for Australian Photography Magazine
After a brilliant idea from a Brisbane printmaker, a vintage camera and lens are now making their way around the country and the world, being passed between the hands of some of Australia’s most celebrated photographers. Limiting themselves to black and white film, the AFP400TX project is unifying photographic voices from Bourke to Bondi... 36 exposures at a time.
Over the last few years, there have been a number of attempts made within the photographic community to share the image-making process and to experiment with collaborative publications. Spanning ideas of posting SD cards around the world, leaving disposable cameras on the street and sharing thumb-drives with strangers, these projects have come and gone, some more successful than others. But it wasn’t until recently that a Brisbane printmaker conjured up an idea in the shower (the birthplace of all great epiphanies) that Australia’s most promising collaborative photographic project was born. After a social media post describing the idea instantly gained praise from a network of eager participants, the AFP400TX project was born.
For Brisbane-based photographer and printmaker Renato Repetto, the process of working with film and traditional darkroom-based methods of processing and printing photographs has been both a passion and a career. Having seen some of Australia’s most canonical photographs proceed from a negative to gorgeous silver-gelatine prints, Repetto shares a love for film with the photographers who cut their teeth shooting it and since the mass migration to digital imaging, he has remained a strong advocate for the “shoot film not jpeg” mantra. It was this sentiment that formed the basis for his idea for the AFP400TX project – an attempt to galvanize some of Australia’s remaining advocates of film but also to highlight their individual photographic voices. The idea is simple: one camera – a Nikon F2 35mm SLR – and one lens – a 55mm f/2.8 micro - will make their way from photographer to photographer, each of whom has one roll of film at their disposal. “The decision to use the same camera, lens and film for each photo in the project greatly emphasizes each photographer’s unique visual signature as they are the only variable at play,” says Repetto adding that: “this consistency across the board will also impart a cohesive and unified aesthetic to the publication that would otherwise be impossible to achieve if each photographer were to use their own equipment.”
As Repetto also explains, the choice of camera, lens and film are really what set the project apart from many similar past endeavours as the simplicity of the SLR itself combined with the creative limitations of the equipment and black and white film allow for the real creative genius of the photographer to emerge – something that Repetto says, is often hindered by digital imaging. In a way, it would seem that the afp400tx project is a meditation on creative limitations and how their presence can help the creative photographic process. “The 'shotgun' approach to photography has definitely become more prevalent in today's digital world due to the ever- increasing automation of camera technology,” says Repetto. “Although shooting digital with self- restraint is possible, it would take the kind of maturity and discipline only a veteran photographer could muster.”
Enter the Veterans
Ironically, Repetto’s use of the veteran in this context is quite fitting as a number of photographers involved in the project are not only seasoned professionals of the craft but have also extensively covered war in the early stages of their careers; perhaps the most prominent of example of which is Repetto’s fellow Brisbane local, Tim Page who also happened to be the first photographer to be handed the reigns for the project. “I didn’t really realize but I was basically the guinea pig; I was going to be the lead batsman,” says Page. “He brought out of his bag these two beautifully re-conditioned Nikon F2s that he got from some place in Tokyo and said ‘you’ve got a week; here’s a roll of film’”. Having worked as a professional photojournalist for a number of decades and having been widely celebrated for his work covering the war in Vietnam, Page is no stranger to deadlines nor the intricacies of working with film cameras but as he admits, there is less forgiveness in a roll of tri-x than there is in a CMOS sensor. “When you only have 36 frames, you tend to really think out what you want to shoot and how to compose and when you use these older cameras you don’t have a light meter so really need to think out your exposures,” he says. “With digital, you can be a few stops out and still get a good picture whereas with film you have to be much more on the money in terms of both exposure and composition.”
For Page, the afp400tx project speaks to his liking for a more traditional take on photography and the pursuit of a purist approach. But in addition to the grain and tones of black and white film that seem somewhat unachievable by digital methodologies, Page expresses a concern for the automation of digital imaging and how a generation of young photographers might have missed out on the magic of “something coming alive from virtually nothing.” “How many people shoot on manual on the camera now? Very few,” he says. “They put it on one of these modes like shutter priority and have only an idea of what it is going to give them. If you have to go into the darkroom and to make a print, it will make you realize what it is that we really do with photography.”
However, some of the projects members are less convinced of the usefulness of film in the digital era. Michael Coyne, whose work has appeared on the pages of National Geographic, The New York Times and Vogue expressed his contentment with digital photography despite the time- consuming nature of working in Lightroom and Photoshop. Having worked extensively in the Middle East during his career, Coyne took an opportunity to pack the project’s F2 into his
suitcase for a return trip to Iran where he was conducting a workshop. Now a sponsored shooter for Fujifilm and regularly utilizing their stellar lineup of digital cameras, Coyne posits that returning to film was not such a steep learning curve however, being limited to one roll of film took some getting used to. “I have been working on a project with the Fujifim GF670 camera so film was not such a distant memory for me. But the one roll of film, that meant being really selective,” he says. “I panicked a few times and made a number of mistakes. I started to shoot portraits and wasted a bit of film so I put the camera away and didn’t use the it for a while before finally making a burst of images near the end of trip.” But as Coyne further explains, working under the premise of creative limitations wasn’t so difficult as his usual MO whether shooting film or digital always maintains an approach of reduced equipment and a focus on the photographs themselves. “Most of the time I like to work with one Fuji-X camera body and a short lens. It forces me to think about composition within the frame and encourages me move rather than standing in one spot,” he says. “I’m lucky enough to have great equipment that I can rely on so I don’t think about cameras, lenses et cetera, I just concentrate on trying to make images.”
Mastering the Art
Whether a fierce advocate of the need to shoot film or a fence-sitter in the film/digital debate, the afp400tx project seems to have conjured up much more conversation that the efficacy of physical or digital mediums. As one of the most distinguished members of the project’s list of photographers and arguably the godfather of modern Australian photography, Robert McFarlane’s experience with the Nikon F2 shines a light on several conversations sparked by the ephemeral nature of images, the impact of time on a photographer’s career and on the art of photography itself. Speaking both candidly and with the wisdom of a photographer whose career has spanned five decades, McFarlane admits that the animosity displayed by some toward digital is probably not called for. “There’s a lot of negative reaction among some traditional photographers toward digital but you know, as somebody once said: if digital had been invented first, we wouldn’t be leading a path toward film,” adding that as a 75-year-old, the convenience and lightweight nature of mirrorless digital cameras mitigates his reduced mobility in recent years.
Having spent large swaths of his career documenting daily life, politics, theatre, art and performance in Australia, McFarlane is perhaps most well known for his intimate portrait of “Bea” – a black and white nude shot in the living room of his Sydney home in 1978. For the afp400tx project, McFarlane chose to revisit the life of Bea and to revisit his use of Tri-X film, using the majority of his 36 exposures photographing her again but this time along with both her daughter and granddaughter. “I thought that would make for an interesting historical viewpoint on basically the things that I have done during my working life,” says McFarlane. “Bea has become a remarkable person and I try to keep continuity with subjects that have been important.”
Linking his approach to portraiture with his photographic MO in general, McFarlane explains that as opposed to “capturing” or “taking” an image, he firmly believes in the concept of
“receiving” a photograph – a methodology that was partly born out of the need to be conservative at a time long before SD cards presented us with virtually unlimited storage and an idea that largely reduces the need to shoot so heavily. “When we were using SLRs in the 60s, having 36 exposures on a roll compared to what we had immediately before that was amazing,” he says. “I had been using 2 and 1⁄4 square and others were using 5 x 4 and all that so 36 pictures then was a luxury!” Drawing on his time photographing Australian indigenous activist Charlie Perkins, McFarlane explains that “all those metaphors of ‘capturing’ and ‘taking’ pictures are a bit aggressive. I believe it is where the photographer places themselves to receive the image compositionally and behaviorally and the moment they choose which dictates how original the picture will be. That’s my general philosophy of making pictures.”
But perhaps the most pertinent example of the precariousness of shooting film in the digital age came with photographer Brian Cassey’s roll of film for the afp400tx project as an important portrait subject presented itself to Cassey after he had already shot the majority of his 36 exposures. After learning that his friend and accomplished musician Geoff Tozer had been diagnosed with cancer, Cassey was presented with a challenge: “I had ONE frame left when I met and chatted to Geoff and had to make that frame count,” he says. “I wanted an image that showed Geoff’s rugged past in the music industry and his current near death situation. I very carefully choose the light and eventually released the shutter.”
Across the spectrum of ideas of those photographers involved in the afp400tx project and their varying levels of advocacy for film, the passing of a single camera and lens around the country is sure to highlight much about the collective creative workflow of contemporary Australian photography. Whether Repetto’s brainchild will spur a resurgence of the use of film in the Australian photography industry is up for debate but either way, it has and surely will continue to prompt questions about the permanence of images, the benefits of creative limitation and perhaps most importantly that, as Michael Coyne says: “It’s not the camera that takes the picture, it’s the eye of the person holding it.” While the official date for the finish line of the project still lies somewhere over the horizon, a series of exhibitions and a book are planned for some time in the not-too-distant future. Follow along on Instagram @afp400tx.