Rachael Renee’ Levasseur’s Experimental Work in Film Photography

All images and words by Rachael Renee’ Levasseur. Used with permission.

Rachael Renee’ Levasseur recently applied to get into our analog zine. Out of the over 1,000 entries submitted her photos and story were deemed worthy enough to share here on our website. You see, Rachael has a sort of experimental look to her images.

Take a look.

I started my photography life as a hobbyist. I took photos purely for my own edification, and showed them to very few people. I didn’t really care to; I just wanted to look at them myself and remember that moment. Then one day, a real estate agent asked me if I could shoot his listings. It was a eureka moment for me, because I realized I could make a living photographing houses… and I’ve always loved architecture, especially houses. I spent the next few years learning everything I could about photographing interiors and architecture, and along the way I was asked to photograph a host of other subjects so I learned about those things as well. I’ve done mostly commercial and editorial work – interiors, food and portraits. It’s always fun to get a new project to push me into learning new techniques. Lately, I’ve been getting into photographing horses and their people (I’ve been riding since before I could walk, so it was inevitable.)

I shoot digitally for work, and I shoot on film for fun. My digital cameras include a Canon 6D, Canon 60D, Canon G9 and a variety of digital lenses. I also have a few vintage lenses that I love to use on my digital cameras, including the Asahi 50mm f1.4, which has lovely bokeh, and a couple of vintage Canon lenses. My film cameras include a Canon AE-1, which I adore, a vintage Soviet Zorki 6 rangefinder, and my little half-frame Chaika, both acquired in Russia, a Yashica 635 TLR and this fun little spy camera disguised as a book, both of which my husband got me. I’ve downsized a bit and gotten rid of anything with light leaks. I’m a control freak and can’t stand light leaks. My favorite color films are actually slide films that I have cross processed – Fujichrome Sensia and Kodak Ektachrome. The colors turn out vibrant and surprising. I love bright, vibrant color, and shoot for that. Unfortunately, those films are getting harder and harder to find. For black and white, I prefer Ilford stocks. I love seeing my images on pearl paper. The colors just look amazingly rich.

When I am taking photos, I just want to create a beautiful image that I (and hopefully others) will want to look at again and again, because it is fun to look at. Color, texture, tone and composition come together in a way that it just feels good to look at. The thing I am trying to say with my photography is, “There is beauty surrounding us. Both man and nature are constantly conspiring to create things that are fun to see. Look at this life. There is so much to feast your eyes upon.”

I love shooting on film because it makes me look so carefully and thoughtfully at the world. First I have to find something worthy of using the film on, second I have to think about how it will look on the film. Third I have to find the exact moment to take the photo and use only what I have on me to create it. Plus, I have to get through an entire roll before I can see the images, and it is like Christmas getting the images back. What did I create? I may have a good idea but won’t know for sure until I get the film and prints back.

Why did you get into photography?

I was handed an SLR camera one day, and was shown the basics of how to use it. When I got the film developed I was surprised at the images I had created, and was immediately hooked.

What photographers are your biggest influences?

Ansel Adams, Lily White, Scott Hargis, Jill Greenberg, Leah Nash, and I grew up staring at photos of horses in magazines for hours on end, so Wojtek Kwiatkowski and a host of other equine photographers have indubitably influenced my work in some way. Also, this gal named Angela, who turned me on to cross processing film way back when I was just getting into photography.

How long have you been shooting?

18 years, or so

Why is photography and shooting so important to you?

Shooting is meditative for me, and the act of shooting helped me through long bouts of depression over the years. These days I enjoy the technical aspects of studio lighting as well. I love problem solving. I also love when I go through my images and see what I got, or editing for hours, creating an image from multiple images, and then just looking at what I made; I’m like a kid at Christmas. I love the freedom that exists outside of an office – driving around on sunny summer days, and seeing interesting things that I wouldn’t if I were stuck behind a desk. I get to walk around, move my body, squat, stand on my tiptoes, carry heavy stuff. The physical aspect is a bonus. I call it the photographer’s health plan. The freedom of getting to decide what I am going to shoot and how I am going to spend my time is one of the most important aspects, to me, of being a professional photographer.

Do you feel that you’re more of a creator or a documenter? Why?

I think I am both – I create images that document what I see. The way that I choose to compose, light, my film selection, lens selection, and exactly how I look at someone or something is uniquely my own. I think photographers are inherently both – because no one will create exactly the same image if they are shooting with intention.

What’s typically going through your mind when you create images? Tell us about your processes both mentally and mechanically?

It completely depends on what I am shooting. If I am shooting digitally, say, a room, I am figuring out every technical aspect, looking at the way the light falls through the room naturally, deciding where and how I will light it, looking at all of the tiniest details and figuring out if I will need additional frames to darken or lighten certain areas. I move through the room with my eyes, looking for any detail that needs to be changed or captured, and getting everything that I need.

If photographing a person or animal – whether that be a portrait or live event – I’m taking note, again, of where the light is in relation to the subject, and if possible, moving the subject, or just moving myself. When I shoot live music, there are so many things to watch out for because the stage is inevitably crowded and the light is constantly changing.

If I’m photographing a landscape, cityscape or nature, I’m just trying to notice a good subject and composition. Light plays into it as well, but the light is what it is – and if I don’t like it or want something in particular, I have to come back. I often am looking around me as I go about life, looking at the light and noticing what it is doing, so that if I see something I like, I can come back with my camera at a time when I think the light will be what I want.

Want to walk us through your processing techniques?

Well, processing film is extremely difficult to do yourself if you don’t have access to a darkroom. I don’t anymore, so I send all of my film to Blue Moon in St. Johns, Oregon. Digitally – I edit initially in darkroom, using custom presets I’ve acquired over the years. If I’m shooting an interior, I often will take multiple frames and layer them in Photoshop, then when I get everything looking how I want it, I remove anything that shouldn’t be there, or occasionally add what should. I edit my portraits in Photoshop as well, removing or changing what I am asked to, softening skin, et cetera.

One of my favorite things to do when shooting film is to cross process slide film. Depending on the film, you get different results. I love the super saturated, vibrant and unexpected colors that result from this technique.

What makes you want to shoot film over digital at any given time?

I like that it slows me down. I have to put so much thought into every composition and make sure it looks exactly how I want before clicking that button. I get extremely focused and stop thinking. I am just seeing intently everything that is there. Often, if I want to slow the shutter without blur, I do breathing exercises – I slow my breath gradually, until I am ready to fire away, then I stop breathing… and… click. It works, and it is completely meditative as well.