35mm, 5D, 6x6, analogue, black and white, color, digital, Ektachrome, iPhone, New York, Rollei, street, studio, USA

William Coupon . Photographer

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Coney Island, New York City

Coney Island, New York City (Rolleiflex with Tesar Lens, 400 ASA Kodak B&W film)

GL: You’ve worked with every possible format that photography can offer. What motivates your choice for a given project? Is it a practical decision or an emotional one?

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Miles Davis (Rollei 6006, Kodak PanX 32 ASA)

WC: Completely practical as I am looking for the viewer to firstly view the content. Of course, that tends to become an emotional decision but I first want to see the information and not whether or not it is a platinum print or digital one. I have done both and it’s the information that you need to convey first and foremost.

I have two distinctly different approaches to photography. For one of them, I am a traditional studio photographer doing painterly like studio portraits. I set up one of my backdrops (that I painted in the early 80’s), set up one light source shot through a Chimera lightbox, set up my camera (this could be a Rollei 6006 or a Canon 5D) and the sitter has to be in one consistent setting: comfortable. Often, especially with the ethnographic images, the sitter is a bit bewildered but settles into their own quickly. A celebrity often has “set” poses – they’ve done this before, and often. Especially in the earlier days, I had always used Polaroid SX-70’s to give to the subjects. It was not only a “gift” and a record of the shoot, but it also gave them a clear idea of how I was depicting them in the studio setting.

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Coney Island, New York City (from the series ‘iPhone America’)

I also do street photography: see it as it appears, and with photography, appearances are pretty much everything.

GL: What catches your attention?

WC: It depends. In the studio I look for something classic, something where the light hits the subject in a new way. With the street work, I look for irony and sometimes, edginess.

When I started in 1978, with Studio 54 and Coney Island and then on to my earliest Punk portraits from the Mudd Club, I thought I was really on to something. At that point I realized I could photograph the world. I got off to a pretty good start, but I realized it would take a lot more work than originally anticipated.

GL: Street photography is about ‘catching’ moments. How do you feel about this metaphor?

Coney Island, New York City

Coney Island, New York City (Rolleiflex with Tesar Lens, 400 ASA Kodak B&W film)

WC: I don’t hunt – I gather! You know it when you see it, and you don’t see it much. This process is more like learning to see. And then learning how to see again in the edit process. I am not a techy. I have my ‘tricks’ and they serve me well. It is, as I said, all about appearances.

GL: Technically: what cameras do you use? What motivates your choice?

WC: I started with the old Rolleis then went to Hassleblads then to the Rollei 6006’s and now I do digital with my 5D. For the street work I often just use the iPhone 4, or these days I have the Sony RX100.

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Coney Island, New York City (from the series ‘iPhone America’)

The reasons? Content over ingredients, i.e. I am really only looking to get substance with design, and if that means the iPhone, then so be it. Of course, for street work there is the unobtrusive element to the camera size and the inherent dismissive nature to the fact that it’s a phone. People wouldn’t suspect I am getting the kind of quality I achieve on it – it’s not a “real” camera.

GL: Does holding an iPhone as opposed to a medium format film camera ‘change’ you? Does it change your relationship to your subject?

WC: I like to be as gadget-free as possible. The “tool” defines the moment. Therefore, an iPhone, being ‘flippant’ is a more disposable perceptor to both the subject and the photographer. It’s easy. It’s quick. And these days, it has good qualities so it’s very difficult to dismiss its capabilities.

GL: How do you perceive the iPhone? Freedom? Severe technical limitations?

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Bethlehem Steel Plant, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (from the series ‘iPhone America’)

WC: It’s a device that is quick with quality and leaves content intact. The phone is, from my experience, only good in VERY good light. It is not good in low light so I do not use it then. That in itself is a certain big limitation, especially when working with people.

GL: How do you measure light?

WC: In the studio I have the settings fairly well in place after 35 years. I do use a longer exposure to capture some of the ambient light. I like the aperture to be down to near f/16 to get decent depth of field. For the street, it’s a guessing game. I haven’t used a light meter in ages.

GL: Has the amount ‘post’ you do changed with the transition from film to digital?

William Coupon Neil Young

Neil Young (Rollei 6006, EPR 120, Ektachrome 64 ASA)

WC: I never like to crop. For decades I only did square format, the older Rollei black and whites were shot as straight as can be with 400ASA film. The studio portraits are shot on low-speed film, like EPR120, and Ektachrome 64 film. I use an app for the iPhone shots called Plastiq. I love it as it gives the impression of a 50’s technicolor veneer but retains depth and grain in the dark areas.

In the digital darkroom I hope to do very little and I stick to that generally speaking. It is about the content and the contact that has already taken place that determines the image. I am not particularly a technical person and I don’t think that will change going forward.

GL: Could you imagine doing a ‘classical’ studio portrait session with someone well-known on the iPhone? How do you think that would work?

WC: Not so good. For the studio work, when there is that option, you may as well go with more quality in your film. After all, there you are not constrained by time or space, so what would be the point, unless for some stylistic choice. And for that alone it may be intriguing. But for the studio I like the tightest grain possible with a camera that gives me the greatest mobility.

I usually use the iPhone for candid shots and street images. I could use it for studio work but the dynamics don’t really work there as the studio is a controlled environment – the cameras in that environment should also be of greatest quality to take advantage of the lighting.

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Freedom Tower from Fulton Street, New York City (from the series ‘iPhone America’)

It’s more important to see it than to photograph it. Of course, without documenting what you see, you would not be able to share it.

(To see more of William Coupon’s pictures visit his website at www.williamcoupon.com. All images © William Coupon 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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8"x10", analogue, black and white, Earlsfield, London, London, studio

Jason Pierce-Williams . Photographer

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L1GHTB1TES has moved. Its new permanent home is at l1ghtb1tes.com. This wordpress site will be discontinued in the coming weeks and will serve only as an archive. Please read this article HERE and visit l1ghtb1tes.com to subscribe and receive regular updates.

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Jason Willams 1 Tramp

GL: I was lucky enough to be in your studio when you took this picture. I have never seen anyone actually use such an ancient, large format camera and I had the impression that you were ‘just’ taking a picture. It was about an hour later, when you developed and showed me the 8”x10” negative that I realized that looking at it was drawing me into a mysterious world, where everything was in some ways more real than the person who has just left the studio.

JPW: I took this picture as part of an ongoing photographic project which I’m calling “Local”. This is a series of large format portraits using black & white sheet film and a full plate field camera.

Being something of a photo historian, I am interested in old things. Old cameras, old film, old, often dead photographers. I am also intrigued when technologies can be stripped down to their most basic forms. A paper plane floating through the air is fascinating and delightful. A 747 jet, although the same principle may be involved, is alien and somewhat intimidating. I feel the same about cameras. The camera which I am using for this project, is a more than 100 year-old Sands and Hunter full plate bellows camera, made on the Strand, in a location which now sells a superior make of umbrellas, if I’m not mistaken.

GL: This picture is the opposite of what you’re doing as a wedding or a street photographer, when you’re catching amazing moments. Here you prepare for you picture. But in the end, you’re still capturing a single moment that needs to reflect something essential about your subject. How would you describe the difference between street or documentary photography and studio photography in this creative/emotional sense?

JPW: This is a complex question as it points to both the underlying common project of photography as well as its diversity. The most obvious answer – although not necessarily the most accurate or complete one – might be that most street photography is more or less captured through stealth. Hence the enduring appeal of the small, quiet Leica and Contax cameras. Small and quiet but also so fast and intuitive that one can capture shots which no other system could achieve. An old and enduring argument is that through stealth, one captures a more intimate, private, unguarded representation of the subject since they are unaware of the act of photography.

On the other hand, when there is a more explicit “contract” between photographer and subject – when the subject is aware of having their photograph taken – then this may elicit a whole gamut of responses as the subject attempts, perhaps even struggles, to project the desired construct which, somewhere in their psyche, they perceive as being most representative of who or what they are.

This rarely happens in fast street photography. Subjects generally don’t have the time to gather their wits enough to give this idea of self representation / projection a great deal of thought. But it does happen when the contract between photograph and subject is more explicit. And it is here that portrait photography becomes, for me, more intriguing. With stealth photography, a photographer can choose their moment and record, or even, to a certain degree, construct narrative within an image, shooting in such a way as to elicit or provoke a certain conjecture about the subject’s place in and relevance to the environment in which they have been observed and subsequently frozen.

This can be interesting enough, but it is the nature of street photography, or street portraiture even, that the identity of the subject is very much woven into the wider environment and narrative of the “street”.

GL: I’ve seen you work in your studio. You moved with a clear purpose. There was nothing stealthy about your approach. The opposite: I felt like you were going for ‘the kill’ with an undeniable determination.

Jason Willams 5 Pastry ChefJPW: A studio is more like a laboratory; empty, functional, faceless, it generally has no other purpose than to examine the subject under totally controlled conditions. The lighting is controlled by the photographer. The subject, to a degree, is controlled by the photographer, in terms of clothing, physical position, even facial expression in the more commercial examples. But the major difference between studio and most street photography/portraiture is the nature of the contract. For a start, it is undeniably there. The minute a subject steps into a studio there is a set of shared, although often elusive, even contradictory expectations. And it is how this contract plays itself out in the image which often makes the “straight-up” portrait such a fascinating document. A straight up portrait often says as much about responses to photography itself as it does about the subject. In fact, one could go so far as to say that this is what straight up portraiture actually is; a document recording a subjects response to the action of being photographed.

GL: What do you see in the tramp’s eyes?

JPW: The image of the tramp is a particularly powerful, albeit elusive example of all this. I could have shot him any number of times, walking to and fro around the local backstreets, and this may have yielded interesting results. But the studio image really struck me. It is a young man, shabby, with a poor posture, peering into the camera with large brown eyes. But the eyes give nothing away. He meets what he must understand will be the public’s gaze with a sort of weary pragmatism, disinterest, even. It is a gaze which reveals absolutely nothing at all. It is entirely unengaging – and hypnotic.

The clothes, the posture, the mad, frazzled hair are all indicators of what should be an individual under a certain degree of stress. And yet he appears as calm as Buddha.

The image of the local tramp, for me at least, is one of the better examples in this series of portraits, of what we might call, (trivially perhaps), the “enigmatic” in straight up studio portraiture.

GL: You’re obviously emotionally attached to your equipment. What is your full plate camera like?

JPW: It is remarkably easy to use, particularly when used in a studio environment. I rebuilt the original lens board to take a more modern Compur, 8″ lens, yielding a moderately wide angle of view for an 8”x10” format. The camera is a full plate 10”x12″ format, but I masked off the viewing screen so that I can shoot 8×10″ film in the modified dark slides.

Jason Willams 3I chose this format through historical interest, but also because large format, as distinct from 35mm, is a very, very different experience altogether, both for the photographer and certainly for the subject. Peering into a 100-year-old antique machine, for probably the first (and last) time in one’s life, can elicit an entirely different response than a grab shot on a smaller, hand-held format.

GL: So is large format a technical or a philosophical choice for you?

JWP: Well, the results are breathtaking. There is a level of detail which 35mm, or even medium format could never hope to achieve. And it is this which, at the technical, or optical level if you like, lends these images such an immediate, inescapable veracity. A tangeable, almost shocking realism which, as the format gets larger and larger, reveals more and more, in my opinion, of the central tenets of what photography actually is: the power it can wield as a document of not only reality but also, in a sense, meta, even super-reality.

It talks and elicits responses about reality which is not something we naturally do. Our perceptions of reality are at best, dubious, at worst, chaotic, barely considered at all. Looking at a photograph is like stopping time and space – which is precisely, at the technical level, what a photograph is. My point is that when an image also yields a level of detail to be studied, at our leisure, in a way we could never, ever hope to achieve in our everyday scrutiny of the world, then the image, as I say, becomes not only a document of reality, but a document about reality. There is only one other artistic, intellectual enterprise that I can think of which comes close to achieving this – I mean provoking and challenging thought and conjecture about what we think we mean when we consider reality – and that is not a great departure from meta-realism, in a word, surrealism.

GL: How do you light these portraits?

Jason Willams 2JPW: It was and is important to me that all these images are lit and shot in exactly the same way. I may shoot tighter or looser depending on the relevance of body shape, clothing, posture etc, but the light is the same, one large soft box over a Bowens strobe, a large reflector set to the other side, a reasonable amount of distance between the subject and the background to yield a little blur, and that’s it.

The reason for keeping everything the same, however, is that it is important to me that the photography doesn’t get in the way, so to speak. It all needs to be democratic and even-handed, otherwise there would naturally be issues as to why I shot one subject in a certain way and not another. It is important, if the subjects are to be given any kind of voice, however elusive that voice may be, that the hand of the photographer is as unobtrusive as possible.

GL: What about aperture and shutter speed? What motivates your choices?

JPW: I used a light meter on the first couple of shots and got f/22 – f/32. I still check but it’s pretty much a formality now. Shutter speed doesnt mean a great deal but I keep it at around 1/125th as older lenses can start to get a bit suspect at slower speeds. The aperture is more important of course, particularly shooting on such a huge format. The larger the format, the shallower the depth of field when shooting at equivalent distances since the focal lengths become longer and longer.

In short, shooting at f/5.6 is virtually impossible, and largely pointless. Besides, I don’t want massively shallow depth-of-field, I’m going to get them anyway on the tighter shots, even at f/22!

GL: Do you work with your portraits in post?

Jason Willams 4JPW: With regards to post-production, I’m very sorry to admit that I scan the images. I want to, and will, contact the negatives onto double weight fibre based paper at some point, but right now, the quickest way of getting the images out there is, of course, to scan. It’s a pity, as the whole thing just winds up as pixels again, but it doesn’t make a great deal of difference to the online viewing experience. Well, it makes no difference at all beyond the purely intellectual objection of knowing they are scans and not prints….because I just told you!

(To see more of Jason Pierce-Williams’ pictures visit his website at wwww.jasonwilliamsphotography.com. All images © Jason Pierce-Williams and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

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

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