At his home in the sleepy county of Suffolk, England, Miff Pleasant has quietly been putting together an impressive body of work. He has achieved something a lot of photographers dream of when first starting out: a recognizable and consistent style. He knows what his vision is and he knows exactly how to achieve it. Naturally we tracked him down to ask him what his secret is.
Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and how you got started with analogue photography?
I go by the name Miff Pleasant. Most people call me that, including my mum! I live in a housing co-operative in Suffolk, England. I work part time as a care worker and the rest of my time I try to fill with everything photography related, whether that’s going out to shoot, developing, scanning or looking at photo books, blogs and documentaries. I am very focused, some may say I have a one-track mind when it comes to photography. I feel obsessed with it. If I spend a day or two doing something non-photography related I’ve got to admit, I get a little stressed.
I started analogue photography in 2018. I had dabbled before that but not much at all. In 2018 I had access to a darkroom so took that opportunity to really sink my teeth into it and develop my knowledge of photography. That had a great impact on my work. It led me to understand what I already knew but to a much deeper degree. What I learned in the darkroom around exposure and dodging and burning is a big part of my workflow now, regardless of medium. I’ve been shooting film since then even though I no longer have access to that darkroom. Now I develop in my bathroom and scan my film. I found the process meaningful particularly during the lockdowns, as it gave me something to do. Shooting was hard but being at home spending an afternoon developing, writing in my journal while the negs dry then scanning and processing was a great way to spend those days of isolation.
You have a very distinct look in your images. How did you develop this style? And how has it evolved over time?
I have always photographed. Even before I knew that photography was even a thing. Once I discovered the work of photographers such as Moriyama, Ansel Adams and Bresson, that’s when I started to think about my photographic practice. I started having a conversation with photography and trying to understand the medium. I started to obsess. This was a real turning point for me, my photographs started to actually mean something to me. Something more than just being pleasing images.
My style has always just tried to keep up with my mind’s vision. Black and white. Emotion. It’s only through practice of processing and editing that I feel I have almost reached the desired look and feel that I crave from my work. To me it’s having a clear vision of what you want that photo to be and feel like before you press the shutter. That’s why you choose the film you do, why you choose the developers and how you develop, right? To match your vision and intent. My style has developed as my vision of the work I want to make has become clearer.
What is it you love about shooting in black and white?
Black and white for me is a tool that matches my intent. I don’t want you to be distracted by the colors, or the mood of the colors. I want to reduce my frame down to what is necessary. Focusing on light and shadows leaves room for imagination, for romanticism. I don’t need to give you all the information possible. Less is more.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about black and white and color and have boiled it down to this: black and white is for feeling and color is for seeing.
What were your early photos like, compared to your current output?
If there’s been one consistency in my photography it would be a focus on personal documentary, whether I knew I was doing it or not. I have memories of running around my childhood home making snapshots of my sister and mum just doing ordinary things around the house, and going out as a teen with a point and shoot or an OM10 that I didn’t know how to use and making snapshot portraits of all my friends that would let me point my camera at them. So in many ways this just hasn’t changed and I love that it hasn’t. One of the differences is that now my friends see them online rather than a few weeks later when I would get some prints for us to look at. I am still photographing friends, acquaintances and family- or really any one who will let me. I used to carry a camera with me every day and I still do.
What cameras and film do you like to shoot with these days?
I recently fell in love with Foma 400. This film is pretty much straight out of my imagination. The first roll I shot was such a buzz to see my mind’s vision be so close to the film’s look and feel. It’s soft. It’s grainy. It’s got heaps of character due to the halation you get with it. It looks like HP5 pushed two stops but it’s ISO 400. Incredible stuff, if that’s what you like from your film. Oh and the fact that it's got the characteristics of a pushed film at ISO 400 means I can develop it for six minutes rather than close to a half hour! I love that.
I mainly shoot Foma 400 through my Leica M4-2, that coupled with the 7 Artisans 35 mm f2 sonar design lens gives me some really pleasing results that almost perfectly match my vision.
I also shoot a fair bit with my Olympus AF10 Mini point and shoot. In there I’ve been using HP5 with gaffa taped dx core to make the camera read the ISO at 200. Then I develop it at box speed. This gives me the best results I’ve ever had out of a point and shoot. I am basically over exposing the film by one stop to keep the shadow details as the point and shoot tends to prefer to under expose. I discovered this by shooting Foma 400 in it, then realised it has no dx code. I had no idea what the camera would read the ISO as so I developed it as I normally would and got great results.
I really enjoy my Yashica mat-124G with HP5 pushed to 3200, in fact I’ve only ever shot my Yashica that way apart from trying a roll of Foma 400 once in 120. That camera really feels like cheating, it renders light and space so perfectly. My only issue with it is the lack of close focus, but no camera is perfect.
And lastly my Instax Mini 11 that feels like a toy to shoot with but genuinely gives me results that I just love. I used to be more of a ‘one camera-one lens’ person but nowadays I really enjoy the choice of look that matches my mood on that day.
Do you think you’re still changing and evolving as an artist?
Absolutely and I hope this will always be the case. I have no interest in stagnating in one pigeon hole.
I used to not have much time for conceptual work, but now I think its fascinating. Take Robert Adams as an example- I used to think that his work was so incredibly boring, really flat photos of trees and landscapes, the opposite of what I was doing at the time (that being documenting punk shows and the scene around them). Nowadays, having read a fair few of his books and interviews, I have to say that I love his work. I enjoy the challenge now of looking at simple photos and finding the artist’s intent behind them. This idea has been making its way into my work over the past few years. The funny thing is that I don’t actually share this work. Not yet at least. I want to make it in a printed medium to encourage the viewer to take the time to think with me. I am not so interested in flashy, in-your-face energetic photos as I used to be, I need a little more depth in my work and the work I consume nowadays. Photographing punks like I did was easy because punks are mad, they are usually outgoing and ready to perform for any camera and all I had to do was be there and get my settings right.
What advice would you give to any newbies who are trying to find their own unique style?
Have a vision and intent. Know what you want, then practice that until it doesn’t feel like practice any more. There’s a fine line between practicing and doing. It’s a good feeling when you recognise the two. But most importantly, just make work. Photograph everything that spikes your imagination or interest, put out work everywhere: make zines, have exhibitions even if you’re not ready to do so, you will learn more about what you do want to do and what you definitely don’t want to do. Lastly I would say make sure you are actually engaging with the world of photography. Talk to other photographers, go to meetups, go to other peoples’ exhibitions and look at your own work as much as you look at the images of other photographers you admire. This will help you have a deeper understanding of your work and where it actually fits into the conversation of photography. I know all of this sounds serious but don’t forget to just have fun, play around and see what sticks.
In your opinion, what makes a good photograph?
A meaning. A hidden emotion. Romantic. Challenging. Strong aesthetic.
Take Araki for example. I find his work extremely challenging when it comes to his snapshots, color work and of course his obsession with sexualisation. However I think he is a genius. It’s that discomfort that actually makes me think. It makes me actually feel something when I look at his work. The photos of his wife Yoko are possibly the most tender, beautifully real photographs I have ever experienced. They have it all.
We'd like to thank Miff for sharing his story with us. Follow his Instagram to see more of his work.