Photography and music is something that goes hand in hand. It is a mix too common that people nowadays are able to juggle both fields at the same time. But sometimes, occurences are various and situations are mundane. Like for this LomoAmigo from Texas who does both not only extensively but also excellently.
It was another usual morning of coffee and your daily dose of online news. But to our eyes’ quick reflexes, we were able to spot awesome monochromatic Sprocket Rocket Lomographs featured in online music magazine, NPR. Of course we had to read and find out about this Lomographer who to our surprise is also a musician slowly gaining his band’s buzz in the USA.
And so we met Tamir Kalifa, a young photojournalist who is also a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist for orchestral band Mother Falcon. A quick look at his portfolio and we knew that this photographer, who has a great passion for film photography is someone to interview and look out for!
Guess it’s time to skip lengthy introductions and dive in our interview with this young lad. Read on Tamir’s interview and take a peek at his equally interesting and amazing film photography work!
Name: Tamir Ben Kalifa
Location: Austin, Texas
Find him here: www.tamirkalifa.com
Current camera shelf (film cameras you own): Sprocket Rocket, Holga 120, Lomography Fisheye, Kiev Rangefinder with 50mm f2.0, Olympus XA-2, Canon Elan 7, Canon AE-1, Yashica Mat 120, Speed Graphic 4×5, Brownie Girl Scout Camera,
Hi Tamir! Thank you again for doing this interview with us. For starters, can you please tell us something about yourself? What do you do for a living? What are your interests?
I’m a 23-year-old photojournalist by day and a musican by night, though the two often blend into one another. I grew up in a Maryland suburb just outside of Washington D.C. and am the son of a CNN cameraman turned video engineer from Baltimore and an Israeli interior designer.
After high school, I spent a year in Prague, Czech Republic, studying cinematography and recently graduated from the University of Texas at Austin where I studied journalism and the Middle East. As a photographer, I’ve covered everything from politics to wildfires in Texas, African refugees and the 2011 social justice movement in Israel, and President Obama’s inaugurations. I was The Boston Globe’s photo intern for the summer of 2012 and recently finished interning with The Texas Tribune.
While developing as a photojournalist at UT, I was sharpening my accordion-playing chops and jamming to Balkan and Klezmer music, much to the chagrin of people I lived with. I was busking on campus one day in 2009 and a guy walks up to me carrying a cello. He liked “my sound,” and asked me to join his band. I have been in Mother Falcon ever since.
I adore photography and music. Combining both passions, as I often do with Mother Falcon, is truly a gift.
We saw your documentation of the SXSW 2013 on your website and were blown away! How was the SXSW 2013? How was your documentation of it?
I’ve attended South by Southwest for the past five years and have performed in four of them. Last year, Mother Falcon played 11 shows in six days and this past year, we did 8 shows in six days. It passed like a bolt of lightning in a lucid dream. I produced a photographic diary of the experience to show what it felt like to be a performer in the eye of the storm. I also wanted to make pictures that felt like memories of the overwhelming, exhilarating, somewhat hazy festival that is full of good people and great music. Concerts are a beautiful thing because you have hundreds of sweaty, smelly people cramming next to each other and peacefully enjoying music.
I avoided documenting SXSW in the past because I wanted to be immersed in the moment and sometimes feel a camera prevents me from that. I left my digital camera at home because it’s heavy, expensive, and would capture what the festival looked like. I wanted to document what the festival felt like.
With an Olympus XA2 rangefinder, a Canon film camera and the Sprocket Rocket, I shot everything we did. Things got so hectic at one point, I resorted to playing an instrument with my left hand and photographing with my right. I’d get home, develop the film over the kitchen sink until 2am, hang up the negatives to dry in my shower overnight, put them away in the morning, and do it all over again.
On the Sunday after the festival, I photographing the frames against a lightbox with my digital camera. After a sleepless night, the pictures were edited and ready for NPR music the next day.
Turning the Camera on the Crowd at SXSW: Tamir’s documentation of the SXSW, in which he used a Sprocket Rocket camera, was featured in NPR.
The whole experience made me appreciate what my predecesors went through: constantly developing film then printing and pushing pictures out to whoever was publishing them. I told my mentor from UT Austin, Magnum photographer Eli Reed, about it. He responsed, “Oh, that’s great. Now imagine doing that in Beirut in the 80’s while your building is being shelled.”
How was your experience with the Sprocket Rocket? And why did you opt to choose black and white film for this?
The Sprocket Rocket re-ignited my passion for shooting 35mm because it produces pictures my digital [camera] can’t dream of making. The 30mm lens makes the panoramic frame feel cinematic while the sprockets give it a surreal touch.
Much of the SXSW experience took place in darkness so, whenever necessary, I attached a $5 off-brand flash, put it on the highest power and bounced it with an index card. It worked every time. I love using cameras with fixed apertures because it makes you chase the light. When the light isn’t there, you know exactly what you need to do to make it work. Because the lens was in the shutter, I was able to make multiple exposures easily without advancing the film.
For this project, black and white film chose me. Color was too expensive (I shot 24 rolls in six days), I can’t process it myself, and it would take too long to wait for developing. I shoot digital every day for my professional assignments so black and white film provides a welcomed aesthetic relief. It’s a refreshing change and the affordibility allows me to experiment without burning a hole in my pocket. Plus, I love classic photo stories on bands from the 60’s and 70’s and wanted to emulate that vibe.
Tamir shares some Sprocket Photos from SXSW.
For one of our shows, Mother Falcon covered all of Radiohead’s OK Computer at Homeslice Pizza’s annual event, Music by the Slice. This was the only color negative I shot with the Sprocket Rocket. At the end of the set, the string section carries the band through “The Tourist.” Since I didn’t play an instrument during that song, I had a chance to focus on shooting pictures while standing on stage before an engaged audience. I used 400 ISO film and didn’t want to use flash. I switched the shutter setting to bulb and took a picture holding the camera as still as I could.
Mother Falcon practices in my living room before our intense stint of shows. I attached a cheapo flash to illuminate the room since it was cramped and dark. I made a few compositions onto the same frame and with a little bit of luck, I got a multiple exposure that worked.
When I started this project, I had the intention of creating a series that visualized my memories of the festival. For this roll, I used a bright flash to photograph a house party from the perspective of the audience and later that night, from the stage. The next day, I wound the film back to the start and re-shot the entire roll in and around the convention center. The result is a surreal sequence that blurs night and day.
One of my favorite Austin-based artist is Shakey Graves AKA Alejandro Rose Garcia. He’s a one-man-band troubadour with a cowboy attitude. I made this frame from backstage during a pause in his set. In this quite moment, I feel I caught Shakey on the precipous of what I hope will be a tremendous success.
Our second to the last show was at a tiny bar with a stage that had its back toward 6th St. The stage was so small that our string section AND horn section had to stand outside. The violins were standing in the window and the horns were facing the street so that the microphones wouldn’t catch as much of the festival noise. I made two hail mary shots without advancing the film. The shot shows Isaac, our drummer, with one of his signature rediculous expressions and the packed house that came to see us packed like sardines.
How long have you been shooting film? Are you planning to continue with this in the near future?
I will shoot film as long as it still exists.
I started taking pictures as a kid when I would hijack my dad’s camera and burn through his entire roll, leaving him without film to take pictures of our family. I started shooting and developing regularly throughout high school and in the Czech Republic. While in Prague, I even bought a cheapo Russian enlarger so I could print in my bathroom. However, when I plugged it in for the first time and started printing, I shorted the power for my entire apartment building. My burley, 7-foot-tall landlord who barely spoke English was pissed!
My first encounter with Lomography was actually in Prague. Before I even knew such a thing existed, I stumbled into a small camera shop that was chock full of old Russian cameras from floor to ceiling (literally, there were cameras and enlargers on the floor). I bought my first film camera there and would drop by to oggle the beautiful specimens of photographic history whenever I had a spare moment. I later discovered that the founders of Lomography stumbled into a camera shop much like that one and were inspired to revitalize and maintain the beauty of these cameras. On a road trip through Eastern Europe, I stopped by Vienna, Austria for the sole purpose of visiting the Lomography store.
When I started shooting for my college newspaper in 2009, film cameras took the backseat. I occasionally shot medium and large format because I wanted something I couldn’t get from a 35mm frame. Recently, I’ve been shooting more film and caring less about technical, compositional perfection. When I shoot for publications or clients, I’m meticulous and calculated. I feel like I’m being taken for a ride by my camera and it dictates where I go. I like more spontaneous film photography because I’m behind the wheel and my camera is in the passanger seat.
Who or what are your inspirations when it comes to photography?
I’m inspired by anything and everything. I may have a short attention span but that’s partially because I’m curious and because generally, I seemingly find mundane things interesting. I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by creative individuals who are photographers, artists, poets, musicians, designers and overall great thinkers. I think good photography combines all of these disciplines because a good picture should make you think.
I’m lucky to have many friends who are incredible photographers. I’m more inspired by my peers than I am the legends who have layed down the foundations of modern photojouranlism. They are my idols and much of what I learned comes from them. However, they worked in a world of photography that has changed dramatically. Much of contemporary photojournalism is a stuggle against constant visual nonsense. Because we are frequently overwhelmed with images, the impact of any single photo is dimished. This is no reason to lament, it should be a rallying cry. I see it as a challenge. I want to find ways to break through the noise and encourage people to slow down and appreciate an image rather than glance over it. Incidentally, the greatest success I’ve had is by reviving a kind of photography that many deem dead or dying. When people see film, the grain, the majestic latitude, light leaks, and sprockets, their attention is captured. I think people appreciate analogue processes the more they become vestiges of another time.
Ultimately, a good picture is a good picture, regardless of what it’s shot on. As a wise man once said: “The best camera is the one you have with you.”
As for “Mother Falcon,” we read that you are about to release a new record entitled “You Knew.” Can you tell us more about your band? How did it come about and what are the instrument(s) you play?
Mother Falcon emerged from an Austin high school’s orchestra class. The founding members were tired of reading music from a page so they decided to write their own. As their sonic ambitions grew, so did the band. It started with three cellos and in the past five years, we have grown to three violins, a classical guitar, multiple saxophones, trumpet, drums, upright bass, the occiasional banjo. I play accordion and piano.
Three vocalists, myself included, take turns singing our original songs while other members of the band double as back-up singers, often while playing their respective instruments. The band’s regular roster fluctuates but there are usually between 12 and 18 members at any given show. It’s usually more full during SXSW because everyone wants to be together, to have fun, and grab a piece of the action.
What are your future plans? Any upcoming photography projects we should look forward to?
Mother Falcon is spending the entire month of June in New York City. We’ve booked two sets of weekly residencies for the entire month and we’ll tour up and down the coast when ever we can. In July, we are back in Austin running a summer camp for young musicians in Middle and High School. We encourage our students to empower themselves by harnessing their creativity and deviating from the traditional approach to music. In August, we are heading out to LA where we’ll play a few shows in the City of Angels and spend the rest of the time touring up and down the West Coast. Naturally, I’ll be documenting the whole experience.
Any tips you can give to other film photographers out there?
Film photography demands discipline. We can’t spray and pray like we often do with digital cameras because every frame of film costs money. Although I’ve learned to discipline myself when shooting with my Canon 5D Mark II, film forces me to conserve and only hit the shutter when I absolutely intend to.
Black and white photography is far easier and cheaper than it seems. I roll my own 35mm film with bulk 100 foot rolls and develop it in my kitchen. I only use developer and fixer, which are stored under my sink. No stop bath, hypo-clear, or photo flo. I just rinse the hell out of my negatives. There are countless tutorials on how to roll and develop film, it just takes the leap of faith to actually do it.
I don’t have access to a darkroom so I photograph the negatives against a bright lightbox using my 5D Mark II and a old Nikon macro lens with an EOS adapter. I edit in photoshop, publish online and occasionally make prints form the digital file.
Film can seem daunting and unpredictable so learn the basics, just trust your gut and chase the light.
Can you share us your most favourite photograph? Why is this so?
While I was at UT, I had the privilege of studying under legendary Magnum photographer Eli Reed. His vision of the world is irreplicable and his countless stories further galvanized my passion for photojournalism. His heart is as great as his contributions to photography.
His photography, particularly this image of Rwandan refugees at the Benaco Refugee Camp in Ngara, Tanzania, changed the way I understood photojournalism. The photo captures a perfect moment that offers an atypical glimpse into life in a refugee camp. The image reminds me that, like the Heisenberg uncertainly principle, any particle (or situation) is inevitably altered through the attempt to measure it, or in this case, document it with a camera. By capturing the subjects gaze, Eli acknowledges the his presence as a photographer while still capturing an organic moment in the background. This decision creates a more immediate connection with the viewer because we are no longer just observers, but active participators in the moment.
Lastly, can you share a song with us?
I’d like to share a song I wrote with Mother Falcon called ‘Sleep.’ Two years ago, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. This song emerged from the insomnia that kept me up at night, thinking about my father’s and my own mortality. When we first started performing it live, I felt like I was singing directly to him, telling him, hoping everything would be okay. Thankfully, my father has made a full recovery and the cancer is in remission. Now, whenever we perform ‘Sleep,’ I think about how lucky we are that he is still with us.
Thank you, Tamir!