James Attree On Film Architecture Photography

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All images by James Attree. Used with permission. This post is being done in collaboration with the sub-Reddit R/Analog.

“Indeed a few months ago I sold a PhaseOne medium format digital back to fund the purchase of a top end Nikon film scanner.” says photographer James Attree to us in his pitch email. James is a London based architectural photographer and has been since 1987. In fact, he studied Architecture at South Bank University.

There is something else that’s also very dear to James–and that’s analog photography. He created his first dark room in his parent’s attic in 1971. The skills he learned here would go onto his teaching Photoshop in 1993.

While James’s commercial work is done digitally, his personal work is done with film. And wow, will it drop your jaw.

Phoblographer: What got you into analog photography?

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James: As an architectural photographer I started to acquire more and more esoteric equipment: tilt-shift lenses etc. Eventually I bought a 15 year old Hasselblad Arcbody which uses large format lenses to give technical movements onto a medium format film back.

I shot this with film for a while before modifying it to take a Phase One medium format digital back.
Life was fine and dandy but even the Arcbody was starting to feel restrictive in terms of its movements and I started to look at Large Format cameras. I bought a Sinar Norma and was hooked!

Sure the Canon DSLR delivers most of my commissioned work but when shooting for myself I always pick up the LF camera.

Phoblographer: You seem to focus on landscapes, cityscapes and wide/grand scenes. What attracts you to these?

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James: I’m fascinated with cities and everything that makes them – roads, buildings, telegraph poles, graffiti etc. Most of my adult life has been involved with the built environment – I trained as an architect, practised for a while and then taught architecture.

I grew up in London and have been a despatch rider and underground guard amongst other jobs. I know it well and see its energy and vibrance all around me, it just seems obvious to try and capture that. Rural landscapes are an exercise in keeping fresh for me. Putting myself somewhere I don’t feel comfortable or familiar.

Phoblographer: What gear do you use and why?

James: I use an Arca Swiss Misura 5×4 camera with 72, 110, 150 and 240mm lenses. For my own work, I’m just trying to make the best image I possibly can, I don’t need hundreds or even tens of images if I can make one that I like then Im happy.

I’ve found that by slowing down and investing more thought into fewer shots I end up with more images that I’m happy with.

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Almost every image I take uses the movements of a technical camera, so the time taken to set up the shot is more than made up by the time saved in editing it later. It’s also a pleasure to physically use it, the more you practice the better you get. For day to day snaps I use a 35mm film and recently bought a Mamiya 6 rangefinder which was fantastic as a travel camera and I think will replace the 35mm.

Phoblographer: What do you think makes film so much more special than digital?

James: There are so many pleasures (and pains) to using film. We’ve spent 100 years perfecting the user interface for LF cameras and the modern incarnations make fantastic photographic tools.
LF chromes are beautiful objects in their right and even LF negs have a beauty that’s hard to define.
Scan one well and the resulting image is unsurpassed in any technical measure.

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But it’s the way that film handles dynamic range and colors, it just seems so much more humane and engaging than digital. In the end though, its a purely pragmatic decision – I get the results Im after faster using film rather than using any digital sensor – the Phase One was sold recently to fund a decent scanner!

Now don’t get me started on issues of archiving images…

Phoblographer: Your images seem to have this feeling of high precision and being very exacting. What is your shooting process like?

James: As I said, I work slowly.

Ideally I use Google maps to research a location and then visit with a 35mm film camera and wander around shooting.

I like to shoot at dawn or dusk and the light can change fast at these times of day, so I usually plan out a series of shots in advance of heading out with the LF camera. I like to know where the sun/moon/tide will be and shoot accordingly. Each shot with the Arca takes around 5 minutes to set up and shoot so I need to make the most of the available light. The trick is still to be open to new opportunities or ideas you didn’t expect.

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