Medium format has always held a special place in photography in my opinion. No other kind of camera can deliver the heightened sense of description, color, and contrast along the lines of 4×5, while still maintaining at time the portability and gestural sensibilities of a 35mm. It’s a middle ground allowing those with an attention to framing yet want a portable camera to flourish.
Few that have photographed fixed gear cyclists have ever come close to being as successful with the format as I feel Portland based photographer Damian Riehl has. His work is open and inviting, allowing your eye to explore the rich tonal ranges of spot on scans and exposures as it traces and follows the lines of his forceful framing. At times we’re treated to very Todd Hido-esque long exposures of the city at night, other times color becoming the subject and dominates the photo in a Martin Parr fashion, but it’s through an examination of his broad range of content that a unified aesthetic emerges speaking to the quiet times in ones life. Whether it’s relaxing with friends at the end of a day, or stuck on a street corner long enough that you begin to take a closer look at how a shadow might line up with a planter, Riehl’s is there moments.
In Damian’s own words below you can find how he found his voice with a camera, the obstacles he encountered along the way, and how he overcame them to make full use of medium format:
My father gave me my first camera while I was in high school – a Pentax
K100. Fittingly referred to as a “student camera,” it was full analog,
mechanical, beat-to-hell goodness. I just never got around to learning how
to properly use it. I spent many school days skateboarding and exploring
the city, unknowingly shaping my creative eye. My father’s camera remained
a mysterious light-capturing piece of magic. I would stare at various
skateboarding magazines’ photography, vicariously shooting stills and
sequences in my mind. Over the years, I’d long for a proper camera. I
played around with an old Polaroid Land Camera for a few months, but
photography always seemed too expensive to pursue the way I wanted. I’d get
by on “here today, gone tomorrow” consumer cameras that were given to me at
Christmas or were used and cheap on Craigslist. Working as a messenger, I
would actively look at things with a different perspective than the usual
rote routine of daily life, just as I had while out skating. Looking up,
down, framing with one eye closed, and noticing street scenes in practice
for the day that maybe I’d figure out how to shoot. Even though I wasn’t
shooting, I never lost interest. I never lost the mentality of being a
photographer. I was just waiting.
Finally, two years ago, after several years on the bike with some odd jobs
in between, I became defiant of both my financial and imagined boundaries
and decided that I was going to just make it happen. I got sick of waiting.
I did a ton of research. My criteria was for something simple, as spare as
possible, reliable and durable–something that would leave no option for
automatic computation. The operator had to do it all. Fully mechanical,
analog, with quality glass would be just right. No light meter except to
double check low light conditions. Less is more. Back to high school. Back
to day one. I wanted to see exactly what I was capturing with both eyes,
and a larger sized, full frame waist level viewfinder was the ticket. I
knew what I wanted to see as a final result, and needed the ability to
achieve that. I wanted something which I owed the utmost respect to, and
would fashion my shooting habits with regard to what was expected from a
camera that was so carefully, thoughtfully, and passionately designed by
and for the great photographers that came before me. I feel there was a
level of respect for the art that existed that was far greater than what my
generation held currently. I think I just felt that shooting fully analog
would help nurture that element of respect for the camera and its
capability to speak to an audience what I saw and felt. Although I’ve had
several others, I would consider this my first actual camera in the purist
of terms. I ended up with the perfect candidate in a medium format camera,
a 1962 Hasselblad 500C.
The previous owner was a photojournalist in New York. It was beat up, but
always serviced. It was just like my old work bike, spared neither the
wrath nor love of use– not pretty and pretty at the same time. It lived. It
had history. It had soul. Everything was in perfect working order and I
learned to shoot with it. I have carried it, and now the newer 503CXi, with
me nearly every single day since. If I had a bag full of deliveries, I
would always make room for it. I might catch one thing in a week and then
have forgotten what was on the roll by the time I’d get around to
processing. Some days I’d spend most of the 12 frames by happy hour. I just
did my best to not feel like I had wasted a frame. No bracketing. Be
patient. I wanted that camera available whenever I felt the need to capture
something. Try to explore shooting differently and keep pushing to learn.
One shot, make it count, and walk away. I even had this little idea of
possibly getting that elusive perfect 12-frame roll. It’s yet to happen,
but I’ve learned from the ones that didn’t work and why.
My creative process involves many different variables with equal thought;
lens focal length, depth of field, shutter speed, film type and ISO, camera
position, framing, timing, subject placement and how I want it all to
inform the viewer can happen spontaneously or after a more thorough
investigation of my options. Two different shots of the same subject can
speak quite differently. There is responsibility in properly portraying
what is in front of me in order to convey to the viewer what I feel should
be seen. The simpler the camera, the more the shot is dependent on what the
operator puts into the shot. I really like that about analog photography.
Shooting with the type of camera that I do, and in a square frame, I am
forced to rely more on the subject with disregard to the frame’s parameters
to give a sense of portrait versus landscape and directing the eye properly
takes sometimes takes a bit more creative composition. I tend toward
sharper images, and prefer fine grain in color film, and going with medium
format really refines the image quality by virtue of the format’s sizeable
real estate without getting into larger format gear that’s harder to drag
around all day at work. After a couple years of shooting, I can now look
back and see progress and change in my shooting habits and editing skill.
Sometimes, for whatever reason, while viewing older material, I think, “Oh
crap, that looks like shit.” I hope for similar progress two years from
now(OK, maybe not with such a harsh judgement). It’s still rare to get a
frame I can’t say should be better in some way, and I hope I always feel
that way. I suppose I’ll never get that perfect roll, but that’s because I
won’t settle on what’s merely/just good enough to allow it.
Photography makes you pause and take notice of many things. For me, film
causes me to slow down and take more in. It’s like walking while surveying
a shot while digital is doing so in a car. Sure digital can operate at
walking speed if you make it, but you know that doesn’t really ever happen.
Take more in every step of the way with a fully self-dependent process or
get what needs to be done fast, sometimes flashy, and move on. If and when
I pick up a digital camera, I’ll be fine with it and it’s capabilities, but
I won’t ever forget how to walk. My choice in cameras suits me and how I
take things in and it’s allowed me a comprehensive, organic and intimate
learning. Very simply put, it’s just my speed.
CHeck out more of Damian Riehl’s work on his tumblr here.