I received an email from the Art Director of The Pennsylvania Gazette. The magazine was running an article about The Penn Book Center, an independent bookstore that had been on campus since 1962. The owners were planning to close the store but after public outcries, protests and under new ownership, it would remain open.
I was to approach it like street photography to convey the idea that small independent shops are important to the urban streetscape. To impart nostalgia and pay homage to other norms of the past, the image would run in black and white.
I could have used a digital camera and converted the files in post but shooting film in a vintage camera just felt like a more authentic approach. Besides, I have an ever-growing collection of vintage cameras begging to be used and a cozy little darkroom.
Creatively speaking, it’s good to mix things up once in a while. I welcomed the idea of using a mechanical camera instead of a DSLR and to process in the darkroom rather than at a computer.
I scouted the location to determine what time of day the light would be best, keeping in mind the AD envisioned long shadows. As it was fall the sun was moving across the sky at a lower angle making it possible to get good photos even at mid-day.
The Importance of Scouting:
I am familiar with the bookstore’s location and had assumed early afternoon light would be best. I arrived at 2:00 p.m. to discover I was too late; the sun was already behind the building. That’s why you scout.
Standing in front of the Bookstore I pulled out my iPhone and opened an app called LightTrac. Once locked on my location it would show me the direction of sunlight at various times of day. The bookstore was on a corner with one side facing East and the other facing south. The app showed me that there was a window from 7:30 am to about noon depending on which side of corner I wanted in sunlight.
I also wanted to get a feel for possible compositions. Being a fan of Wes Anderson films the first thing that struck me was the symmetry of the corner. One half of the frame could be bathed in light while the other would be cloaked in shadow with pedestrians moving from one to the other. I imagined using a bug’s eye view shooting up from the sidewalk. This vantage point would make both the building and passersby appear monumental.
At first I thought I’d use one of my Nikkormats as it was already loaded with film. Then I thought maybe I should use a rangefinder because they are discreet and quiet. I ended up going with a Canon F1 for one simple reason. I could remove the prism which would allow me to compose on the ground glass while shooting up at the building from street level.
I returned the next day several hours earlier than the day before. The sky was clear and the sun was bright, casting long, sharp shadows. I chose to use a 28mm wide-angle lens with a yellow K2 filter to darken the sky. I loaded the F1 with Kentmere 400 film. While I could have used a slower film, I actually wanted grain. The higher speed would also allow me to stop the lens down and combined with the wide-angle lens, have infinite depth of field. Who needs auto focus when you can zone focus! It would also allow a fast shutter speed to freeze people in motion. While the F1 meter works using the “Sunny 16” rule was just as good and faster.
There was no shortage of pedestrians passing the bookstore as it is close to Penn’s campus. I assumed most were students, faculty or staff who were scurrying to class or work. Aside from a few sideways glances no one paid me much attention. After shooting four, 36 exposure rolls from multiple angles, I headed home.
After processing the film I used a macro lens on my DSLR to make a camera scan of each negative. Using a filed out negative carrier on a light table enabled me to add sloppy black borders without having to add one in post. Black borders were popular back in the day. They constrained the image within a white background. Using a black border was proof that there was no cropping, that you had framed the image as intended.
I uploaded a gallery to my website and sent a link to the Art Director. The hybrid approach combined the best of both analogue and digital photography. Eventually I’ll go back to the negatives and make some prints on fiber based paper.
Interestingly, the image the Art Director chose was the last frame on that roll and was actually frame 37. I had bulk loaded the film so the right edge of the negative was fogged, that bit of film was exposed to light when I taped the film to the spool before loading it into the cassette. Oh well, as with any art form just embrace the imperfections. Client ran the image one and a half pages in the print edition as well as on the web version.
See more of my editorial work
A few more selects from the shoot.