Sandy Phimester is one of the photographers I really admire. His dedication to the medium of film and his portrait work really resonate with me. That´s why I asked him for a short interview. He runs a small photography business that still allows him time for personal projects. The vast majority of his work is personal. He talks about his creative voice and photography as a creative outlet for himself.
Sandy, I am really happy that you are going to answer some of my questions and I am really looking forward to this conversation. To get things started, why don´t you just tell us a little bit about yourself are and what you are doing?
I’m a photographer from western Canada, born and raised in the northern part of my province and moved to the city with my parents as a child. I was more interested in music growing up, and into my teen years I was playing music in bands and perforating on stage that way. I didn’t get into photography early on, rather quite late in my life compared to some. After touring around Canada in a band or two, I soon realized that my passion truly belonged with photography. One day before the longest tour we did, my dad bought me a small point and shoot style digital camera - to document the trip with. It was shortly after that when I realized I really loved documenting the things around me visually. A few years later photography had totally taken over my creative passion and I started placing music below photography in my list of priorities. After a few years of playing around taking photos of friends at shows, parties and exploring while traveling… I decided to get into portraits as my interests had shifted that way. I soon found myself completely obsessed with taking portraits, but I was finding myself sort of burnt out on the way I was doing things… shooting and shooting and shooting, editing and editing, so many choices, so many things I started to not feel connected to all of a sudden. I was introduced to medium format film photography around this time and all of a sudden I felt like my whole world exploded, THIS is what I wanted. At first I slowly started abandoning digital photography for personal reasons, and then the transition to all film came quickly after and I haven’t looked back since. I don’t have a problem with digital, and have zero interest in any debate, I just felt like film clicked with me so perfectly, I knew it was my path.
I guess my biggest thing is just learning to express myself through my photography. I take a lot of photos just for me, just for my personal well-being. Almost like therapy. And I do take lots of photos as memories and a reminder of where I’m going.
It seems like creative expression has always been an important part of your life. Even though photography came into it by coincident, I find it quite interesting to see this transition from music to a visual medium. What do you think is the biggest strength of photography and why do you like to use it as medium to express your creativity and your thoughts?
Well music was a good starting point, I always felt like I had a hard time expressing myself properly when it came to anger, fear, pain, loss…. all those negative things. Mostly it was an outlet for frustration. Photography includes all those struggles, but also holds a lot of positive emotions too, so it’s like life for me, it holds everything good, and everyone bad. Photography quickly became my main passion as I realized it was the best way possible for me to express myself and vent my emotions into art. I like photography best for this because I feel like it translates my emotions the best, it has the purest translation for me, if that makes sense. I also feel like artists that were meant to do something… have a way to read between the lines, find music, paint, light, words… whatever…. that others couldn’t, that others aren’t capable of. For instance… I used to love drawing and painting, but I was always horrible at it. Photography just worked so well for me on a personal level, and I found myself finding new things and new ways of working with it. It excited me then, and does.. perhaps even more so today. I feel like photography is a language I can truly understand.
Looking at your portrait work, it feels like your work is different from other photographers. I enjoy looking at these photographs a lot. It’s like they are telling a story. They are much more than just beautiful images of beautiful girls. What preparation do you put in those shootings? Do you have a specific story in mind before the shoot or do you spontaneously decide how the final image should look like?
Well in my mind there are two kinds of shoots for me, 1. the kind where an idea pops in my head, maybe something specific or some kind of imagery or song will make me see something in my head and I need to go make it happen. That feels very real, and usually makes me jump into action. 2. a longer process of just trying to express myself, a lot of it is finding a way to use people in my photos as the canvas, so to speak. I’m not a good songwriter, I’m not good at painting or working with words, but photography let’s me explore all kinds of emotions that are more complex than I could ever hope to understand, it let’s me explore them in a healthy way and one that feels like I’m learning something. most of the time I have this urge to shoot something, I get ideas in my head about what I want to say, or feel, and that always means I look to the cameras to somehow turn that into something physical, like a film negative, etc. how to make it appear in front of me. Since it’s always film I feel like the process is made a little longer, but affords me more time to think about it and really dive into what I wanted from it all. The story is almost always the same, I just haven’t finished it yet, so maybe a long time from now I’ll know what’s going on.
Todd Hido once said that he is not analyzing his photographs while shooting. For him making and analyzing are completely different processes. Much of what is happening is subconscious and reveals itself later. This detaches the process of shooting from the stage of evaluating what is in front of you and makes shooting more intuitive. As you are shooting film there is a longer time involved before you see the results. You don´t look at the back of the camera to evaluate. Some might think this is one of the drawbacks of using film. What about you? How is the whole process of shooting film instead of digital influencing your creative process?
Good question, it’s something I’ve been asked many times about the shooting process when using film. For the longest time I was always told that a major benefit of having that LCD screen on the back of the camera was to help build trust with yourself, your subject (portrait) and so on. At first this made sense, I didn’t really think about it. But eventually as I moved away from digital and into all film, I realized that I could build that trust in myself and with the person I was photographing, if I was staying in the moment - the trust would grow as we talked, worked and shot. It just felt more organic, and let me stay in the moment more. After a while of shooting this way, with no way to view the photos, I quickly fell completely in love with that aspect of it. For me the moment really hit when I was sitting in a field, the light was just right, the moment was just right, the girl I was shooting was looking through me in such a way, the wind was gently blowing the tall grass and her hair… I was … INSIDE this moment, I was a part of it, not just an observer with a camera. For that moment everything disappeared and I could snap the photo, I was using a rangefinder at that particular moment and there is no finder blackout since there is no mirror, that moment lasted, not one of us said a word for a few moments, and then it was over. I didn’t even think about what the photo was like, or how our shoot was going. It has become so natural to me. The waiting process is part of it. A shoot goes like this: think about it, what will I do? Where will I do it? With who?, plan the shoot, wait, shoot day comes - prepare, go shoot, shoot some more, pack up, go home, wait a day or so, develop some film, wait a day or so more, scan…. print… review, select, select some more…. think about the shoot, DONE. The whole thing feels natural to me, maybe to others it will not, and I can easily understand that, but for me there is simply no other way. Shooting is like this thing… like it’s part of you, it’s inside of you, it IS you. All the rest is shaping that form, shaping that vision. I try to let the shooting be very much it’s own thing. The beautiful tension and mystery of not seeing is really part of the magic for me.
I would like to talk little bit more about film. Do you think there is a film renaissance going on presently? Many photographers seem to shoot film again. What is it that makes this medium so interesting and why have you chosen this medium for your creative voice?
I think film is nowhere near where it used to be, of course, in terms of the amount of people using it, but I also talk to a lot of young folks who are excited by it. Film sales are UP from where they were a few years ago, it’s never going to go back to where it was, but it’s nice to see that it will be around for a long time to come.
I can’t speak for others, but I know why I decided to get rid of my digital cameras and stick with film - mostly it was the experience of shooting, and the final look I was getting from my film scans. Those two things really made me a believer, and personally I know I could never go back to the digital world and feel happy about it.
When I’m on a shoot, or just a vacation, or anytime I’m using my cameras I feel more part of the moment than an observer. I don’t really enjoy the instant feed-back of digital, I don’t like the distraction of the LCD screen. When I first started out, everyone said “you build trust by showing the clients the back of the camera, the screen” and for a while I tried, and it never felt good. Now I realize that the greatest trust is unspoken in photography, through conversations about the subject, their life, work, play, whatever - and body language we can build trust. Now and then I’ll shoot polaroids throughout the whole shoot, but it’s not really to test anything or “prove” that everything is going well, it’s just another part of the creative process. So that’s a big one, not being able to really see the raw results, but rather being forced to stay in the moment and trust your instincts and work with them.
Another thing I enjoy is the variety of cameras and lenses, the form factor of various styles of camera, the choices in formats (35mm, 645, 6x6, 67, 69, 4x5, Polaroid and so on), so much more variety and choice is really a powerful thing when you want to narrow down what cameras and lenses you love the most.
The process of a shoot, working with your favorite tools (cameras), loving how they feel in your hands, loving the experience… developing film, scanning or printing it, all that stuff contributes in some small ways to how I feel about my shooting.
And finally for me it’s about the look, and the lack of editing. Before I got into film I would shoot my digital camera, take a lot of photos, pick the best ones - and then sit there and debate with myself as how to edit them. I very quickly grew to hate this process, and started resenting it almost. Moving to film I just knew it was the opposite really, at first I didn’t know why or what I was doing, but after a while it became more clear. And the choices I was speaking about, how to edit, and why to edit it that way… disappeared. Now it was “I pick this film and will meter and expose it this way to achieve a look I want, because…” and that was it. I felt free. I still feel free.
Yeah film is more hands on, yeah it’s more work when it comes to developing and scanning, but I love the process and love the results I’m getting far more than anything I have ever done before. I have absolutely nothing bad to say about digital photographers (we’re ALL photographers so it always feels weird to classify the two .. film and digital) or digital photography at all, far from it, but I know that the whole process, experience and world surrounding it… I Just have no interest in. So here I am. I found my voice and I think there is so much room to grow and find new things.
As we are getting closer to the end of this interview I am interested to know what plans you have and maybe you can tell us a little bit about upcoming projects.
My plans for the next year or so is really just to keep exploring the same ideas until I feel I’ve reached some sort of conclusion with them, but who knows, it always feels like these things are slowly changing anyway. Perhaps it’s a lifelong adventure. I do have some plans for some documentary shooting in remote areas of Canada, but that will take a considerable amount of planning, so that’s most likely a good year or two away. I really just want to focus on enjoying photography and growing as much as possible, I don’t like the idea of being satisfied with where I am at all, doesn’t mean I do not enjoy what I do or some of the work I make, but I want to always do and be more.
Sandy, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us and answering our questions in this interview
“I prefer not to work with an agency, not because they aren’t good >(they are very good) but because this allows me my freedom, I will >use agency models often, but because they have picked out girls >with strong features and looks or styles, but since I keep it >personal work… I have my freedom to make what I want. I value >that way more than anything else really.”