I've always found my inspiration comes best when I'm visiting new places, and I tend to find the locations near home the least inspiring of all. There are no interesting or beautiful parks nearby, no amazing vistas, no lakes or wide expanses of water to photograph a beautiful sunset across, and not much that I feel is historic by way of the architecture (certainly nothing medieval like in some parts of Europe that I love).
Two of my travel photographs from Venice, Italy.
However, knowing that our long-awaited Europe and Japan trip was not going to go ahead in May, and that I was about to get mega bored being around the house day and night, I made a decision on day-one that my cameras weren't going to be put away, and instead I was going to search for the inspiration I needed around home.
The first thing I decided to do was finally run a test roll through all of my historic cameras, well any on which the shutter still seems to work, and look to be light-tight, and the ones that I had the right film to fit. I also announced that I was going to do this to my colleagues, friends and family, I needed to be held accountable, to get me off to a good start.
This was a good way to start, it meant that I didn't take the 'quality' of my shots too seriously, and instead of deciding whether the shot 'was good enough' each time I framed something up, I'd not just think about whether the composition was okay, but also whether it was a good test for the camera. Had I tested that aperture already, focus distance, shutter speed etc.
After walking around the streets closest to my house for the first week, I noticed that I started seeing new details, the different architectural styles of the houses in the next street over, compared to where I live, for example. They seemed to be probably a decade or two older, and thus had different designs, different materials they were built from, different roof-lines and different things in their gardens – plants and furniture. So I started focusing on these details that caught my eye, each time I went out for a walk I started to have two or three specific things I was looking for. Such as roof shapes, interesting bricks, whether someone had a seat in their front yard or a gnome, and the different or similar plants that everyone has growing over their front fences (if they even had a fence).
Because I was testing out cameras, I started to hope that particular images would work out okay, and when they didn't, ended up with a list of houses and gardens I wanted to shoot again.
I was constantly hoping for bright sunlight, because I kept noticing the shadows that were created by overhanging plants, and photographing these often.
I've never been someone to shoot 'conceptual' work. You won't see me photographing an egg on a table, and calling it art, for example. But I do love to work with light and shade, so perhaps an element of my work could have some form of conceptual element to it. Certainly the photographs I started taking of the shadows of vines and overhanging branches could fall into this category if someone wanted to put an overarching interpretation to the images.
I also started noticing that the shops around where I live all had a sign up in their window about the current COVID-19 situation, and how it was effecting their business. Every sign was different, and I started to realise that these were telling the story of an historic time period, that would last for an uncertain time period.
What started as taking a few photos of these in a small group of shops close to home, quickly turned into a project, and by the time it was Easter I had a plan to walk to all the different larger groups of shops near where I live, and take my time and stop to look at every sign I saw.
I ended up shooting quite a few rolls of film just photographing shop fronts and signs. I was interested in the way that shop window reflections helped tell the story, was the street empty, were the cars or some people around. Easter was definitely the quietest time, but as the following few weeks passed, I noticed that there were more and more people around, which started to tell a different story in the reflections.
Two of the final COVID-19 window sign photographs that I turned into a book.
When the inspiration starts flowing so fast you can't keep up
After a few weeks I kept testing my camera collection, but also started getting inspired for a whole host of other things to do around film photography:
- I used some adaptors we had owned for over 12 months to run a roll of 35mm film through a medium format camera, and then I wrote a how-to article after I received questions on how I did it from fellow instagrammers.
- I shot a 36 roll of film within an hour on a walk around my suburb on a bright sunny day, and then gave the same roll of film to my partner to shoot with again to do a multi-exposure roll. These shots were great, and inspired both myself and my partner to do this again. My partner is now doing a multi-exposure roll with two friends, and through an Instagram contact I am now doing a multiple exposure project with someone in France.
- I tried shooting with colour more, and revisiting the places I had earlier in lockdown when I was shooting with black and white.
- My partner and I spent an entire day (about 10 hours) setting up small 'travel' scenes on our coffee table and photographing them on medium format. This was so much fun, that we have ordered some small figures, and trying to find the time to shoot some more of these.
- I trawled back through my last 10 years of digital travel photographs and put together a retrospective coffee table book.
- I decided that the neighbourhood walk photographs I was taking would also make a good small book to remember this time with, so I designed and printed a small book of my favourite photographs.
- The signs in the shop fronts project also became a book. By the time the lockdown rules were starting to change in early-May, I decided to wrap up the project, and spent time figuring out how to best tell this story. I'm also now planning on turning this into a small zine, and will likely enter one of the photographs into a local exhibition later in the year.
- I've been testing out some film that I've owned for ages, and not put the effort in to shooting previously - including with infrared and ordering the appropriate filter for to go with the film. I still have plenty of other unique and interesting films I haven't shot yet to try out soon.
- I have some 4x5 dry plates, so have bought a holder for them to try out in the large format camera in the coming weeks.
- Now that we are able to get out and about a bit more, we are shooting a project with local take away restaurants after dark, and testing out Cinestill (only to find that it is currently impossible to buy any more of it at the moment). I love night photography, but shooting colour film at night is completely new for me.
- Designing more film photography logbooks to add to the large format logbook, film development logbook and darkroom logbook my partner and I developed last year.
By having shot over 23 rolls of film since mid-march (3 months), I'm feeling even more inspired than ever and wish that I had time to do this every day of the week.
What I initially thought was going to mean sadness at missing out on an amazing trip visiting parts of the world that I find inspiring to photograph, I've now through this forced time at home, found that same inspiration here which I can continue to build on in future.
About Madeline Bowser
I've been photographing with film for what seems like forever ... well since the late 90's. I shoot both film and digital, but film is where my heart is and I get the most ongoing enjoyment from and what I enjoy sharing and teaching to others. I also travel the world hunting down old cameras and unique locations to photograph in, and exhibit and sell my travel photographs.
When out shooting film, I often get asked the questions 'can you still buy film?', 'I thought film stopped being made 10 years ago' and 'why would you want to shoot film when you can shoot digital'.
My answers are, 'yes', 'no, it didn't', and 'I also shoot digital, both have their place in my mind'.
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