All images by Walter Rothwell. Used with permission.
When we look at street photography, it’s often in squares and proper rectangles that are very common to photography as a format. But how often do you see it in panoramic shapes? Typically, the candid nature of the work doesn’t lend itself well to the slow and precise nature of panoramic images; but Walter Rothwell has managed to combine the two into beautiful works of art.
Photographer Walter Rothwell is one with a very unique photographic vision–literally. You see, his background is in black and white film photography and he’s half blind. Considering the way that he looks at and analyzes scenes, he has learned how to use it to his advantage to capture moments that combine geometry and candid moments.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.
Walter: My first interest in art came through graffiti, that led to me studying design at college, as far as I knew then I was going to be a graphic designer, it was all going well until I decided to study a ‘filler’ subject. I had recently been on holiday and bought a plastic, compact 35mm camera, I had enjoyed using it so I decided to take photography as the filler. The course required us to use an SLR, develop and print our photos, it sounds a bit cheesy but I fell in love with the whole process. The tutor also introduced me the works of Magnum, Don McCullin and others, my interest in graphic design started to diminish, I went on to take an arts foundation course and then onto art college to study for a Higher National Diploma in Photography.
Phoblographer: What got you into street photography and what made you want to create panoramic scenes of every day life?
Walter: I have always enjoyed photographing on the streets, from the time I first started it seemed the natural place to work, I find scenes taken from life far more interesting than constructed photography, probably stemming from my love of documentary photography. My interest in panoramic started much later, around ten years ago, we had returned to London after a couple of years in the country and I was enjoying photographing the city again. I noticed that I was repeatedly seeing scenes that I wanted to capture but without all the top and bottom information a wide angle lens brings, after some thought I concluded that the Hasselblad Xpan panoramic camera was the solution.
Phoblographer: Your roots are in black and white film photography, so creatively speaking, what was your thought process when creating these images? You’re obviously thinking and seeing in black and white, but how did you make yourself see panoramic?
Walter: Seeing in black and white came naturally to me as did panoramic. I got the camera to answer a yen, I had 2 or 3 panoramic images in my memory that I couldn’t shake, I could have captured them on standard 35mm film and a wide angle but it would have meant a massive crop, something I’m not comfortable with plus the quality would fall apart on enlargement. I found it intriguing that I had started to see these images, it was not a format that had ever interested me, I thought panoramic was for landscape and architecture but using it for street photography suddenly made sense. I still question as to whether the fact I am half blind has something to do with it, my eye naturally sweeps left to right and panoramic feels as natural as a classic 35mm frame.
Phoblographer: This type of work needs to be carefully planned and coordinated, so what was that process like for you vs the very rough and quick style that street photography usually lends itself to?
Walter: I shoot it in exactly the same way as normal street photography, even from the hip, the only difference being in the way I see the picture. I tried going out to specifically shoot panoramas when I first got the camera but was pretty disappointed with the results, there is nothing worse than forced street photography. Panoramic is best shot on instinct, the photos I’m happiest with almost present themselves and I have found the only real way of making it work is to always carry the camera with me, regardless of what I am doing or what other cameras I’m using.
Phoblographer: How do folks react to you when you do work like this?
Walter: I can’t recall anyone ever reacting, I’m from the school of street photography that believes the photographers should influence the scene as little as possible, including being noticed.
Phoblographer: You’ve done lots of street photography in places like India, Bangladesh, Cairo, etc. What city do you feel would have been absolutely best for this project and why?
Walter: When shooting abroad I’m often there with a specific purpose or project so the amount of equipment I have to carry is a consideration, the Xpan often doesn’t make it to the final selection. I would love to take it to India and if I ever return there I will definitely do so.
Phoblographer: Talk to us more about the gear and film you used for this. Do you feel it helped you specifically bring your creative vision to life? How so?
Walter: As mentioned, the camera I eventually settled on was the Hasselblad Xpan (it’s really just a rebranded Fuji TX-1 with a crappy paint job), it shoots one photo across two 35mm frames so the quality is more akin to medium format. Compared to many of the alternatives capable of shooting panoramic it is small and discreet, enough so that I always carry it with me in the UK. If the camera was any larger and only taken out on specific occasions, I don’t think this work would be possible. One of the only drawbacks is the slow lenses, the 45mm standard has a maximum aperture of f/4 so I use 400 ASA film pushed one stop, given the large negative it still prints up pretty well. The Xpan was a wonderful moment of madness from a large manufacturer, sadly, it’s hard to see any of them taking that kind of risk again.
Phoblographer: How do you personally feel your work is best experienced? In print in a gallery with sufficient light? Or on a screen? Why?
Walter: In a gallery without question, I print my photos in a darkroom and then scan them, printing is a vital part of the process for me. Due to this I can make a direct comparison between the two and screen presentation is inferior in many ways. Silver based photographic prints are reflective, the blacks are deep and highlights subtle, both of these qualities are lost when the photograph is displayed on a light emitting screen. I think the other problem is time, from my observation people flick through photos on screen at a much faster rate then when looking through a book or visiting an exhibition, the physical image seems to hold the eye in a way the screen can’t. Photography is different to ephemeral TV imagery, the best pictures work on many different levels and take more than a couple of seconds when scrolling to appreciate.
Phoblographer: Would you ever do this type of work again? If you did, what would you do differently than what you’ve done when first starting?
Walter: This work is ongoing and will be for as long as I have a working Xpan, decent ones are becoming harder to find and I’m already onto my second body as it takes a fair bit of abuse from day to day. A few things I have learnt from first starting, most importantly, don’t force it, wait for the pictures but make sure you have the camera with you. I have also found vertical pictures don’t really work for me, while the frame can have a beautiful sweeping quality in horizontal when turned vertical the pictures appear ‘mean’ and jar my eye. I have no idea where my desire to shoot in panoramic came from but I find it one of the most pleasurable parts of my photography, it’s purely personal with no demands or deadlines and I have come to cherish the zen like nature of it.