Film has always been part of Amy Berge's life. She was born in the ‘80s, a time when almost every household had a film camera to document their memories with. In high school, she took a photography class to learn the basics, and spent a lot of time enlarging prints in the darkroom. However, when digital photography started to take over during her college years, she purchased a DSLR and thought that she had graduated from film for good.
In 2009, a fateful encounter with a Diana Mini rekindled her love for film. ”I thought it would be fun to shoot some film again, more as novelty than anything else,” she admits. Eventually, she wanted the options to have more control over the settings, so she bought a Nikon FE and used her existing lenses with it. ”But I was still shooting film very sparingly.”
A Facebook group for film photographers inspired her greatly, leading her to purchase her own Noritsu LS-600 scanner so that she can scan her film. She never imagined using film for client work, but ended up transitioning to it. ”I most definitely attribute Lomography’s presence at Urban Outfitters to my film renaissance, and I will forever love my Diana Mini and Lomography for it.”
Today, aside from being a portrait photographer, Amy is part of the film community Shoot It With Film and is the owner of Filmlab135, a little lab specializing in developing and scanning experimental 35mm film.
Hi Amy, how's the creative life so far in the times of coronavirus-19?
Oh goodness gracious, creating during a pandemic has been a perpetual oscillation between being completely uninspired and feeling completely overwhelmed with how incredibly creative I feel. There is no middle ground during this time, is there? I admit, in the beginning, I quickly slipped into the “lack of creativity” mode and felt like it was going to be a time of utter drought in my artistic life. When we were just going into lockdown, people were trying to put a silver lining on it by telling others to take this time to write the next great novel or symphony or (insert your artistic preference here), but the truth is that for so many of us, we just wanted to survive. Thriving felt completely off the table. I know that’s how I felt.
I am part of a monthly film project group, and I was still trying to keep up with that in spite of feeling like my creativity was completely lost. It was early summer when I decided to just shoot a roll, not worry about light or composition or caring, really, because I knew I wanted to soup the roll. I was just going to give it all sorts of wonkiness to mirror the chaos happening in my life and in our world. And even though I had souped plenty of film before this, the pandemic gave me fresh eyes, and souping that particular roll saved me. It propelled me into this new reality of embracing the chaos instead of shying away from it. I am a photographer who prefers to capture how things feel, not how they look, and film soup just felt right during this time.
It ended up being the gateway to all sorts of motion and blur and doubles and all things chaotic. It's not like this stuff wasn’t in my work before, because it was, but, because of this never-ending life of isolation, it took on a new spin and dragged me out of the pit of being uninspired and took on a new life that it just couldn’t have without a crisis underway.
Where do you get inspiration from for your photography?
For all its faults, social media is truly where I get much of my inspiration. I use Facebook and Instagram almost solely for finding other artists and connecting and learning and feeling motivated to create. There is so much incredible talent out there and people craving artistic community, and so when you get plugged into it, it becomes this positive feedback loop where you get encouraged and pushed and inspired by other artists. This interactive nature of communing with other creatives allows the inspiration process to be accelerated as we share our work and can critique and grow roll by roll.
Right now you're spearheading a film lab that promotes experimental photography -- this is utterly cool! May you let us know how you got into the experimental side?
Thank you! Undertaking Film Lab 135 has been quite the adventure. After film soup helped resurrect my creativity in the midst of the pandemic, I felt I owed it to the film community to offer the development and scanning so others could have their hand at experimenting with it. Labs don’t take film soup because it messes with the chemicals. Most notably, I have found it leaves bits and pieces behind that attach itself to other negatives, and no one wants detritus on their client work. It has been so fulfilling to watch others embrace this technique and the amazing film that has come through my lab has been a real honor to process.
As far as experimenting goes, I would say that embracing film quickly led me to experimenting with it. Unlike digital, you can do things TO film, such as opening up a camera to light leak the film, fogging it with light before or after shooting it, running film through your camera twice, cross-processing the film, and of course, film soup. Once I felt comfortable with the basics, I started light leaking my film on purpose to create effects, and that was my gateway to those other types of experimentation.
There’s something about these experimental processes, where they just seem to know exactly what to do. That could mean a light leak perfectly filling in negative space or film soup swirling around the subject in my photo; the experiments just know. It’s like they become my co-creator, and together we are able to make something more layered and nuanced and beautiful than I could do on my own.
I first encountered film soup in a Facebook group I am part of and fell in love with the painterly effect it had on the artists’ photos. Wanting to try film soup was one of the biggest motivators for learning to develop color film. My first batch of C41 chemicals was mostly used to cross-process and develop film soup. I now develop all my own C41, even for clients and I love that I have a part in the entire film process.
Do you have favorite experimental techniques? We read about your film soup on your website -- what's the Amy Berge signature recipe?
I go in phases of which experimental technique I’m feeling attached to at any given moment, but, as mentioned above, my go-to's are film soup, light leaks, running a roll of film through my camera twice, and cross-processing. All of these add in “technically” imperfect layers to the story I am telling in each frame. One of the words people around me would use to describe me is genuine. I’m not good at hiding my emotions or my flaws, nor do I want to be, because pretending life is perfect feels like wasted effort. But, although it’s not perfect, it sure is beautiful, and I would hope this beautiful, messy, blurry, flawed, yet hope-filled view of my life comes through in my art.
Film soup is a fickle mistress and often does as she pleases. I can use the same recipe and process on multiple occasions, and it will come out different every single time. That being said, I do gravitate toward one particular recipe: I boil water in a pot, turn the water off, put my film in the pot, and add about ¼ cup dish soap (I never measure. I just let my heart lead LOL), a dump of baking soda, and a couple drops of food coloring.
The baking soda and food coloring tend to combine, adding fiery elements to the frame, but to say results are ever predictable would be a lie. I also think that’s what draws me to film soup. I am intentionally doing something to my film, I am the one deciding the ingredients and process, and, yet, I am yielding the results to these inanimate elements that ironically take on a life of their own.
For work, you photograph mainly private portraits and shoots and you imbue a lot of analogue aesthetics in them. May you share to us how it brings joy to your clients when they see your film photographs?
As stated earlier, all of my client work is on film, and, yet, being a film photographer isn’t something I necessarily push on my website. It’s not uncommon to be at a shoot and have a client look surprised as I go to change out the film in my camera. So my clients don’t necessarily hire me because I shoot film, but more so because they connect with my body of work. The client who wants to work with me often wants their story told and loves the pictures where the emotion pops off the frame. I’m not a photographer who is out for one, nice, classic shot.
Even though I shoot film, I still shoot quite a bit of it at a session because my goal is to tell a story of the family or person I am working with. And that story will involve things like motion, double exposures, and light leaks. Even though you can do motion and double exposures on digital, I feel freer to experiment with these processes after switching to film. For whatever reason, film is the tool that best aids me in creating the kind of art I want to create. I always tell people to find the medium they connect with and not apologize for it. For some people that’s digital, for others it’s film, and, for those of us in the film world, it might be 120 or 35mm...just whatever it is, don’t apologize; just live into it.
Loving the fact that you lead so much with the art that you do, Amy, and I think this is very important especially for budding women artists. Can you share any advice you want to give to women film photographers?
Photography is still a very male-dominated field. The loudest voices around us are from men, and, as women, we need to make sure that our own voices don’t get drowned out in the mix. The major voices in education or at labs tend to be men, which can make women feel that they don’t belong in these places, or that only other women will listen to them.
Film Photography is such an interesting medium in that it involves understanding gear, using it artistically, and, if you’re so inclined, understanding how to work with chemicals and even more technology for scanning/digitizing to produce your desired results. This mixture of science and art can create a dichotomy between those who are gearheads and those who are trying to express themselves, and, often, we view males to be in the former camp and females to be in the latter. But it really doesn’t have to be, and isn’t, this black and white. I admit I am not a gearhead; I am more concerned with using the appropriate tool to give form to what’s happening within me. But I absolutely love that, when I am finished with my roll, I get to load it, develop it, and then scan it. Having full creative control over the entire process is important to me and maybe something you’d associate with a more traditional gearhead.
One of the things I love about being on the Shoot It With Film team is that the voices of men and women are heard and are deemed important. I have more technical articles on the site (like how to develop black and white and color film) and also purely creatively-driven articles on the site. I admit that it’s difficult to find education from females regarding developing film. Once I shared an article I had written to someone asking about developing, and the person didn’t realize I had written it and just assumed the author was male. As I’ve seen these articles shared on various platforms and regarded as a “helpful tool,” there is a quiet thrill in knowing your words are guiding others in their artistic life. But I also hope they encourage women to know that they too can stand at their utility sink and play with chemicals.
You also love to teach potential film lovers -- any tips or piece of advice for newbies who want to try out film?
I love, love, love teaching. I actually was a high school math teacher in what, at this point, feels like a former life. It’s been so incredibly fulfilling to write for Shoot It With Film and to even do small things like post IGTV tutorials. It’s my heart’s desire to empower other creatives, and teaching is a major way I see myself doing that. I highly recommend scouring Shoot It With Film’s site for tutorials. I love it when people reach out and say that SIWF helped them grow as a film photographer. So most definitely follow along with the whole team; it’s truly a group of generous individuals just hoping to pass along knowledge to help others take steps to become the artist they long to be.
My biggest advice for a newbie is to shoot, shoot, shoot. When I purchased my Noritsu, I felt the freedom to shoot alllll the film since I had invested in more of a fixed cost. My knowledge of shooting film exploded as I embraced shooting it all the time. ‘Doing’ is often the best teacher.
Lastly, what's next for Amy Berge?
I am beyond thrilled to help as Shoot It With Film starts a more formalized educational community for film lovers and learners called Shoot It With Film Insiders. As I stated, my heart is for education and this next move feels right for me and for the entire SIWF enterprise.
We will be offering a subscription to what will become a treasure trove of tutorials and workshops and information, but, most importantly, to an online community of other film shooters. The dream is for Shoot It With Film Insiders to be an all-encompassing hub for education and connection with other like-minded artists, no matter their skill level. I am a big advocate for the community and envision all the ways this could help artists pull each other up and rise together.
Amy's work speaks for itself as a woman artist who #ChooseToChallenge, we hope her efforts on film and experimental analogue work inspired you especially for this year's International Women's Day. Visit Amy's website and Instagram to see more of her photography work as well as information about Film Lab 135.