and I can already see that this part will be much harder than I have previously anticipated.

Someone told me once: “Forget about still photography, it has nothing to do with filmmaking!” He was right.

GL: What equipment did you use for these portraits?

Izabella Demavlys Afghanistan Pool 2ID: For my portrait work I use a Sinar 4″x5″, 150mm lens, f/5.6, shutter speed between 1/60-1/125. I used the natural light in the office of the NGO I was working with at that time. I always use film with my personal projects, and yes it’s an aesthetic choice. I like the 6×7 and the 4″x5″ format, I have problems with the 35mm format, it feels too cropped to me.

GL: What about post?

ID: In my previous work as a fashion photographer there was a huge amount of retouching. Now there is none, just some dogging and burning, that’s all. I never crop my images in post.

GL: What motivates your choice of black-and-white or color?

ID: I mostly work in color but sometimes I pick up a roll of black-and-white or two after I’ve shot all my color film.

izabella-demavlys-saria-2GL: In most of your other images from Pakistan and Afghanistan, e.g. in the Saira images you never go as close to your subjects as you do in these portraits. You stay ‘politely’ at a slightly greater distance; you’re close but not intimately close.

ID: I wanted it to be a traditional head and shoulders set of portraits. Working with a 4″x5″ camera and with the lens I had I needed to be careful not to get too close in order to avoid any distortions. But, out of respect for these women, it was never my intention to get closer than this. They are close-ups but not intimately close. I wanted details of their skin but made an artistic choice to keep the aperture wide open to keep parts of the image softer.

GL: The picture of the young woman feeding her child is another painfully beautiful religious icon. It is almost idyllic but there seems to be a deep shadow under the mother’s right eye. As a viewer it makes me uncomfortable, the idyll is broken. Am I making this up? Or is it really in the image?

Izabelle Demavlys Afghanistan Woman Feeding Her Child

ID: I travelled to the Bamyan province in Afghanistan where I visited the Bamyan Hospital founded by the Aga Khan Health Services (AKHS). I took this photo at the female ward where mothers came in with their malnourished babies. In this particular case the baby was dying. (Afghanistan has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world; almost 20% of children die under the age of five.)

When I met the mother and started to communicate with her through the translator – she smiled while her baby was passing away. She did have a black eye – probably due to domestic violence. It was a sad and awkward moment. She couldn’t even have been 20 years old.

We saw a lot of very young mothers at the ward with their very sick children that day.

GL: You move a lot between color and black-and-white. At what point do you decide if color is something you’re interested in or not? Do you always have two film cameras with you?

izabella-demavlys-afghanistan-ii-5No, in Afghanistan I worked with a single Pentax 6×7 camera. When I felt that I was ready with my color shots I moved to black-and-white film. I always start with color. This image was shot on T-Max 100 film, f/4, shutter speed between 1/30 -1/60 with a 55mm lens.

GL: What do you think about beauty? Do you think that this portrait is beautiful? (Or is it just pain organized into a frame, into color and grain?)

ID: I would like to ask you the question – what is beauty? Why can’t this portrait be beautiful? Can this woman change someone’s perspective about beauty?

I went from the fashion world where beauty is only ‘skin deep’ – what you see is what you get and people in this world will only judge you by that. But there has to be something more to it all doesn’t it? I think so. For me beauty radiates through how you make an example of yourself to others. How you directly or indirectly inspire others through your personal struggles and through your accomplishments in life.

But I guess as much as I tried to convey this in these images, I am the only one who can truly understand this because I have met these women in person and have felt their beauty. Most people will see only sadness and pain. I guess all the dimensions of a person cannot be viewed in one single photograph.

(To see more of Izabella Demavlys’ pictures visit her website at www.izabellademavlys.com. All images © Izabella Demavlys and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

György is a cinematographer also teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit www.dslrphotographycourses.com.

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