Interview: Alec Coiro
Images Courtesy of Todd Weaver
A portrait is by nature a study of an individual, and Todd Weaver’s portraits in his new book 36 are certainly that. But the book is also about the group that he has collected. The group consists of an interconnected collection of artists based in L.A. who Weaver unites. Because of the special photographic technique Weaver uses we are presented with two sides of the individual simultaneously creating what might be best described as an individual duality. The technique is innovative but also based on a camera that is 60 years old, which is why I came to think of the technique as mid-century post modern.
Weaver also created the book furtively, so after a full 2 years of working under the project under a veil of secrecy, we suddenly have this amazing book of photos. It’s the ultimate pushback against instantaneous selfie portraiture that’s always immediately public and always the same.
The book appeals on three levels: the people are fascinating, the photos look beautiful, and formally it’s fantastic. We reached out to Weaver, who we’ve been a fan of for some time, and asked him a few questions. He took the opportunity to weave in deeper textures of information, like the story of how Devendra Banhart and Mel Shimkovitz were part of the organic coming together of the project. We like his answers so much the we present them to you as we received them.
This group of portraits distinguishes itself because the group as a whole seems as important as the individual subjects of the photographs. Can you tell us a little about who these people are, how do they relate to each other?
The people in the book are all artists in my community in Los Angeles. My aim was to make a book of portraits of people that I know and admire and that I have a connection with them, even if it was once at a gathering in a conversation. Most of the people are friends that I’ve known for a long time. And I would guess that they all probably know each other. Some of them I’ve met in the last few years before I photographed them. I shot about 50 people in total. Some people got cut simply because I had a problem with the camera and the film sprockets got shredded and so it wasn’t advancing and I wasn’t aware that it happened. (this is because it’s a half-frame camera, I would shoot 2 people per roll. So 6 people I shot on the second half of the roll got cut this way) And since this project was a secret to the participants until right before we shot, I didn’t want to do any re-shoots because I thought that knowing the idea ahead of time can ruin the spontaneity that I was striving for. It’s like “Here’s what we are going to do, and action!”
I came up with the idea of this project after I had been toying with making a book from all of the images that I had shot over the previous 10 years. I got bored looking at all of these old photos and realized it could wait till a much later retrospective. I wanted to do something entirely new and exciting to myself. I had grown bored with photography so I thought I’d go outside my comfort zone and shoot in a new way. I had never shot any projects in a studio before and I had rarely shot black and white. And I had never played around with limitations in my work. The limitation here being that each portrait session would be done in 3 minutes, shot by me standing in the same place while ticking off the seconds audibly, taking a photograph every 5 seconds.
This black and white film choice and the camera that I used dictated that I should shoot against a white wall. Like the camera that inspired the project, I wanted to do something classic. Something timeless. Now when I say the camera helped dictate it, it wasn’t the camera itself but the way in which it works: you get 2 images on one 35mm negative; they have a black line between the frames. I realized the graphic potential of this and really went for it by laying out all 36 images of each person in a grid. The black lines created this long and uneven vertical lines in the 6 rows of 6 images. Stepping away from each grid and viewing the images they become a graphic abstract form. The people look like musical notes or letters in the grid. Initially I took this idea to Devendra Banhart, whom I met nearly a decade ago through our mutual friends. We had been talking about doing a shoot together and after I bought the Olympus Pen FT and thought of it’s potential, I presented it to Dev. He seemed keen on the idea so we did it. Our mutual friend Mel Shimkovitz was at his house during the shoot and being a fan of hers as a human being and artist, I asked her if she’d like to be photographed too. I described to her the idea and she stopped me mid-idea and said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get it. You’re doing this whole John Cage kind of thing.” Which I loved. This description was very insightful. To see these moments all together is really the magic of this project. To see 36 images of one person, on one page, I found to be very revealing.
I love any kind of in-camera editing, which is I think is akin to what you’ve done in this book. What’s it like creating these layouts in-camera in an era dominated by “in-computer” image manipulation?
This “in-camera” editing is part of the magic of film. This half-frame is an automatic diptych which I’m a fan. I’m a fan of cinema and the mis-en-scene of two unlike images thrown together to create a larger idea. Also with film, part of the magic is the unexpected results: light leaks, double exposures, lab chemistry fails that created a spotty patina on the one person wearing faded denim and a cowboy hat. (what are the chances?) Also, unlike a digital camera where you can change the ASA(sensitivity to light), the limitation of the one film speed(sensitivity) creates beauty when the light becomes dim and I need to shoot at a slower shutter speed; thus creating motion blur and shallow depth of field.
I like the notion that when shooting with film, this limitation gives rise to unexpected beauty. I feel like digital is so predictable in it’s results that it becomes boring. It’s great for commercial work because you can control the outcome so much. You can look at the screen on the back of the camera and know with a good amount of certainty that you got your shot.
Since this project was a secret to the participants until right before we shot, I didn't want to do any re-shoots because I thought that knowing the idea ahead of time can ruin the spontaneity that I was striving for. It's like "Here's what we are going to do, and action!
The camera you used to create this book was made in the ’60s. Do you know what it was used for at the time? Does it have a history or notable photographers associated with it? How did you become aware of it?
I discovered the Olympus Pen FT camera a few years ago through my friend and photographer Joe Pugliese. He posted an image of the camera on instagram and I fell in love with the little beauty. I went straight to ebay and bought my first PenFT. Then I sent Joe a message about the camera and he told me about a book made in the 60’s shot entirely on the Olympus Pen by Sergio Larrain. I immediately bought the book and and fell in love with the images. Olympus made some of the finest optics I have ever seen. The lenses look like they are as sharp as any Leica lens. Which they were wise to do since you are only shooting on a half a 35mm frame, they’d have to design a lens to be twice as sharp. I don’t know this for a fact but it’s a good guess. The only thing I found out about this camera as far as it’s uses go, was that it was used by dentists to photograph teeth. Oh, and I saw some advertisements extolling the virtues of a camera that can shoot twice as many photos on a roll of film. Oh the Savings you will have shooting on the Olympus Pen FT half-frame camera!! 🙂
Some of the photos you’ve shared with us are singles and some are doubles. Are there both types presented in the book as well? If so, how did you decide which should be a single and which should be a double?
This was determined by editing choices. If there were two great images of someone in the same frame then I would use them in the book. But only if they worked in the flow of the book. Along with the allure of the graphic nature of the black lines in the grids, I wanted the book to have a musicality to it. I think it has a kind of a jazzy rhythm and flow to it. The goal was to make something that would be animated in a visual flow if I flipped through it quickly like a flip book. I also wanted to emphasis the architecture of the format throughout the book. I did this by leaving the black lines in a double page spread. It’s like a shout out to the half-frame.
The book is available to pre-order through Weaver’s website: https://www.toddweaver.com/shop/36