A heartache inspired teacher, travel writer, and photographer Andrew Rhodes to drop everything and wander around Europe for a while, taking with him only a backpack -- there wasn't room for much else besides film! Read on to learn about how that journey lead Rhodes to create this body of work that's bursting with life.
Drew, welcome to the Lomography Magazine. Can please introduce yourself, tell us a bit about your photography?
I’m a writer, photographer, and teacher based out of Midtown, Sacramento in California. I write mostly travel memoir at the moment and shoot a wide variety of things including candids, surreal landscapes, and what I like to think of as a travel photography/street photography hybrid.
What was your first experience with a film camera? Have you always shot on film?
Kind of. I mean, I grew up shooting film, but nothing serious, just those disposable cameras that were so prevalent in the 90’s. But I never really considered myself a photographer. To me, I was a writer and a poet. It’s what I got my first Master’s degree in and I love it. I got into shooting film for, what I think is, kind of a weird reason. You see, a couple years ago I was a bit heartbroken after an amicable break up with a girl who I’d loved very much. She shot film. And, at the same time, I was also dealing with the rigors of becoming a high school English teacher. Teaching was depressing me and consuming so much of my time that I didn’t have time to write anymore and I was getting very depressed. I get terribly depressed when I can’t make art, you know?
Anyways, I was helping my parents move one day and I was sorting through all the boxes in their garage and I found my stepdad’s old camera- a Canon AE-1 Program. To my astonishment, it was the same exact kind of camera my ex had used! I don’t know why, maybe to feel closer to her, but I started shooting on it and it made my heartache lessen. I destroyed my first 7 rolls of film, but something about focusing on the moment of a shot, the stillness of it, how your body strains to remain as motionless as possible and just focus on one thing. It feels a little like death in that moment, and then suddenly bursting back to life after the picture is snapped. That moment gave me a reprieve from my woes, and sometimes a moment is all you need to get by.
And best of all, unlike writing, I didn’t have to sit still for hours to do it. I could go out and have an amazing trip, or, if I was busy, just squeeze off a shot with a spare 1/30th of a second I had lying around. I can’t get that same sense of peace from a digital camera. Instead of focusing on the moment, I focus on the moment that just passed, which just stresses me out.
I understand these photographs all come from an epic adventure. Tell me about it!
Jesus, I’m going to sound like a poor wretch (I swear, I’m not this pathetic in real life) but I was dealing with yet another heart break when I got this idea. Basically, another breakup occurred and I was sitting around feeling sorry for myself in my classroom during a free period and missing my ex when I just decided, “You know what? Efff this! If I’m going to be miserable, I’m going to be miserable in another country!” So, right then and there, at my work computer, I bought a cheap ticket to Paris through Kayak.com. The flight was a month and a half away and I decided, I’d figure the rest out later. (Later, as it turned out, was when I was actually in Paris. I'm a terrible procrastinator.) I got a reservation at Paris’s grossest hostile for a couple nights, and decided I would wander about from there.
I went the whole trip like that, wandering around and getting as lost as possible. I traveled by train to London after Paris, then several days later, I took a lovely sleeper train to Edinburgh, then days later, flew back to Paris because I missed it, and then on a flight that was way too early, last but not least, I went up to Dublin because it was still cold enough to wear a jacket and scarf there.
I made a point to walk as much as possible in each of these cities. I wanted to see everything, not just the touristy parts, which I mostly avoided. I wanted to meet people and see what made the cities special. I wanted to roam aimlessly, to get lost, and be tired, and see what there was to see when I had no expectations at all. I walked 213 miles between those four cities (I kept track on my phone) and met some amazing people. I spilled drinks, broke bread, and had amazing, honest conversations with people from France, Spain, Iran, Portugal, England, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, Turkey, America, Germany, Greece, Morocco, Jordan, and Italy. We talked about art, film, politics, heartache, and love. Some of it was really deep and some of it was drunken rambling, but it was all lovely. People are lovely, I think, most places you go. It's all well and good to visit castles and towers and gardens, but making a friend somewhere thousands of miles away from home, that's really beautiful.
How do you manage when traveling, with your gear and film? How do you decide what to bring on your travels?
You know, for this trip, I didn’t really bring much. My camera of choice was a Contax G2 with the Carl Zeiss 21mm, the 28mm, 45mm, and 90mm. I chose it because it was terribly unreliable- you never know if the thing you want to be in focus is in focus or not; framing is awkward, (especially with the 21mm where you have to use a finder); you are constantly taking pictures with the lens cap on without realizing it; and because it’s an old electronic camera, it can die at any moment on you. Frankly, it reminded me a lot of myself and my life at the moment.
But the Contax G2 has something special about it that also reminds me of my life, because despite all of it’s drawbacks, every now and then, it can produce something truly magical. And I figured if even a small percentage of the photos I took could capture that magic, I’d have something really special.
I took about 35 rolls of film with me which I kept in a large Dome Film Guard Bag. It’s supposed to help protect your film from airport x-ray machines, which, if you’re traveling with film, you definitely will be subjected to. I was able to avoid many airport X-ray machines, but despite my best efforts, my film was still subjected to three X-ray scans.
I kept everything in a Lowepro Sport 200, which is like a day-hike bag for photographers. It was my only bag for the whole trip. With my small amount of camera gear and my huge bag of film, I didn’t have much room for anything else in the bag besides one extra pair of underwear, my Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy shirt, two pairs of smart wool socks, my scarf which was sometimes also my towel (always know where your towel is), a tiny, tiny headlamp, and my tooth brush. And that’s about all I could fit in there!
I would eventually go out and find a pair of pajama bottoms on my second trip to Paris so that I could finally wash my jeans which were just disturbingly starched stiff with the salt from sweating so much in them on my walks, but aside from that and a few more rolls of film, and a pen, and an extra journal after I’d filled mine up, I didn’t pick up much on the trip.
A lot of my packing methods came from my ultralight backpacking experiences. I’d previously hiked the entire mountainous 220 mile John Muir Trail in just 15 days with the ex who inspired my Europe trip, so I had a good sense of what I truly needed and what I didn’t and where I could eliminate redundancies. And I also knew that though much of this trip, I would be traveling and photographing with everything I’d taken with me on my back, so it would have to be small enough to still let we walk around unencumbered and get into places where you wouldn’t take a bunch of luggage. I think I was pretty successful in this regard, as I was able to climb the 669 steps up to the second platform of the Eiffel Tower with everything on my back (though as I am terrified of heights, I was absolutely convinced that the whole structure was going to come crashing down underneath me at any moment and told everyone within earshot all about it).
You experiment a lot with different emulsions it seems. How do you decide which to use when?
I try to match up the films with the places I’m visiting to see which one really captures the spirit of the place. For example, when I was in Paris, it felt Fujifilm Acros 100 shot at speed and Kodak Portra 160 really captured something of the spirit of the place. In Ireland, I also thought Acros 100, but pushed to 400 to capture something of the distressed but beautiful feeling of the town. But in that place, for color, I liked Ektar 100 for the way it makes Dublin’s red accents pop just a bit more.
When I’m in a place that I feel has been photographed to death, I love to shoot Lomochrome Turquoise or Purple because of the way that they make something about familiar places feel surreal and alien. They make it seem new. I also liked shooting Lomochome Purple in Ireland, because when you think of Ireland, you think of the color green. So, I wanted to see what happened when you painted the Emerald Isle purple.
In low lighting, I like to shoot Kodak Portra 800 or Kodak Tri-X but pushed to 1600, but I don’t always shoot at high ISO’s for low lighting. Sometimes it’s fun to shoot a low ISO film and see how long you can hand hold it, or set it on the ground, or on an escalator, and see what you come up with.
Basically, I shoot with the emulsion that I think will be curious or fun at that moment. I know a lot of people stick with the same films though their trip for consistency, which I totally get, but that’s just not as fun for me. For me, the most important thing is being engaged with the moment, and that’s what using a lot of different films helps me do.
What are you inspired by? Do you feel there's a theme in your work?
Well, given most of my answers, I would say it might seem that I’m inspired by heartbreak, haha! But really, I’m inspired by capturing the essence of the moment. The sort of accidental mise-en-scène of a place. Not just during big adventures, but at get togethers with friends, family parties, in bars, everything. I don’t really care about taking an exact picture of the moment, I like things that are impressionistic, absurdist, surreal, and but also genuine.
My photographic influences are a lot of the National Geographic photographers from back in the day like William Allard, Steve McCurry, and photographers like Diane Arbus and Daido Moriyama. For landscapes, I’m more influenced by painters- my favorites being Chiura Obata and Salvador Dahli.
I’m not sure if there’s a theme to my work in the sense of a statement I’m trying to make, but I will say that I sort of feel that my photos are kind of my way of expressing love for a place and for people. Like, when I take a photo, it is because I love what I am photographing, and I want to preserve it and keep it. That probably sounds sappy, but in truth, I am a pretty sappy person.
What's next for you? Anywhere we can keep up with your photographs?
Well, I’m planning on continuing my photographic study of large, international “world” cities. I’m going to New York City in November, where I plan on having an exhibition of some of my works at the Lomography Gallery Store, and I plan on touring a lot of the world cities in South America in June. I would also LOVE to get back to Tokyo too, maybe over the Spring again. I went there last April, but I was afraid of traveling with film so I mostly shot digital, and I didn’t spend nearly enough time in the city. (My failure there is what inspired my method of travel though Europe.) I’d love to go back with a ridiculously large bag of film!
There’s something I find fascinating about these big, cosmopolitan areas that seem to belong, not just to the countries that they’re in, but to the entire world. They’re places where every sort of person congregates and gets together, and that’s amazing. There are so many languages spoken and so much art. I think they’re lovely and fascinating.
I also have a series of surreal landscape photos I’m working on that explore the juxtaposition of desert desert landscape and formless sea creatures. That probably sounds nonsensical, but the idea I have in my head seems cool so I’m going for it. I’m shooting that all on 120 film Lomochrome Turquoise, which is hard because I only have a few roles of it left and can’t find any more.
I’ve also been thinking of offering a film based family photography service, but with kind of a candid lean. So, like instead of just getting people to pose on a bridge with their arms around each other or whatever, I’d just kind of like, follow them around for a day and take candid photos of the subjects as the day progressed. It’s something I’ve been working on, and although it would definitely be a niche market, I think it could be really cool and a definite change from the normal family photography market.
You can follow me on Instagram or you can read my travel/memoir/photography blog . It’s a pretty new site- I just transferred everything over from my old Blogger based blog, so it’s still a little messy, but I’ll get it together in short order. If you see something, you’d like to order a print of, let me know! I'm going to try and get a store up on there soon, I have some photos that I think make lovely prints.
- Let's close with some advice to another Lomographer -- but a twist: ten words or less. Or a Haiku! ;)
OK, I'll take a stab at a haiku, (based on my experiences in Death Valley last spring):
Don't be so focused
On your camera or lens that
You walk off a cliff.