The beginning of film photography

At the park with my oldest boy, now almost 14, and my first film camera, a Mamiya RZ67. Photo by longtime friend, Gay Ribisi

I'd bought the camera about two years prior in Canada while working on a movie as an actor

It was on that set that I got the film bug  

Prior to getting into acting, I'd exposed a lot of Super-8 film for Stereo Skateboards' 1994 film A Visual Sound (viewable under FILMS) with little automatic cameras, and had used some Polaroid cameras here and there, and spent a lot of time around skateboard photographers, but it wasn't until 2002 that I started paying attention to photography, and cameras, and film - motion picture and stills - on a more serious level 

As an actor, you tend to do your thing as the crew does theirs. But one day, on this particular set, I started noticing the cameras. Not just being aware of their presence, but really seeing them  

And that's all it took  

I started asking the camera guys questions about film, lenses, metering, lighting, light meters, color temperature, etc

And they were more than happy to oblige me  

Almost immediately I bought a Bolex 16mm movie camera and a light meter  

And then the RZ67

I spent everyday experimenting, studying 

After night shoots I'd go back to my hotel room and set up the Bolex on the balcony and expose film with that beautiful morning light. It didn't matter what I was aiming the camera at, so long as I was exposing film, and using my light meter, and that I was actually doing it. Buying that Bolex was indescribably exciting - 'A real movie camera!'

And I went through a lot of Polaroid and Fuji pack film sheets with the RZ and its Polaroid back, using the films to practice metering and to test various filters, etc. It was nonstop 

A bonus of having started learning about these things on a set was realizing how important it is for an actor to know about things like lenses and focal length and depth-of-field, etc 

There can be a disconnect between actor and crew because actors generally don't know what's going on with the camera 

Once I started understanding these things for myself, and things like the axis (which side of 'the line' a scene is taking place on), it helped my performances, my confidence, my overall sense of command in the years that followed 

At some point after that movie, I'd gotten a studio space in downtown L.A., complete with strobe lights and seamless paper backdrops, and the experimenting continued 

A multitude of film type tests, filter tests, lighting tests, and pushing and pulling as many different film types as I could, all the while taking notes. Of everything  

B&W and color

Borrowing people for portraits  

Strobe light, window light, all of it 

And doing what I thought should have been done, what I'd known or been exposed to at the time: 'studio photography' 

It wasn't until hitting the road with my old Century Universal 8x10 view camera and boxes of 8x10 Polaroid film in 2006 that I learned just how little that approach to photography was for me. Being outside and documenting in an unforced and more natural and organic, spontaneous manner was uniquely inspiring. I knew then what photography was meant to be for me 

And seeing Henry Wessel's retrospective at SFMoMA a year later solidified that  

After those first photo road trips I sold all my strobes and backdrops and such, stripped it all down and have since remained focused on just being out there and documenting life, whether it be rural America in a more slowed down manner with large format cameras or walking city streets with point-and-shoot cameras  

Photography, film, exploring. Nothing better  

Happy to see film on the rise and companies remaking old films and introducing new ones. Seems to be a good time for the medium

Next photo road trip will be Texas to California later this month

I'll be posting entires from the road 



(You can read about the aforementioned large format Polaroid road trips in this section)

Jason LeeComment