Photography is a very diverse medium and is honed as a skill by thousands of people around the world. Whether it is mastered as a profession or a hobby, photography is all about light and that will never change. Working in film or in DLSR, no matter how much time you spend fiddling around with settings – it comes down to how long you open the shutter and how much light you let into the camera. A photograph will always be a point in time our minds can never erase – where memories fail us, we have photographs. They usually have no monetary value, but the sentimentality of a photograph is priceless.
Doug Kim is a documentary and commercial photographer and is currently based in Brooklyn, New York. Kim’s subjects are primarily people going about their daily lives, however they are often aware of the camera. Shooting in black and white and using a film camera often brings forward a sense of timelessness to his images. Below we talk to Doug about what it is like travelling and photographing everywhere he goes, meeting so many different people along the way.
Hi there Doug, how are you?
Doing well! Summer has finally hit New York so the streets are suddenly full of sweaty life. You tend to forget how many people live in the city during the winter when everyone is hibernating.
When were you ‘photographically born’?
I had two births as a photographer. When I was a freshman in college, I had my only formal education in photography which was an introductory class. The professor lent me a book “Kertész on Kertész” which was a moderate selection of André Kertész’s work with quotes from himself about the specific images. I was very taken with his imperfect, humanistic images. Yes, he is considered the grandfather of street photography, but there is also a wonderfully flawed, earnest amateur quality to his work. Some of the greats in photography have such perfect compositions that the graphic quality sometimes make them impersonal. In Kertész’s work, there is warmth above all. After that book, I have been unintentionally copying him ever since.
When I was 20 years old, I sold my first and only camera for a good sized bag of pot and did not shoot a single frame for ten years. When I was 30, my boss at the time had given me an incredibly generous gift for my birthday, a Nikon N90 and a 28 – 70mm Nikkor zoom on the eve of a trip I was about to take to Korea and China. Within the first couple of rolls of film, I knew that this was it. Whether I was any good or not, or whether I would be able to make a living at it or not, was not even a question. I was a photographer and this was what I was supposed to do.
I am very fortunate because I know my place in the universe: a strange new street with a camera, a pocket full of film and a full day of light ahead. That is where I belong and that is my home.
Having travelled overseas and been immersed in a variety of cultures, do people react differently to your camera depending on where you are?
Yes, the differences are as wide and varied. In many first world cities, the people are jaded and very conscious of the camera. Los Angeles may be one of the toughest to street shoot because of the over sensitivity to the paparazzi and because the of the city and culture itself, there is no life on the streets. It all takes place indoors and inside of cars. New York is also very jaded but the sheer density and brazen openness of New Yorkers makes it a target rich environment.
Islamic and Arabic culture make it very tough to photograph devout Muslims and women and it is a challenge to take candid portraits. Each city and culture is different and I adapt to each environment. Some places require you to ask permission first which of course, changes what you are shooting. Other places are completely oblivious to the camera.
Cubans were the most open people to having their photos taken. It is a street shooters paradise. There is a reason why everyone goes there to shoot.
Capturing human emotion in a photograph is the result of a number of techniques. What do you like to focus on more (light, tone, composition) and why do you think that helps to emphasise the way a human interacts with their environment?
Capturing human emotion or the illusion of doing so, is the goal for myself in every frame. Can I instill this empty alley with a mood? This model by the window, can I bring anything more complicated to this image besides just a pretty girl looking pretty? That is my challenge every time I pick up the camera. There is no specific technique involved except for the innate sense each photographer has for when to press the shutter release button. That choice of a specific fraction of a second in a moment is the greatest control a photographer has over what he creates.
I do shoot wide, almost always at 35mm. This ensures that I have an environmental portrait of someone. Cropping in close to a subject, only on their face, removes the context of where that person is. I like to see where my subjects are.
All your photographs are in black and white, almost emulating the ’10’s, and ’20’s. Do you think you have an ‘eye’ for what makes a black and white photograph ‘work’ and what doesn’t?
I do not know if I have an ‘eye’ for what makes a black and white photo work as much as I see generally see images in black and white first and foremost. I’m paraphrasing here, but Ted Grant said that shooting in color means that you are capturing the color of wall paint and clothes, shooting in black and white gives you the chance to capture a person’s soul. That’s a bit dramatic but I do agree. Black and white is also a bit of a misnomer in that black and white film is really one color: grey. Black and white is all about light and the tonal range the variances in light give to a scene. When I am at my best, my images are all about light. An artist friend of mine accused me of only photographing people so I can have something for the light to fall on. She is correct.
One of my primary motifs is window light and I will many times actually include the window itself, all blown out, a big empty rectangle of white.
The title of my blog is Chasing Light which is what I do. I photographed the author Alice Walker one time and she thought the term was beautiful and that I should use that for my book title. I created the blog the next day.
Documentary photography must be very enjoyable and also quite rewarding, what do you enjoy most about it?
Documentary photography, as opposed to other photographic disciplines, requires me to be immersed in the world, to take chances, and to above all, explore this world. I can think of no greater charge to my days. For me to achieve any kind of meaningful images when I travel, I must meet people and befriend them and get invited to their homes and meet their friends and families. I am very much interested in how people live and that they value and how their days are filled. Because of the images I am interested in creating, I have the opportunity to meet amazing people around the world and each day offers the chance for adventure.
There can be nothing better.
As you use a Kodak Tri-X which is a Black and White film camera, have you done this on purpose because you like the way it captures photos and don’t want to switch to DSLR?
This is a question that comes up all the time. I own DSLRs and I do shoot with them when the requirements of the images I am going to create makes sense. Very few paid gigs allow me to shoot film for financial and convenience reasons. Digital photography has made such strides in the last few years that it is no longer just trying to replicate film stock. I treat film and digital as two separate disciplines. My fellow photographer friends do not have this harsh bifurcation like I do and they are able to shoot either medium seamlessly. For myself, it is the difference between choosing to create an oil painting or a Photoshop file…
Also, and this is embarrassing, I am an infinitely better film photographer. When I shoot digitally, there is a tendency to shoot coverage of a subject. Fire 15 shots off, you know that somewhere in there, you have a good image. If I shoot the same subject with film, I am very careful with each frame and many times, will only expose one or two frames with a subject.
Do you develop your own photos in a dark room?
I no longer work in the darkroom as I live in New York and I have no space for it and the rental dark rooms here are expensive. Additionally, my dark room printing skills were never that great. I use two film labs in Los Angeles, Photo Impact Online and A&I. Both offer great service and affordable prices. You can also have your film developed and at the same time, have the negatives scanned. It’s perfect because you get the best of both worlds, the beauty and longevity of film and the ease and convenience of digital.
The printer I have always used all these years is in Los Angeles as well, Noureddine El-Wariri. His touch and taste is unmatched. I have never once given him notes on a print. Everything he has created for me has always been exactly what I imagined the print was going to be. His process is amazing and so streamlined since he prints for many big name clients. He will invite me over on the days that he develops his prints in batches, the paper having been exposed during the week. To sit in the dark and to watch image after image, my own and others, appear out of the blankness of the tray is to watch a magician at work.
When I travel, I am shooting blind, collecting roll after exposed roll over days or weeks with no idea how I am doing. When I am finally presented with the proof sheets, it is always a moment of excitement and nervousness. Some images appear as exactly as you intended, other cherished moments do not turn out well, and then there are the surprises, those frames that just leap off the contact sheet. It is a routine that I never tire of and that never ceases to surprise me.
What photograph means the most to you and what’s the story behind it?
That is a tough question and something that is always changing. If I had to choose, there are two:
Tahrir Square March 2011:
When Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February of 2011, I was a couple of weeks away from a trip to Spain. I decided to change my trip at the last second and flew to Cairo instead ten days later. It was incredible to be there during the tail end of the revolution in Egypt where there were no foreigners in the country at all, to be a witness to history and to spend each day in a country that was in celebrating it’s new empowerment and at the same time, trying to figure itself out and its future.
This image is a complete statement of where I have been in my photography career the last few years. It is complicated and involved, but I am no longer shooting for financial and promotional advancement. I am only shooting now for myself. I never shared these images except for my website and blog even though I could have easily raised my profile, been published widely, shown in galleries.
Instead, I kept them for myself because the whole purpose of my travels and my days is the image. Removing income, marketing and promotion and the need for validation from the process, all I am left with is the pure need to create the best image possible.
I am already moving on from this phase but for the past few years, it has been a glorious and self-indulgent place to inhabit.
This image of my good friend Lindsey is the product of me photographing her off and on for five years. She is striking and has such a unique style and look but my images of her were never satisfying. Candids, posed shoots, different formats, color and black and white film, digital. Nothing was doing it for me. Granted, there were many passable photos and some good ones, but none of them sang out to me. So I kept shooting.
This particular shot was on a Holga using one of my last rolls of Agfa APX 400 120 film. When I saw it, I knew that it was it. It captures her beauty, her uniqueness and the image is so filled with mood that people always ask me who she is and what she was thinking. Five years. I think I have taken only a dozen photos of her since and they were just primarily happy snaps.
If you could summarise your collection of work in under a sentence, what would it say?