Deborah Candeub -The drive to defy reality

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Deborah Candeub is a talented film photographer who lives in Arlington, Virginia. Her work immediately converses with everyday things, family, locality and nature. Her richly coloured photographs are almost tactile and find you wanting to walk into the scene to engage with that moment. Today we speak to her about her experience with film photography.

When did you become engaged with film photography and what drew you in?

I’m old enough to have received a Kodak Instamatic as a childhood birthday present, I used to commandeer the family SX-70 at parties, and I have a trusty little Minolta point and shoot that documented most of  high school, college and my early 20’s - I actually used to carry it as my purse with id and cash tucked inside it’s zip-around case. Film simply was photography for most of my life, but while I always loved taking pictures as a way of holding on to moments, people, and places, I did not become serious about making images until after having my children.

Photography allowed me a way to escape within myself, if just for a few minutes a day, something that I found restorative during that very intense and demanding place of being home with young children. Like so many others, my gateway drug was digital. The free experimentation that digital offered gave me the space to make mistakes - to take the image I had to have -  and then to push myself to go off auto to try to make something closer to what I really saw.

In early 2012, on a whim, I joined a year-long group photo project to represent each letter of the alphabet on film on Flickr. I decided to use my freshly inherited, fully manual Nikkormat, the camera my parents used to document every trip and special occasion of my childhood, to test if I had taught myself enough about photography to ride without training wheels. From the very first roll it felt like coming home.

Your photography often exhibits a rich vibrancy in colour with a distinct current of nostalgia. Is the nostalgia something you intentionally weave through your photographs?

The drive to defy reality - to cheat time and hold onto something exquisite and fleeting - is one of the aspects I find most compelling about photography. I am often feeling nostalgia, maybe even for a moment that is passing just as I depress the shutter, when I make a photograph, so it does not surprise me when someone senses that emotion in one of my images.

The content of your photographs tend to focus on everyday things, family nature and locality. What is/are your most engaging subjects? And why?

If my life stage and style allowed me the opportunity for exotic travel, that is what I’d make images of, for sure. But my daily reality is PTA meetings and doctor’s appointments and so many breakfasts, lunches and dinners. I have to find my opportunities to make art where my life is, and so I do an ongoing series of the view through my kitchen window, or of the interesting little houses I spot on quick detours down unfamiliar streets while running errands. Conveniently for me, though, I am really interested in the small scale built environment and the vernacular architecture that helps create a distinct visual sense of place, something that I feel we are losing as the world grows smaller and more digitally connected, so I don’t have to go far to find plenty that is interesting to me.

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I once read this statement that completely captured me: “My name is Debbie and I am addicted to the crapshoot that is shooting fireworks on film. I can’t even try to explain it.” Please share a crapshoot photography with us and tell us a little bit about the process involved in shooting fireworks on film. 

I don’t take a lot of physical risks to get my images, but I do get quite a thrill from the challenge of taking a photo that might not work. I make images of butterflies in flight during the summer for the same reason.

As for process, I set everything ahead so that the only variables in play are me - where I move in relation to the action - and focus, which I do manually. It’s pure creative flow - I try to anticipate where the image will be, and let instinct take over on the shooting. I end up taking the camera away from my face without making an image that I know isn’t right  far more often with film than I ever did when I was only shooting digital. Knowing when not to press the shutter, the patience of waiting for the photo to appear, this, for me, is the best gift of film. And making an image of firecrackers lighting up the night, one where you can almost smell the sulphur and hear the explosion, that’s just a bonus.

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You actively get your children involved in experiencing film photography with you. How does it feel to be making film photographs with your children. What do you hope to pass on to them through the use of this medium?

I remember how empowering it was to get my white bordered, square images back from the developer as a kid, and I love sharing that experience with both of my children. Your whole existence is really defined by someone else when you are a child, so being able to look through a viewfinder and decide what to leave in, what to eliminate, and then seeing your view of the world as an image -  I think that can be a really empowering exercise for a child.

It’s also just fun to do something that fills me up with one of them, and we often do these photowalks one-on-one. For a few hours we step out of our normal roles with each other, and as a result, I’ve had really deep conversations with my children on our photo walks. Of course, I do love that my daughter prefers the solid feel and shutter click of my F100, and my son gets the magic of instax, but they are both generation i kids, and will sometimes choose digital and crazy manipulations too.

Our photowalks are much more about the time together and the image-making, and less about the media, but I am proud that both of my children know what to do with a roll of film.

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You’ve also been involved in collaborative work such as Every Second Sunday on Film. Can you tell us a little bit about this and what motivated you to become involved with other film photographers?

I love collaborative projects! They connect me to kindred spirits who live far and wide, and provide me with an accountability to others which keeps me on task.

My early involvement in photography coincided with Flickr’s heyday. I met so many others: some just starting out like me and others who were much farther along on the photographic learning curve and were so giving of advice. It was an incredibly supportive environment, and I made a number of friends online that are real life friends today - even if some of us haven’t met in person.

A number of us were finding our way to or back to film around the same time a few years ago, and some of my friends organized this project to both stay connected to each other and commit to a year of film.

What is the most important advice you’ve been given as a film photographer?

How about some recent advice that really hit home? I received these words from a friend just this week, and I think they apply not only to photography, film or otherwise, but to life:

The things you are passionate about are not random. They are your calling.” Fabienne Fredrickson.

I am obsessed with making portraits of other people’s houses on film. It’s weird, and it fits no real photographic niche, but perhaps, in time, I’ll define a new niche, or not. I just know I feel compelled to keep making these pictures, and I have decided to no longer question it.

Do you have a routine related to your film photography? Do you plan much before using film or do you prefer to be spontaneous?

When I started out with film I used to walk about with multiple cameras. I’d make the same image many different ways, and always with digital for a back up. But upon reviewing my results, I’d usually end up disappointed. It seemed that despite all of those options around my neck, I never made the image I should have. There was always some combination of camera and film which I hadn’t realized in the moment was the one for the subject. Eventually I came to understand that all of that gear not only weighed me down and slowed me down, but also held me back.

For me, the ability to travel light always yields the best results. The fewer options I have, the more decisive I tend to become, and I end up working a bit harder to get the most from each frame because there is no backup - no alternative take.

Now I do most of my planning ahead: choosing the camera, lens, film combination that’s best for the day and committing to it. When I’m out making pictures all I have to do is keep my eyes sharp and trust my instincts and ingenuity to make the gear I have with me work.

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Here’s a technical question for you. Do you have a preference for a specific type of film camera and film? If yes, why these preferences?

Not really. I am relatively new to medium format photography, and so these days, I’m happiest with my Pentax 645n in my hands, but even so, it depends on where and what I’ll be doing. Sometimes 35mm makes the most sense because a MF camera can be off-putting to some subjects, and I am more nimble with a smaller camera.

As for favorite film, I don’t have one. I’ve only been serious about film for three years, and I feel as though I am still developing my knowledge of a film palette -  which film to choose during which time of year, time of day, subject matter and lighting conditions for which camera. I think Portra, all speeds, gives lovely consistent results and offers a ton of flexibility, but the rich color of Provia is intoxicating, Fuji 400h has a gorgeous cool subtlety, I’ve gotten really dreamy results with Lomo 800 in mid-winter light, and depending upon the subject matter, xpro film can be extremely effective. I’m in love with color, so the business of figuring out what to use when is a pleasure.

Can you share one film photograph with us that is not yours, but has stayed with you? Can you tell us why you selected this photograph?

Taylor’s Place by William Christenberry

Taylor Christenberry

Seeing Christenberry’s images for the first time was a revelation for me. His pictures of the modest houses and roadside markets of his rural South childhood evoke time and place so eloquently. And I recognized echoes of my motivations to photograph the changing environment where I live in his work.

Does anything run through your head when you make a photograph? Or do you try to release thought as much as possible in that instant of pressing the shutter button?

If I’m working on a new technique or with new equipment, I am very conscious of what I’m doing, and spend a great deal of time in my head. Once I’ve taken that new skill on board, or feel comfortable with the equipment, though, I can let instinct take over and focus on seeing.

If you could pass on some guidance to someone that is newly starting out with film photography, what would it be?

The lesson I re-learn anew every time I put a camera in my children’s hands. No Fear!

For more on Deborah Candeub and her work, please visit her website.