Jose Esteve's main focus is on portraiture and the human body. He uses photography to explore and connect with his subjects and to gain a deeper understanding of the stories that lie behind the people he shoots. This is reflected in his body of work, which ranges from the opulent to minimal and sometimes deeply personal. We sent Jose some rolls of Berlin Kino B&W 120 ISO 400 film to test out on his latest models and he talked to us about where he gets his inspiration from.
Hello Jose, please tell us a bit about yourself.
I'm a Spanish-born photographer based in London. I moved to the UK well over a decade ago to pursue a career in film and Visual Effects. Photography took off for me when I arrived in this city — I became fascinated by its size, richness, and all the wonderful people who live here. Portrait photography became a way to observe and interact with my new home and gave me the means for my own creative expression.
I'm primarily self-taught and enough of a nerd to have worked my way through the technical aspects of cameras, lenses and lighting. But, more importantly, I've also had the privilege to share the journey with other wonderful photographers and master printers over the years. From them I learned the craft side of photography and fell deep into the rabbit hole of traditional film and darkroom printing.
On your website you talk about your portraits allowing you to connect and explore the human condition. Can you explain this to our readers and how it affects your working practice?
For me, successful portraits are a dialogue between the photographer and the subject. In preparing for a shoot, I spend as long as I can talking to the person and learning about them. Shooting portraits creates unique fleeting connections between two strangers working together to create images. This builds a rapport, eases tensions on both sides and lets me think about the intention behind the photos.
The part I enjoy the most about this process is the stories behind the people. Through taking their portraits, I am exposed to dancers' discipline, the psychology of actors, or the life-long story behind someone's tattooed skin. My challenge is to visually capture and interpret a part of that complex story. In doing so, I'm aware that there isn't one objective truth — a portrait is a single facet offered by the sitter, interpreted by the photographer and ultimately read by the viewer. I like to think that the three sides bring something of themselves to each image.
Are there any specific feelings or aesthetics you try to create in your work?
While I don't purposefully try to emulate any specific style, I'm strongly attracted to the timeless quality of honest, simple images. I started off as a digital photographer who became more technical as I worked out my way through lenses, lighting, modifiers, flashes, etc. But it took me a while to recognise that technique was just the means to an end. I found what "proper" photography meant to me by studying the work of great photographers: falling in love with the elegance of images by Irvin Penn and Richard Avedon; the beautiful quality of light of masters of their craft such as Gregory Heisler; or contemporary work from Mark Laita, Joey L. or Hendrik Kerstens. In pursuing this direction and studying their craft, I fell deep into the world of analogue photography in its many formats and discovered the art of printing. I love using analogue techniques because they help my creative process. Using medium and large format cameras dramatically reduces the number of images I shoot while increasing the ones I keep. Film slows me down. It makes the process more deliberate and forces me to be more present with the person rather than peeping at a screen on the back of the camera. It's a helpful constraint.
I've also increasingly grown to regard the print as the finished product instead of stopping with the negative. As much as we live in a world of fast sharing on small screens, I love spending time working on each image in the darkroom. Not only do I find as much interpretative freedom in the darkroom as in-camera, but the resulting hand-made prints are one-off objects and a bit more special to me. I've taken this obsession further during the last few years by incorporating alternative photographic processes such as Platinum/Palladium printing alongside silver gelatin prints. These techniques are challenging and laborious, but the resulting prints are stunning.
Talk us through the photos a little. What did you choose to shoot? How did you find shooting with the Berlin Kino 120 film?
This was my first time using this particular film stock. In doing a little research, I learned about its flat response curve and pronounced grain. I thought these characteristics would suit a location shoot in an urban setting with stark lines and high contrast lighting. I was joined in the day by two incredibly talented rollerskaters, Alba and Johnny, who tested my focusing abilities with their wonderful expressiveness.
We shot on a pretty cold, windy day. I had chosen to use a combination of natural ambient light shaped with a strobe. But consistent metering proved a challenge as the sun peeked in and out through the clouds. When I developed the negatives with my tried and trusted Ilford DDX, I found that the negatives came out a bit thinner than I would have liked. Given the long tonal range of the film, next time, I'd simply meter directly for the shadows, knowing that my highlights will be okay. Berlin 120 film scans very well and produced flat negatives with a full tonal range. One can always add contrast during development or printing, but the tonal separation needs to be there in the film in the first place.
Anything fun coming up in 2022?
I'm putting together a small darkroom at home — I started this project during lockdown to keep printing, and I spend way too many hours under dim red light. I'm also planning to continue working on my platinum prints, a never-ending learning process, and a few personal photo projects.