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Sam Cornwell: On History, Photography, and Processed Chicken

UK-based photographer Sam Cornwell gives us a more in-depth look on his short film "Pilgrimage", his shooting style, and why he thinks digital photography is like processed chicken.

Last week, we put the spotlight on Pilgrimage, a short film made by UK-based photographer Sam Cornwell that showed his journey to Lacock Abbey, the past residence of one of the pioneers of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot.

We’ve gotten in touch with Sam recently, and we caught up with his body of work and some behind-the-scenes info about his short film. Here’s a preview of our chat with him.

An exterior shot of the historic lattice windows photobombed by a rather ecstatic Sam Cornwell

Real name and location?

Hello, my real name is Sam Christopher Cornwell and I live on a small island called Hayling Island in the UK. I’m 32, happily married to my photographer wife Beverley, and we have a son named Indigo.

How long have you been into photography, and why choose film?

I’ve considered myself a photographer per-se for nearly a decade. Like most people, I was taking pictures and enjoying the results from a much earlier age. However, it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I discovered the real magic of photography.

Although now I am an advocate of film and chemical-based photography, I learnt how to use a camera properly using digital equipment. At the time, it suited my style of “shoot anything, edit quick, and share everywhere”. I soon grew tired of this practise and wanted to learn more.

What terrifies me is the basic lack of understanding between the dichotomy of film and digital photography. Essentially, I have found that there are two major differences. I’ll use a quote by a well known director to illustrate the first:

“There’s too much digital information out there not to figure out a fool-proof way to store it forever.” – George Lucas, 2012.

The second is a little more abstract, and is a theory I like to refer to as ‘Digital Photography is Like Processed Chicken’. Here’s an excerpt from an essay I wrote on it a few weeks ago:

“It comes down to the different ways the two mediums capture light. Celluloid film contains silver halide crystals that has a physical reaction when exposed to light. A digital sensor operates differently. When photons of light are exposed to the sensor, they are converted to electronic charges which are then converted to data to represent the image. Fundamentally, the light that was captured on a film camera is caught in the celluloid film, trapped in a time capsule, whereas the light bounced off a digital sensor merely creates a file that represents what the light was doing at the time. When you buy chicken at the supermarket, do you go for the processed, separated, reformed chicken, or would you prefer the real thing?”

Fred Ritchin said that “Digital photography is as far removed from traditional photography as the horse and cart is from the automobile”. It suggests that the artform is entirely different, and one should not replace the other without due consideration. What will be lost when film photography no longer exists(?), is a question that few have stopped to think about.

So in answer to your question, I choose film because I wouldn’t buy processed chicken.

How about analogue cameras? Any particular favourites?

My wife currently shoots with a Pentax 67, which is glorious to use!

Together, we own about 200 film cameras in total. Recently, my choice of camera has been a Fujifilm 27exp disposable, of which I bought 137 pieces. I also shoot at least once a week with a Blackbird Fly for a different film project I’ve been working on.

In the last couple of weeks, we bought a new 15″ × 12″ plate camera. It’s so big that it needs two people to carry it anywhere. I’ve already started experimenting with it by printing directly on to 12" vinyl records.
I am a big practitioner of non-lens based photography. Here’s an example of some of the work I do in this area.

Sam and his wet-plate camera, shooting the lattice windows at Lacock Abbey

Describe your photography and/or shooting style.

On Twitter, I describe myself as a Multi-Disciplinary Photographic Artist – including #Wetplate, #Film, #Video, #Aura, #Polaroid, #Abstract, #Glitch, #Digital, #Manipulation, and #Theory. But admittedly, it’s a different question to respond to because I am always changing and always working and always up to something. At any given time I will have several completely different projects on the go. So probably, “ubiquitous”. That describes my photography and shooting style best.

Can you tell us more about your short film Pilgrimage? What is it about? What is the inspiration behind it?

Here is the artist statement I wrote to accompany the film.

Photography for me is like a religion and I have been on a journey since I discovered it. This is the culmination of that journey. I hope that it will inspire other photographers and like-minded people to also make their own pilgrimage to Fox Talbot’s lattice windows.

At Lacock Abbey

Why decide on William Henry Fox Talbot? How long did the production take?

Instead of Niepce or Daguerre, you mean? Well, although Fox Talbot didn’t create the first photograph, he did build the foundations for which modern film photography is based on today. Without his negative transparency and photo paper technique, reproduction of the photograph wouldn’t be possible.

His invention allowed mass reproduction of images, and it is this that truly changed the world. Production was incredibly difficult as I was doing this on my own. I spent about three months in total, organising from start to finish.

Why choose to recreate the image using the wet plate process?

During the film, you hear Lloyd ask the question “Why is it so important for you to use a large format plate camera… Why not any other camera?”

Fox Talbot’s invention was the calotype, which meant you could reproduce photographic images that were created via a negative image. My wet plate collodion practise is of the same era, however, entirely different in the fact that the resulting plates are one-off original articles that cannot be reproduced with the same tenacity. However that being said, the personal discoveries I made whilst learning the technique mimicked those of Fox Talbot, as stated in the film.

What can you say is the most challenging part in this project?

Gaining access to Lacock Abbey for permission to film and shoot wet plate on the grounds was specially difficult. Other than that, the editing was a nightmare. I spent a solid week in front of a computer getting it right, and there’s still bits I could improve.

Do you plan on documenting other journeys to other historical locations related to photography?

I haven’t given this a great deal of thought. However, I may look for funding in the future for a more professional production that explores, as you say, other historical locations that relate to photography.

Any tips and advice to our fellow analogue lovers out there?

Experiment outside of your comfort zone. It took a great leap for me to start using the wet-plate technique and I am glad I did. The time, effort and money spent on learning how to create my own plates has been worth it.

Use flash indoors! Even if you have to use a £3, battery-draining unit that you bought at a car boot sale, your camera will thank you for it.

Learn what a vernacular photograph is and (re)learn how to take one. Once you get into the rut of looking for the perfect photograph, you actually stop taking photographs. Don’t fall into the trap. Imagine you don’t know how to use a camera.

A photograph is still precious, no matter the quality. Whatever medium you are shooting, be it 35mm, large format, instant or chemical, you’re still capturing light.

Create something every day. This goes for anyone. Create something every day for yourself. It can be small and doesn’t have to mean anything. A poem, a photo, a video, a sculpture, a blog post, just keep the momentum going so in the future you have a past to look back at.

written by geegraphy

2 comments

  1. bsdunek

    bsdunek

    Very insightful - good advice and interesting. I do wish you would have included a photo of his photos on vinyl records. I would like to see that and how he does it.

    over 1 year ago · report as spam
  2. yankeemiss

    yankeemiss

    Great article. I made my pilgrimage to Lacock Abbey from Portland, Oregon, in the Fall of 2011. I took photos with my 1976 Hasselblad, standing in the same locations as Fox Talbot. Then I came home and I used his technique to print my photos in the 'salt-paper' method. It was an emotional experience. I wish I lived closer so I could photograph the iconic place with a large format camera.
    I also have tried the wet plate process and love it. I envy your little caravan.

    over 1 year ago · report as spam