Michigan Photographers: Michpics Talks with Matt Callow

Barton Dam

Barton Dam, originally uploaded by Matt Blackcustard.

Today Michigan in Pictures welcomes Matt Callow, a photographer living in Ypsilanti, Michigan. As a reminder, Matt will be back tomorrow and Friday, so please check back!

Michigan in Pictures: Tell us a little bit about yourself, Matt.

Matt Callow: I’m British born and bred, though I’ve lived in Ypsilanti, Michigan for the last couple of years with two cats and my wife Allison, the reason I find myself here in the US in the first place.

In past lives I’ve been a research technician for Kodak, a School busescareers information officer, a bass player in a rather mediocre band, and a customer service manager for a toy company. With the support of my wife and one or two generous patrons I’ve been lucky enough to be able to devote myself to photography full time for a while, and so I’ve had plenty of time and energy to devote to exploring my particular brand of photography.

Over the last couple of years I’ve had a number of individual shows here in Ypsilanti and in nearby Ann Arbor, and I’m currently showing an exhibition of my pinhole work at Bombadill’s Coffee Shop in downtown Ypsilanti. (click for Google Local map)

MP: What got you started as a photographer?

Matt: Well, the answer’s quite mundane. In 2000 I was moving away from Brighton, a city on England’s south coast where I’d lived in for over a decade. I borrowed a friend’s new digital camera to take a few photos of places I was going to miss (mostly pubs, I believe) and was instantly hooked. I bought a digital camera of my own, a cheap and cheerful Fuji point-and-shoot, and started using it to document my life and surroundings, and posting photos in my Livejournal. That little camera did me proud, and I learnt an awful lot about what makes a good photograph, working on making even the most pedestrian of subjects interesting, and trying to squeeze as much quality as I could out of its basic capabilities. Of course before long I outgrew it, moved on up to a far flashier digital camera, and started dabbling with film. I had my first exhibition in early 2003, a series of urban textures taken around my hometown of Wolverhampton. But by then I was already finding digital photography to be increasingly bland and unchallenging, so I started playing with toy cameras, vintage cameras and eventually pinholes, developing my own film and experimenting with alternative printing processes. And here I am now. I still have that old Fuji camera kicking around somewhere though.

MP: What cameras do you use and what is your favorite camera?

Matt: People like to give me cameras. Once they realise that I prefer to use old and unusual cameras, people dig through their basements and attics and see what they’ve got hidden away. I’ve been very lucky, and people have been very generous. I think I currently own about fifty cameras, ranging from a couple of century-old Kodak Autographics, right up to a late model Nikon SLR, and all sorts of things in between. I’ve got cheap plastic toys that came free with magazines, pinhole cameras made out of cookie tins, and a bunch of cool rangefinders and SLRs from the sixties and seventies. I’ve used most of them (I don’t like having them just taking up space on the shelf) and nearly all have them have something to interest or challenge me.

Currently the cameras I use most are the two classic toy cameras (the Holga and the Diana), along with a pinhole camera of some sort (either my paint can pinhole or one made from an old 1930s Voigtlander), and perhaps a vintage SLR of some kind. Most recently I’ve been using a dollar store toy camera given to me as part of the Free Camera group on Flickr.

SwingI’d struggle to choose a favourite camera but I think I can narrow it down to two: my Nikon F and my Diana. The Nikon is perhaps the quintessential SLR camera from the late sixties, beautifully built, and its 50mm/1.4 lens is remarkably sharp and fast even by current standards. It belonged to my father-in-law who bought it new and used it to take pictures of his kids when they were little. He passed it on to me soon after I moved here and married his daughter. So as well as being a beautiful camera it’s got sentimental value too. The Diana is the absolute opposite end of the quality scale. Also made in the sixties, in Hong Kong, it’s to all intents and purposes a piece of plastic rubbish, but I love it. It’s usually the first camera into my bag when I go out shooting.

MP: What is the attraction of toy camera?

Matt: I think there are two main attractions: I like the way the pictures look, and I like the way the cameras force me to work harder as a photographer.

I love the flawed results I get from cheap plastic lenses: the soft focus, the blur, the vignetting, etc. The images they produce are often reminiscent of early photography, and conjure up some of that initial photographic magic for me. Toy camera photographs are soiled, imperfect reproductions of the world, rather than the cleaned up, perfect facsimiles we’re used to receiving via other more sophisticated modern media, and that appeals to me.

And then using a camera that has next to no exposure or focus control, I’m forced to think hard about the things that are in my control: composition and how to use available light. It’s photography at its most basic, with all the bells and whistles stripped away. And I find that refreshing and challenging.

Also, toy cameras are fun! They free you up to experiment and play with the rules, to rely a little on serendipity and the whim of the camera. You never quite know what you’re going to see when you hang the film out to dry.

Barton DamMP: Can you tell us a bit about the photo above?

Matt: That was taken with my Holga using 35mm film. The Holga is really a medium format camera but it’s easy to adapt it to take 35mm film, and that has the neat effect of exposing the film around the sprocket holes but I thought this one looked better cropped down to the regular 35mm ratio. It was taken at Barton Dam on the Huron River just west of Ann Arbor, one of my favourite places to shoot. Throughout the summer there’re always lots of people fishing there. This kid was moving around a lot, so I only got one quickly taken shot, but I struck lucky.

Some Links from Matt…

Matt’s LiveJournal Site

Matt’s Photos on Flickr

Matt Callow – Urban Textures with more pics and information on past & upcoming exhibitions

Matt’s favorite toy camera site

Good starting points for pinhole photography are Pinhole.com and the f295 forums at tompersinger.com.

Also see…

Michigan Photographers: Matt Callow answers Reader Questions (part II)

Michigan Photographers: Pinhole: Huron River by Matt Callow (part III)

10 thoughts on “Michigan Photographers: Michpics Talks with Matt Callow

  1. I have been a photographer for close to 40 years. And I am always very pleased to see photos that are VERY good, like Matt’s are. It inspires me greatly. God gave Matt a special talent, a special eye for it. It is NOT Matt’s equipment – but his ability to be able to “really see”. Capturing it in a photo is just a bunch of technical stuff that takes talent but if “ya ain’t got an eye for it” then all the best latest equipment won’t buy it. Keep up the great work, Matt. And keep the faith. – Bill Latocki


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