Thursday, March 25, 2010

Feature Photographer - Wallace Billingham

It's my pleasure to introduce you all to Wallace Billingham - I'm sure many of you have seen his work before but if not, you are in for a treat!!  I've been admiring his infrared Holga work for a long time and am grateful that he agreed to do this interview!  Trust me, you will enjoy it (especially the question about weird/difficult situations he's been in!  Talk about dedication!).

 How did you get introduced to your first Holga and how long have you been shooting?

I have been doing photography for about 25 years now. During that time I have shot with just about every film format from 110 to 8x10 large format. I even worked as a pro for a long time doing both weddings and events and freelance/per diem work for several newspapers. I got my first Holga about 10-12 years ago I don't really remember exactly when. I did not really seriously start using one until about 5 years ago now.

What is it about the Holga that draws you to it? Why do you shoot with it?

I was first drawn to it when I saw some quirky photographs made with one online in the late 1990s. I got a Holga 120S probably from Freestyle as I order a lot of stuff from them and have for a long time, anyway I shot a few rolls with it and did not really think about it again for a long time. Around 5 years ago now I really wanted to start a project of shooting water features from the vantage point of being in the water. As you might imagine setting up in the water is a very bad idea for most cameras, however since they are so cheap I figured with a Holga it would not matter if it got wet. I first started shooting with Kodak Tri-X and Ilford HP5 using ND filters for extra long exposures with moving water and after a few rolls I knew I was on to something. I was however not very happy with the tonality I was getting. Shortly after that Freestyle introduced Efke IR820 Infrared film in medium format back to the North American market after being not available here for several years. I got 10 rolls to play with and hundreds of rolls later I am still playing with it as I really like the tonality.

Your Infrared photos are simply stunning - could you tell me a little bit about using infrared and how you go about your shooting process?  What are some challenges you face using infrared as opposed to regular black and white film?

When I first started shooting with IR film in a Holga the first major difficulty was that there was next to no information about doing so anywhere, and what info I could find was often times incorrect. I wasted my first 5 rolls or so just trying to make it work and figuring out exposure. I have since written several articles for magazines and websites about doing it and it is much easier to find out all the ins and outs from a technical standpoint these days.

As far as my shooting process goes, I have been a landscape photographer for a very long time. I used to do it with a lot of LF gear. Working with LF gear teaches you to work very slow and deliberate making the most of each shot. I still work that way with my Holgas today. I very carefully frame my shots and will not trip the shutter unless I think it is going to be a good photograph. The biggest difference with using IR film over regular B&W is that the current IR films are very, very slow when used with IR filters. Of course I want slow film for long exposures anyway so it is not really an issue for me. IR film also gives you a very different tonality than you get with other films which takes some getting used to, you also never really know how much IR light is in any given scene. I have done it enough now that I can make a pretty good guess as far as exposure goes. However if I think it is going to be a good photograph and I am unsure of the exposure I will often times bracket and make 3-5 or more exposures of a scene. One big plus with using a Holga for my work is that since they are so cheap I often times carry 5 or more with me in the field. That way I do not have to worry about changing film in the field. I have changed film in the field many times however and despite what you read as long as you are not in full sun it is not a problem changing IR film outdoors.

Is it difficult shooting around lakes and rivers? What are some weird and/or difficult situations you've gotten yourself into in order to get a shot?

I am sure many people would find it very difficult to shoot like I do being in the water. I guess I am crazy and think the harder it is the more fun I have. I will often be right in the middle of a stream and set my heavy tripod up right in the middle of the water. I am in the water year round and with the help of insulted chest waders have no problems entering streams in the middle of winter when it is well below zero. I will often spend 15-30 minutes setting up for a shot and waiting for the right light. I almost always go out alone and as such I am very quiet and often see lots of wildlife.

I have had several scary run ins with wildlife that have all ended well. Once I was in the middle of a local stream when I looked over to the bank and there was a large female black bear on one side of the stream and her cub was on the other with me in between. It is never a good idea to be between a mother bear and her cub so I just stayed still and they moved on.

The scariest moment was the time that I was doing my thing in the middle of a small river and a thunderstorm was brewing right above me that I did not really notice. I felt a tingle on the back of my neck and just then lighting struck a tree on the bank about 25 meters away from me. I was in waist deep water with no way to get immediately out of the stream as the banks on either side were way to steep and full of thorny undergrowth. I had to run as fast as I could through waist deep water for around 200-300 meters until I could get out of the stream the whole time lightning was cracking all around me and I felt the tingle again several times. My car was parked short distance away once I got out and it started to pour rain just as I got there.

The creepiest thing that has ever happened was the time I was in a swamp and when I came out of the water I had about a dozen leeches all over my legs.

Once last January I was out shooting in weather that was around -20 C (-5 F) and the water froze to my tripod and then my tripod froze to my waders.

The hardest shot I ever got was when I had to swim holding my tripod above my head for a bit to get to the spot where I knew I could make a good photograph. I had attempted it several times before and turned back. That shot "French Creek Fallen Tree" has been published now several times and has become one of my favorites.

The craziest thing that has ever happened when I was out shooting in the water has actually happened twice now. When I set up in a river I use a very heavy metal tripod with spiked feet that is designed for large format gear or broadcast video gear. While that is way overkill for general Holga shooting the weight and bulk of the tripod gives me a stable platform to shoot on even if the current is pretty fast. Anyway my tripod has black metal levers that you flip to raise and lower the legs and twice now I have had large smallmouth bass come up and attack the levers and knock over the tripod. Once it fell right over into the water and the second time I was able to catch it. before it fell over.

Favourite photo film(s)?

Without a doubt it would have to be Efke IR820

Your favourite Holga photo that you've taken?

That is very hard as they are all special to me. Besides the above mentioned "French Creek Fallen Tree", I would have to pick two. "Moonrise Lake Erie" because from a darkroom/film/technical standpoint it was the hardest shot I have ever been able to pull off, and my shot "Adirondacks Beaver Pond" not only because it is a good photograph but because I had both my son (who was 10 at the time) and my 70+ year old father with me at the time I took it. We were on a family vacation to visit my dads family in New England with a quick stopover for a few days in Adirondack Park in new York State. After dinner we left my wife and daughter back at the motel and I went out with my son and dad to hopefully find a halfway decent shot. As I drove out of the town of Saranac Lake I found this little pond set up and made this shot.

What inspires you?

I just enjoy being out in Nature and on and in the water. Photography gives me a good excuse to get out in nature and shoot. My hope is that I can share the magic of nature with those who view my photographs.

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