Dutch Vice photo editor Raymond van Mil is no stranger to the nightlife. In fact, that's where you can find him most of the time, deep into the fleeting moment but always ready to capture the next big scene. Years of practicing photography have taught him how to shoot almost intuitively. Blaring sounds and dancing lights may surround him but still, he stays connected to the present and to the person he's photographing.
"I just don't like taking pictures from a distance but up close, being a part of what's happening," he admits. True enough, his photographs reflect a straightforwardness and rawness that warrant a second glance. Here, we share a candid conversation with Raymond on his early beginnings as an analogue photographer and his relentless passion for the medium.
Hello Raymond! Welcome to the Lomography magazine. Please introduce yourself to our readers.
I have been alive since 1971 and I did quite some creative things in my life resulting in my work now as a full-time photographer. I shoot the nightlife of mostly Amsterdam, a lot of portraits, press photos, and other events. I work as the photo editor for Dutch VICE, writing and curating articles about other photographers, but also, for instance, taking pictures for their interviews, festivals etc. The last few years have been the best ones of my life finally doing what I didn't know I wanted to do. I work a lot but I don't have to do mornings or office hours and I can spend a lot of time in my darkroom which I build at home developing and printing film. I also love (and play) music, illustration, meditation, food and a million other things. So my biggest fear is dying, I want to become at least 346.
When did you realize that you wanted to become a photographer? Can you remember what your first photographs were like?
I've been shooting all my life but some seven years back I wrote a ridiculous bold and crazy e-mail to Dutch VICE with some random birthday party photos and a shot of myself holding a chicken. I just loved the raw aesthetics of VICE back then and wanted to work with them, it wasn't thought through in any way. I was having my own company as a web designer and programmer and was just shooting for fun on the side. Somehow they gave me a chance and I've been shooting ever since. I was hooked from the go on nightlife photography and build my network from there.
You shoot with different cameras and film formats. What’s the pull of film photography?
After working as a web designer for 15 years I don't like screens that much, I'm saturated with my attention sucked in by pixels. So I want to hold photos in my hand. It started with shooting all different kind of instant film and when I started to print my own analogue prints things started to get serious. Now I'm addicted to spending time in my home lab and there are very few things in the world more satisfactory then holding a fresh print in my hands and seeing how the grain made your picture come to life.
As for shooting with different cameras, I just own one of every camera I need. Nothing more, I'm not a collector. I have Canon EOS 3 which I use the most, it takes the same lenses as my digital camera. I have two Mamiya Universals, one for peel-apart Polaroid and middle format analogue shooting and one which I have modified to hold a Belair Instant Back. And then some Polaroid cameras from which the Image spectra is my favorite and an Instax 500AF camera which was build for only a year and only sold in Japan with autofocus, I prefer that one above my own custom one if I have to use flash.
Your work mainly focuses on portraiture. What draws you into photographing people?
Well not really, my main focus is nightlife. Portraits come second to shooting scenes and moments which are impossible to reproduce. I like it when people lose themselves and something more honest shows up. But your question remains the same, I love to shoot people. I actually don't know how to explain. I just don't get those analogue photographers who are happy with a sharp picture of an inanimate object or just walk outside and take a picture of a tree. I need something more alive. People are just the most interesting creatures, that and cats, dogs and other domesticated animals.
How would you describe your style?
Honest and direct. And I love to add humor, not every picture has to be aesthetic. To complete the story I love to add some odd details. With portraits I don't like it if the person doesn't look at me and connects, I'm not an abstract or concept photographer but more of somebody who was there. I often focus and frame the camera, take it away so I can look at the person in front of me and in the last second bring back the camera and click.
As for nightlife photography or any other type of events its the same on another level, I have to go into it myself. A glass of wine or good whiskey helps. I just don't like taking pictures from a distance but up close, being a part of what's happening.
How do you approach your subjects? Any tips on making them comfortable in front of the camera.
Just be as straightforward as possible. You can't be too elaborate and shy about it, you need to be fast and decisive. For a good portrait, the background is crucial so you sometimes have to move somebody. I think it helps I'm a bit older, especially with artists, and I'm a pretty social guy, I just connect to my subjects, sometimes as if I already know them in some way. Just be comfortable with yourself and people will be comfortable with you.
Aside from taking photographs, you also modify old cameras to take instant films. Can you tell us more about this project? How long have you been doing it?
Well, I was frustrated with shooting instant photos with cameras which have plastic lenses. From shooting peel-apart in my Mamiya Universal I knew the difference was quite huge. That Mamiya is the only middle format camera which covers the whole area of a Polaroid since it's even bigger than a 120 6x9 negative, but that camera was built with Polaroid and every other format in their mind. Hence the 'universal'. So it wasn't a big jump to fantasize about shooting Instax with it. Then I saw that you had this Instax back for the Belair, but the Belair doesn't cover the whole area. But I bought that back and see if I could make it fit. I had to cut and saw away a lot and I have to use the camera upside down because there simply wasn't space at the top of the camera for the picture to come out. I glued the whole thing, added layers and layers of black tape. I also had to adjust the focusing but this was actually a good thing since it can focus a bit closer now. The whole adventure took me a few days. The funny thing is, that I was really wondering if it would work at all while the first pictures were perfect and razor sharp.
Lifting all technical difficulties, what would your dream camera look like?
What a lovely question! It would be a Mamiya Universal inspired camera but it would be half its size, look more like a Fujica GW690 but you could add any middle format lens and shoot Instax wide, all the Polaroid formats and 120 negatives from 6x6 till 6x9. It would have a decent lightmeter build in, throw in some semi-autofocus like a bleep or light when an image is in focus. And ETTL flash. Let's build this, shall we? Can't I talk to your engineers?!?
Do you experience creative block? How do you deal with it?
Not really. I work six to seven days a week as a photographer, most of it for clients so there is just too much going on to be blocked. I have plenty time to think when I'm shooting what I would love to do when I had the time for myself, so when I do have some free time there is a pile of ideas waiting.
Any advice you’d like to give your younger self.
Yeah, I should never have sold that Canon back in 1992 when you ran out of money on my trip to India. Or at least buy a new one when you came back. It took me a long time to figure out that photography was this much fun and also a good way to make a living. The fact that I started out digital when I started shooting seriously all those years back is a good thing since I had all this training and muscle memory how to take a shot so now when I shoot analogue I know if the shot worked or not. A bit the other way around maybe.
Lastly, are you working on new projects right now? What’s next for you?
Just recently, I got a package from Bulgaria with an original USSR Lomo tank to develop Super 8 film. I already shot a few black and white Super 8 films at a festival this summer which I now can finally develop. Of course, Kodak is coming out any moment now with fresh Ektachrome. So shooting and developing analogue motion picture film is starting to become very easy which might open a new area of expression and work for me.
But overall the thing I love about photography is that I don't know what comes next. Projects take about a day or max a few days, so after that already something new is waiting. I don't even want to know what will happen in the near future.