film

My 2018 EMULSIVE Secret Santa Experience by Michael Jin

© 2019 Michael Jin. Pentax Super Takumar 55mm f/2 with Sony A7RIII

For those that don’t know, the EMULSIVE Secret Santa is an annual event within the film photography community organized by EM of emulsive.org. The idea is that a bunch of participants all around the world sign up and get paired with a partner to send a gift to so that we can all open our gifts together on Christmas day. Like many of these types of events, the person that you’re sending to is usually not the person who is gifting to you (except in a few rare scenarios) so it’s all a big surprise in the end. When you sign up, you can either choose to ensure that you’re shipping domestically or say that you’re open to ship internationally. Despite the fact that the EMULSIVE Secret Santa is pretty much talked about on every film photography podcast that I listen to, 2018 was the first year that I decided to actually participate.

The thing is that I’m not really a “holiday” type of person. I don’t find any particular joy in the whole tradition of gift exchange and I pretty much want to claw my ears out whenever I start to hear Christmas music all day everywhere I go. I’ve never participated in a Secret Santa simply because I’m a grumpy grinch. I’ve always been of the opinion that we’re all better off just keeping our own money in our pockets and buying the things that we actually want rather than getting sweaters or socks that we’ll never wear and pretending to be happy about it. I guess I’m just not really sentimental in that regard. This year was a bit different, though. I’ve been making an active effort to try to open myself up and be a more social person in general. I figured that the EMULSIVE Secret Santa would be a good way to connect (even if just in a limited fashion) with another person. So I went on to Elfster, which was the site that the event was using to organize, registered as a participant, and waited to be paired.

It took a while, but I finally got my pairing and it happened to be someone in Georgia. Now while the minimum gift value is $20 and all registrants get to create a wish list, we are encouraged to find out a little bit about the person receiving the gift via an anonymous Q&A mechanism built into the Elfster platform. While some people simply ignore this and send whatever rolls of film or camera that they have pre-determined regardless of which recipient they get paired with, EM emphasizes that the idea is to strengthen the community and encourages us to tailor our gifts by using these Q&A exchanges. Figuring that since I’ve gone out of my way to participate, I decide to flow with the spirit of the event and proceed to send a bunch of anonymous questions to my recipient. Then I hear nothing back.

Now I’m left with a choice. Do I just send whatever since my recipient is not responding, or do I wait it out a bit longer to see if he eventually responds? The days keep passing and the Christmas Day deadline looms ever nearer as I keep logging into Elfster to see if there has been any update. I’m seeing all of these notifications in the activity board where people are thanking their Santas for their gifts—some of them cheat by opening the gift early—and there I am feeling like a dipshit for not having sent my gift out yet. Finally, just as I’m about to break, I get a response from my recipient who says that he simply hadn’t been checking his Elfster account. We have a brief back and forth and I get an idea for some film stocks that I think he’d like. I put the order into B&H and I end up shipping it via UPS 3-Day to ensure that it arrives on time since it was all so last minute. Thankfully, I get confirmation through Elfster that my gift was received and I breathe a sigh of relief. Then it hits me. Nobody ever sent me any questions to answer.

So I know I’ve done my part, but now I’m wondering what going on with the other end of this exchange as it pertains to me. Is my Santa one of the people who just have something that they already have in mind to send? Is something on the way? It doesn’t seem like it since Elfster does have a button to press once you send your package to let your recipient to know that something has been shipped (and a separate button for the recipient to press to confirm receipt). I check and there’s nothing to indicate that anything has been shipped and my Santa has been completely silent. My next thought immediately goes to, “Is my Santa one of those dead beats that I hear about who just enters to receive something and never sends anything out on their end?” A system like this is ripe for abuse, after all. It would seem a pretty dick move, but as Christmas gets closer and closer, it looks increasingly common.

Finally I check my Elfster account one day and there’s a message for me.

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OK. I can understand that shit happens and I know how stressful finals can be. What’s more important? Personal circumstances or a gift exchange? Of course I tell him to take care of whatever he needs to take care of. Clearly, I’m going to be getting SOMETHING even if it’s not on time. All he has to do is drop it in the mail at some point. Right?

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RADIO SILENCE…

This is a screenshot that I took today as I write this post on January 19, 2019. It’s been nearly a month since Christmas. There’s been no further communication, no confirmation of a package sent, and no package received. Because of this, I’m going to go ahead and put my grumpy hat back on. You see, even if it was part of an exchange, this would have literally been the only gift that I received this past Christmas. I know that I am not the only person to experience this as it is a known problem and it seems like EM and his assistants are working in the background on their contingency for these scenarios, but frankly speaking, they shouldn’t have to have a contingency because people should be decent enough to either abide by their word or withdraw if circumstances prevent them from fulfilling their end of the agreement.

Some people have posted about how their joy has simply been knowing that the person that they gifted to enjoyed their present and I certainly feel the joy that my own gift was well received by the person to whom I was assigned. I suppose I feel rather ambivalent in that I also feel betrayed and angry at myself for allowing to feel this way because I allowed myself to have enough faith in a stranger whom I knew nothing about to get my hopes up. I think I would have almost preferred complete radio silence altogether than that single message that made hope briefly blip on my otherwise jaded and cynical radar.

Whatever the final resolution to this will be, I have already decided that I am not going to participate in this event again. I commend EM for doing his utmost to rally the film photography community around this event and doing his best to organize it—even going so far as to have contingency plans in place for situations like mine. That having been said, my experience will be that in an event that was specifically designed to strengthen the bonds in this community, someone entered to take advantage of it and I simply don’t want to lose what little faith in people that I have left.

Good luck, EM. Thanks for trying.

© 2016 Michael Jin. NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4D with Nikon D810.

On Experimentation and Consistency by Michael Jin

Ilford FP4+, and Ilford HP5+

Kodak HC-110, Adox Rodinal

Photographer’s Formulary TF-5 Fixer

HEICO Permawash

Kodak Photoflo

These are the film stocks that you will constantly see in my refrigerator and the chemicals that sit on my shelf. The reason? They provide affordable, consistent, readily available, and provide excellent results.

This doesn’t mean that I do not enjoy other emulsions or chemicals as I am constantly experimenting with new emulsions, chemistry, and techniques. I do, however, base all of my analog photography work off this foundation and I think that this is important. With analog photography, it’s so easy to get mired in the numerous possibilities. Despite the very much exaggerated “death of film”, there are dozens of options and hundreds of combinations available to you in regard to commercially available film emulsions and chemistry. Start going down the rabbit hole of reading opinions on the internet and you’ll quickly find yourself extremely confused. This confusion is only exacerbated these days with the inevitable hype that surrounds newer film releases such as JCH Streetpan, Street Candy, Ferrania P30, etc. many of which could be considered in the “boutique” category in terms of their availability. The same applies to chemistry with the recent release of Cinestill’s monobath. When these things get released, everyone wants to hop on the hype train and try them and frankly, I think you should. Don’t get too carried away, though.

If all you’re doing is experimenting with this and that, it not only becomes more difficult to focus on your actual photography since you’re spending so much time researching the newest thing that you want to try out, but it’s highly likely that the quality of your work is likely to suffer as well. Aside from the issue of your photographic vision, analog photography is a tactile art that involves the manipulation of physical materials. That manipulation requires an understanding of those materials. Refined control over those materials means a refined understanding of them as well. Understanding here is the result of practice and experience. It’s one thing to read on the internet that a certain film is “high contrast”. It’s another thing entirely to shoot ten rolls of it and reflect on how the settings you used in particular lighting situations translated to that particular emulsion. It’s one thing to read a general line about how agitation schemes will affect the development process, but it’s another to experiment over and over again with the same chemical and film emulsion using different agitation schemes to see the impact. This may sound incredibly obvious, but many people underestimate how important this intimate understanding actually is when it comes to developing consistent results across a body of work.

This is not to say that certain film emulsions naturally lend themselves better to certain purposes or that certain developers are not better or worse for particular results such as softer grain or higher contrast. Every single variable that you have (film emulsion, chemicals, techniques) are tools. Much like tools, however, a tool that you use extremely well that might only be 70% good for a particular purpose will probably get you better results than a tool that you’ve never used before that’s theoretically 99% good for that purpose. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me “What is the best film for ___________?”. My follow-up question is almost always, “What are your go-to films at each speed?” because when you don’t have a specific stock in mind, those films are what you should be turning to.

While I certainly keep the Ilford duo in my fridge at all times, I have other films there, too. These are films that I bring out for particular purposes when I know that I’m going to do something specific. If I need to push a film to 3200, I prefer Tri-X over HP5+. If I want moody street shooting at 400, I think that JCH Streetpan is an awesome film. If I’m taking a portrait in good lighting, I find Fomapan 100 to be a magnificent emulsion. If I want to throw something in my Holga for added “retro” style, then Retropan 320 Soft gives some really nifty extra-lo-fi results. If I really want tons of tonality on a bright day with some classic-looking grain, then Adox CHS II 100 would be my go-to (unfortunately, it’s been sold out for a while now). For a real cinematic look it’s Eastman XX all the way.

It’s actually quite rare at this point that I think that FP4+ or HP5+ are the IDEAL film for any particular task. If you dig through every possible combination of film and chemistry, there’s probably something that will work a bit better for the desired result. They are, however, some of the most versatile emulsions at their particular speeds, producing great results no matter what I’m looking for at that speed. They are emulsions that I know will not let me down and if I have only these two film stocks in my bag, I feel confident to take on just about anything.

When you start out, you will inevitably experiment and I think that the first thing you should try to find is your personal “go-to” film stocks at different speeds. What are the standards around which you want to build your body of work? As you experiment, you will begin to notice certain trends in your preferences. For instance, I realized early on that I simply was not partial to T-grained films. They have excellent tonality, amazing sharpness, and ridiculously fine grain, but to me they just felt too sterile and I felt that if I wanted that type of look, I could just shoot with my digital camera and convert it to black and white. So I moved toward more traditional cubic grain stocks and my desire for a great tones to serve as a versatile base led me to Ilford FP4+ and Ilford HP5+. Tri-X was a bit too high contrast for me at box speed (although it produces some great results), Acros 100 was a dubious proposition given Fuji’s status as a film manufacturer as of late, and companies like Adox and Rollei were not only nearly double the price here in the USA, but they were often out of stock for months at a time and I definitely wanted my “go-to” films to be something readily available that was probably not going to go away anytime soon. You might feel differently about any number of these things and arrive at a different conclusion in regard to your standard film stocks, which match your own personal style and ethos.

On the chemistry end, after having used Ilfosol-3, XTOL, D76, and other developers that either required mixing or fell to oxidation, I just wanted a highly concentrated developer that didn’t oxidize quickly and could be mixes on demand straight out of a bottle. Rodinal and HC-110 were natural choices for me and they behave differently enough at a range of dilutions that they give me a number of options with just two bottles rather than having a bunch of different developers slowly oxidizing. Again, availability, affordability, and reliability. I personally think that commercial chemistry is a bit easier than film stocks if only because there are less of them out there and quite often, there are only a handful that will be readily available in any area. Sure, the internet changes things a bit, but there’s nothing quite like being able to make an emergency run to your local camera shop to pick up chemistry in a pinch. For many, D76 or ID-11 is their standard developer with something like Rodinal or HC-110 taking a more specialized role. It’s all about personal preference.

Once you’ve settled on your standards, these will become the barometer by which you measure everything else. When you experiment to discover new tools, change only one element at a time. If you’re usually developing in Rodinal with Tri-X, use Rodinal with JCH Streetpan or D76 with Tri-X. Jumping from Rodinal+Tri-X to D76+JCH Streetpan won’t really tell you much about Streetpan or D76 individually, even if someone on a forum might have posted a nice image using that combination. Experiment in a deliberate and systematic manner and you will greatly increase your understanding of new tools that you can add to your creative arsenal. I think an important point to add about experimentation is to take your time getting to know the new thing you’re using. Shooting Retropan 80S today and then moving onto trying out Ferrania P30 tomorrow gives you little time or sample size to develop an understanding of the behavior of Retropan 80S in a variety of lighting conditions. So when you decide to pull it out later down the road, you might encounter unexpected results because you’re assuming that it’ll behave a certain way despite the shooting environment being different. Remember that being an analog medium, film stocks are subject to all sorts of different variables from lighting conditions to the ambient temperature. Take your time with each new thing and develop a good feel for it before moving on. When I try a new stock, I will usually buy 10 rolls at a time because it’ll generally take me that long to form a decent opinion about it.

I’d like to encourage everyone getting started in analog photography to find their fundamental tools first and foremost and then begin to explore the wonderful universe of possibilities from that anchor point. If you’ve found your own standard tools, feel free to let me know. I’d love to hear them.

Fuck People, Fuck Their Opinions, and Fuck Their Ideals by Michael Jin

You that saying about opinions being like assholes? It’s true. Everyone has a god damned opinion about everything—myself included. Sometimes, such as in the case of your employer’s opinion of you, these opinions matter. Other times, such as in the case of the opinion of some random passerby you don’t know, they just don’t. Regardless of whether they matter or not, we work so hard to cultivate our self image so that people form positive opinions of us, don’t we? Be it our personal image or business image, managing social perception is a very real thing that we all engage in on some level.

We buy certain clothes, we cut our hair in certain styles, we listen to certain music, we drive certain cars, etc. Businesses conduct focus groups to determine which shade of purple gets the most positive reactions or which programs get aired. The fucked up thing is that it all makes a great deal of sense to manage your image because you never know what kind of situation might arise and there’s no second chance to make a first impression. That random passerby that you flipped off might be the person conducting your job interview later in the day. Some guy you pulled up to and swore at might end up being the waiter at a restaurant that you visit. It’s only natural, then, that we would hedge our bets and try to be the best version of ourselves that we can be at all times—or at very least the most socially acceptable version of ourselves.

I’d like to preface the rest of this by saying that I don’t believe that we ought to be complete assholes to one another. There’s room in this world for civil discourse when it comes to areas of disagreement and whenever practical, I believe that physical conflict is something that should be avoided. That having been said, I do believe that this practice of social image management has led to the repression of something very critical to all of us: our very humanity.

Somewhere along the line, we’ve decided that this ideal social image that we’ve created for ourselves in the process of managing our social images is the way people ought to be rather than understanding that far from our default human nature, it’s merely a facade that we construct as an act of enlightened self-interest. We then denounce those who deviate from this fabricated ideal as crude, rude, crass, unenlightened, or whatever other negative term we can come up with to codify them as lower forms of the human creature. Then we apply social penalties in the form of hiring practices, housing practices, boycotts, etc.

Of course there certainly exists a contingent of people who probably belong in these categories and certainly deserve to be demonized. I’m not going to argue that everyone is somehow good in their own fucked up way. Some people are just horrible human beings and a blight to society. This is not meant to be an apology for murderers, rapists, burglars, or drug dealers (that deserves its own post). This is about people who might swear, make an off-color joke, or hold views that are not popular. It’s about the guy on the football team that likes to sing Taylor Swift songs in the shower or the cheerleader that wants to get a face tattoo. It’s about people being who they are and accepting reality for what it is rather than the idyllic vision of it that we hold in our minds.

You see, we are not these perfectly manicured creatures that we expect ourselves to be. The fact that we so often have to suppress our urges to gain social acceptance means that we are effectively being told that we are not good enough for society as we are. Our anger is not acceptable for society. Our lust is not acceptable for society. Our greed is not acceptable for society. Hell, we have 7 Deadly Sins that are codified that pretty much cover the gamut of our base urges. Whether it’s by parenting, a religious institution, the legal institution, academic institution, or just the confluence of plain old everyday interactions, we are told that the person we desire to be is unacceptable and that we must, instead, desire to be somehow “better” than our real selves. So we create these masks for ourselves and we become chameleons, adjusting out behavior and language to different situations. In the process, we often lose sight of who we are on the inside and, in doing so, lose the ability to empathize with those that choose not to play this game.

How does any of this relate to photography? There are a number of ways, but I suspect that if you think about it, you’ll know them. Photography, like fashion, has its trends that come and go. Photographers, like country club members, have their own manners of interaction. Photography communities, like political parties, so often become echo chambers of people voicing the same ideas, patting each other on the back, and hounding anyone who dares to disagree. As for why I started to think about this issue, I’ll leave you with this.

Recently I began to handle some rudimentary social media posting for a company. A big part of the company identity and branding involves embracing the heritage and spirit of New York City. There wasn’t much going on in terms of prepared content so I decided to put up some photos that I wasn’t really doing anything with to fill any void. I was told that the black and white film photos that I was posting were “too depressing” and that I should remove the hashtag “#thirtyfivefuckingmillimeter” that I had attached to one of the 35mm film photos that I took. Obviously this is a case of paid work so I went ahead and made the requested adjustments, but it really got me thinking….

I am a photographer who captures real moments that exist in front of my eyes. The fact that the vast majority of my photography is some form of street photography means that these are moments that happen in front of not just my eyes, but the eyes of hundreds or thousands of people everyday. I am not a painter, creating imagery on canvas that only exists in my mind. While we can argue to what degree the scenes that I capture depict reality and how they are presented further affect the narrative, if there is a store with its gate down because it went out of business in my photo I think we can all agree that it’s highly likely that it’s a store that’s out of business.

Yes, New York City has many beautiful sights. It has a beautiful skyline, beautiful bridges, beautiful parks, etc. But for every fucking derivative copy-cat photo of the Manhattan Bridge from DUMBO, there are a million photos of graffiti on walls, buildings in disrepair, homeless people on the street, bustling outdoor markets, people waiting for a subway, etc. The real New York City is not the shit that you see in post cards. It’s the fucking Halal stand underneath the 7 Train. It’s the guy walking down a row of cars stopped at a red light asking for spare change. It’s some dumbass kid doing his little hat/pole dance on a moving subway car. It’s people buying fake Prada bags from some shady street vendor with a cardboard sign. It’s a crowded subway platform filled with sweaty people that look miserable after a day of work and just want to get the fuck home. The New York City that most New Yorkers experience is not the well-manicured greenery of Central or Prospect park. It’s not the pinks and purples blanketing the beautiful Manhattan skyline. New York City is people often cramming themselves into dirty century-old apartments, being dwarfed by gigantic gray buildings, being surrounded by blinking lights and tacky advertising, and endless construction sites. For others, it’s living on a residential street not unlike plenty of featureless suburbs with plenty of parking and not an ounce of character to distinguish it as anything close to what comes to mind when people think of the city.

So if my photography in this city is depressing and it’s nothing but a reflection of things that we walk by everyday, maybe the problem isn’t my photography, but the city that I’m photographing. Or maybe, it’s depressing because the reality of our city doesn’t match the glamorous image that most people have of it. To me, New York City is not glamorous and beautiful nor is it dark and depressing. It just is… No, I don’t find East New York to be a particularly pleasant place to walk around, but it’s no less a part of our city than the Upper East Side. The thing is that I’m a lazy person by nature so I just photograph the shit that I see. I can’t be bothered to fabricate something that isn’t there for me. I don’t live in Central Park. I live near Jamaica Avenue. I don’t drive down Madison Avenue. I drive down Queens Boulevard. I don’t visit Prospect Park. My travels take me to Nostrand Avenue. So I’ll take my photos in color, but fuck if I’m going to run around taking pictures of a city that, for me, doesn’t exist.

So fuck people, fuck their opinions, and fuck their ideals… because people are fucking twisted and have lost sense of reality, whether it’s the reality of themselves or the reality of their environment. Be honest with yourself and accept the honesty of others. Maybe when we stop being a species of fake Ken and Barbie dolls, we’ll start being human again.

Apparently a really depressing image. | #thirtyfivefuckingmillimeter  © 2018 Michael Jin. All Rights Reserved.

Apparently a really depressing image. | #thirtyfivefuckingmillimeter

© 2018 Michael Jin. All Rights Reserved.