Monday, June 21, 2010

Feature Photographer - Thomas Michael Alleman


I am back from vacation and have been eagerly waiting to share this interview with you all.  Many of you are probably familiar with Thomas Michael Alleman's work.  I am a big fan, and wanted to learn more about his work, his shooting methods and the stories behind the photos.  Hope you enjoy!



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

I began using the Holga in September of 2001, when my wife and I took a month-long trip to Europe, and I wanted a fairly unobtrusive camera that I could use to shoot big, square negatives. The weekend before we left I found a Diana at a garage sale in our neighborhood, and remembered its reputation among artists and students; it seemed like a perfect, lightweight solution. However, no right-thinking photographer travels with a single camera body, so I grabbed a Holga from my local Samy’s, thinking naively it was essentially the same crappy anti-camera that the Diana was said to be. I learned how wrong I was when, a month later, I returned from our trip and processed my film, and judged the Holga images to be far, far superior to the Diana negs. I began immediately planning my first Holga foray onto the streets of Los Angeles…



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

From 1997 until mid-2001, I spent quite a lot of time wandering in LA, shooting black-and-white “urban landscapes” with a succession of cameras, from Nikons to Hasselblads and then to an old Super-D 4x5. But I never achieved a negative or a print that resembled the pictures I thought I was making when I’d tripped the shutter, and no amount of extra, spectacular detail could reveal the pictures I knew were buried in those scenes. It was clear to me that some corrupting influence stood between my experience of the scene---as I encountered my subject and composed a picture of it---and the actual image that emerged in the darkroom. When I processed the film I’d shot in Italy, Austria, and the Czech Repiblic in the fall of 2001, I was astonished: those dreamy, soft-focus Holga shots were exactly what I’d been looking for. Apparently, the images my imagination had been pursuing thrived on less detail, not more. By obliterating the hyper-detailed, documentary specificity that modern multi-coated lenses have made commonplace, the Holga’s bizarre optics gave me access to a realm of richly-textured suggestion, impression and allusion that I couldn’t achieve in any of those earlier attempts at the lyrical landscape, which now seem banal and psychologically barren by comparison. The effect achieved, I think, is similar to the experience of hearing music that’s playing on a transistor radio in another room: you get the feeling of the song, for sure---the shape and size of it---but the details, the low-end, is mostly gone, replaced by that humming little whiff of static. That was the picture I wanted, and I think it’s the one I got.




Please tell me a little bit about your series "Sunshine & Noir"

I began photographing “Sunshine & Noir” in October of 2001. My wife and I returned from a month-long European trip to find that, in the long aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, most of my New York magazine clients had become intent on pictures of Ground Zero and the new Afghan War, and they didn’t have any immediate interest in the artists, scientists, politicians and CEOs that I’d been shooting for them in Southern California. Cast into joblessness by that grim new reality, and heartbroken and devastated by the events of 9/11---which haunted me for many years to come---I began to walk in LA’s many weird neighborhoods, consoled (perversely) by their strangeness and occasional danger. I took my Holgas with me, and began searching out visual metaphors for the alienation, desolation and disquiet I felt. Sorry to say, the streets of Los Angeles offer plenty of opportunities to photograph all those dark psychological states; I felt immediately that my melancholy mood sync-ed exactly with the environment I wandered through, and the pictures came quickly and easily.




What kind of challenges did you encounter while shooting this series?

Here in LA, the challenge I face most often comes from security guards who’ve been led to believe by their bosses that private property rights extend much, much further than they actually do. (Almost to a one, they firmly believe that it’s illegal to photograph a building from a public sidewalk.) But I think the attitude that makes those minimum-wage kiddie-cops so willing to defend their corporate employers is actually shared rather widely by the everyday Angelenos I encounter on the street: people in LA assume that everything is owned by The Man (whoever that might be), and that that ownership grants ultimate power and final discretion, and that That Dude wouldn’t want me hanging around, photographing his building or sidewalk or street-signs. In New York, San Francisco and elsewhere, it’s understood that artists and photographers, musicians, writers and poets---not to mention hustlers and gawkers and slackers---are all part of the groovy urban cavalcade; in LA, security guards want to see your permit, and the locals want to know what you think you’re doing.




If you had to choose - New York, or LA? 

If I had a great deal of money, I’d live in New York, in Manhattan or Brooklyn. It’s the most spectacular place I’ve ever been, but it’s a tough damned city to live in—wearying and remorseless---and, at my age, I couldn’t do it without all the psychic and material padding that a certain reliable wealth would provide. Los Angeles is far more forgiving, far more welcoming to hard-working folks who just want to contribute---and, at the very worst, you probably won’t freeze to death if you end up sleeping on the street.




What other cameras do you have in your arsenal?

Since I spent 15 years working for newspapers, and the last ten shooting portraits on location for national magazines, I’ve got the compliment of professional/commercial gear, old and new: three Nikon F-4 bodies, and all the lenses and strobes and cords; a very heavy traveling case with two Hasselblad bodies, five lenses and a half-dozen backs; an old Super-D 4x5 that I used to shoot Polaroid type-55 in; and my current workhorse collection of Canon digital bodies, lenses and speedlights. (Not to mention, three cases of Dynalights that go everywhere with me, and two rolling bags of grip equipment and light modifiers.)



Favourite photo film(s)? 

I’ve used Kodak TMAX 400 since it first appeared on the market in the mid-80s. I find it to be flatter and “creamier”---less abrasive---than Tri-X, and easier to take control of in the darkroom, or in Photoshop. (I’m really intent on creating optimal local contrast in all the different areas of the picture, so I need to start with a film that doesn’t have it’s own chemical agenda for contrast.) On most street safaris, I carry three Holgas, with two different kinds of film: I shoot one camera in bright daylight, using TMAX 400 and processing it normally; in open shade I use that same film, but push-process it a half-stop; in something less luminous than open shade, I use Ilford Delta 3200 and process it normally.



What inspires you?

Used bookstores; Lee Friedlander; NPR; Charles Mingus; Belgian ale; Joan Didion; Bob Dylan’s weird Americana; Robert Frank, Roy DeCarava, William Klein; Edward Hopper; Raymond Chandler; the New Yorker Magazine; “Night and the City”, “M”, “Touch of Evil”; Bruce Springsteen; LA at twilight; the Abstract Expressionists; the internet; James Ellroy; Gregg Toland; Bela Bartok; baseball stadiums; Henry Wessel, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston; Reyner Banham; a window seat in a crowded bar; fear, ambition and regret; my godson, Luke.




Do you have more Holga projects on the go, or planned for the future?

The Los Angeles project---“Sunshine & Noir”--- has almost run it’s course, but I’m still at work on the New York project, which approaches that city with the same spirit, techniques and method that I’ve used for the LA pictures. (That body of work is about 60 pictures deep, now; well past halfway to book-length status.) Throughout both those journeys, and during all my travels these last five or six years, I’ve been shooting panoramas with my Holgas---undercranking the advance to smash the frames together. I’ve got about 40 pretty good ones now, and maybe 25 I think are really fantastic. I’ll be working on those for another couple-three years, for sure.



Thomas Michael Alleman's Links:

Sunshine and Noir on Facebook
Sunshine and Noir Website 
AllemanPhoto.com
              

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