Making The Remarkable – An Interview with Film Photographer Andrew Contreras

For South Korea-based film shutterbug Andrew Contreras (@andcon), film photography doesn't just serve to capture to moment, but also, in his words, to "document future history" and to elevate a single moment into something remarkable.

We recently had a chance to interview Andrew and talk about the themes in his photos, including the streets of South Korea, Korean weddings and more. He also shared his experience trying out Lomography film stocks, his current writing endeavours, and how film photography became the bridge for him to pursue this new passion.

Credits: andcon

Hi, Andrew! Welcome to the Lomography Online Magazine. First, can you start by introducing yourself and telling us about how you discovered film photography?

First of all, thank you for allowing me to share. I love the Lomography platform. The database of film stocks and lenses has been really helpful to me over the years. My name’s Andrew Contreras and I’m originally from Southern California, U.S.A. I’ve been living in Seoul, South Korea for 10+ years now (time flies).

I got into film in late 2016, while visiting my little brother in San Francisco. His friend had an old Ricoh SLR with five frames left on the roll. We spent an entire day walking around the city looking for something “worthy” of shooting. I didn’t want to waste them! It felt really special and permanent. When I returned home to Korea after that trip, I went into research mode and bought a Nikon FM. Once I discovered how film works, I got hooked on the whole process.

Credits: andcon

What keeps you shooting film now?

I should say that my shooting has drastically decreased the past three years. I went from shooting 50-75 rolls a year from 2017-2020 down to 4-5 a year since. I got married in 2021, so I don’t walk around random neighborhoods by myself as much. Plus the cost of film and development has skyrocketed, so it’s not as sustainable for my budget anymore. I’m more of a special occasion shooter now.

All that to say that I may not be an everyday shooter anymore, but I will always shoot film as long as it’s available. There is nothing like the act of loading a particular film into my camera, anticipating a scene, having my settings dialed, praying I can focus fast enough, and firing a shot. Followed by the anticipation of seeing the result.

That challenge and mystery combo is addicting. There are so many variables and so many opportunities for a film photo to go wrong that when you even get one or two frames that worked like you’d hoped from a roll, it feels like a small miracle. It’s a drawn out rush.

Credits: andcon

In your LomoHome bio, you said you liked making history with your camera. Can you expound on this thought?

I have several photobooks from the early and mid-20th century, and I always think to myself, “thank God someone in 1924 took a photo of this lady on a bus in New York,” for example. It was probably an unremarkable scene in 1924, but in 2024, it is remarkable to me. The only reason I have any idea of what New York City looked like in the 1920s is because someone took a photo of it.

I love seeing “then and now” photo comparisons of places as well. That sense of archiving history excites me. In Seoul, there is constant development going on. Just in the past five years, I have photos of buildings or businesses that no longer exist. Heck, an apartment building I lived in in 2020 is gone and already replaced with a bigger and newer building. I’m glad I have photographic evidence of its existence. I consider those photos time stamps of a specific time and place.

I know it’s a digital environment now, and film photos are no longer necessary to visually archive stuff, but I imagine someone finding my photos in the year 2124, and just being excited to see a slice of daily life in 2018 on film. I’m shooting with those weirdos in mind. Documenting future history and trying to make unremarkable things look remarkable.

Credits: andcon

Talking about gear, which cameras and film stocks do you love using the most and why?

For cameras, I started with my Nikon FM. I love this fully mechanical camera because it forces me to know how to use it and whatever film I’m using that day. I had a Nikon F3 for a while, which is a great camera, but I have a hard time trusting film cameras with electronics, I think.

When I dabbled with medium format, I had a Mamiya RB67 ProSD. I loved it…another fully mechanical camera that does everything well. I took it to the streets in Denmark and across America. It felt so good to shoot, but I ended up selling it with the F3 to help fund my wedding. I wanted to simplify my gear, anyway. Now my Nikon FM is the only camera I own again. I may fail, but it has never failed me. That’s what I like about it.

For film, I like to try different film stocks, so I don’t shoot anything exclusively. One color film that is hard to find but I loved using was Fuji Reala 100. On sunny days, the colors really pop and don’t look too saturated. For black and white, I favor Fuji Acros 100 for its long-exposure performance and inky blacks.

Credits: andcon

You've taken your camera to different places like Finland, Japan, Sweden, US and more. What do you like about traveling with a film camera instead of a digital one?

First of all, I was never interested in photography before I had my film camera. So I never chose film over digital. I was oblivious to photography my whole life. My smartphone camera works great, but I just don’t use it much (mostly just for food pics and documents). Getting a film camera unlocked something new in me. Now, I can say it’s more fun for me to make decisions like, what film to use on a given day, and to walk around considering the light all the time. I like the limitations and I’m a geek about the whole process, so film suits my personality more.

I know it’s possible to shoot digital with all that in mind, but there’s no mystery in it. It’s just a flat copy of what I saw. I’m not interested in exact copies. Film gives an interpretation of what I saw, and I love that. My film camera becomes my visual diary when I’m on the road. I’m more observant with my camera. I remember more details of my travels, too.

Another thing I like, specifically about traveling with a film camera is that it opens me up to people around me. I feel braver in social situations. It’s basically a nice ice breaker to meet new people. Most of those trips were solo trips for me, so it’s always a good conversation starter for a loner-introvert like me. In fact, that’s how I met my wife! Thank you, Nikon!

Credits: andcon

Browsing through your LomoHome, I also saw that you have an album of Korean wedding photography. Can you tell us more about this album? How did you start photographing weddings analogue style? Also, what are some major highlights about Korean weddings that us from other cultures might not know about?

I made that album, because I didn’t plan on shooting any more weddings and wanted them separate from my “normal stuff”. Over time, one wedding turned into four or five. It started because I used to bring my camera everywhere, including to my friends’ weddings. The first time was a traditional Korean wedding (not that common these days). I just took what shots I could get, while trying to stay out of the way of the main photographer.

I really preferred that, because they weren’t looking at my camera, so I could treat it more like street photography, or paparazzi-style. More recently I did a couple of weddings where my friends requested me to shoot, but I was just one of a few photographers (never the main shooter). I like not having the pressure of getting their most critical moments. Any photos I get are just bonus for the couples. Modern Korean weddings are quick and very business-like. The venues are like wedding factories: 30 minute ceremony and then off to the lunch buffet. They don’t take up your whole day like they do in America. My wedding was like that, too. It’s nice in my opinion. In and out.

Credits: andcon

You've also tried out a few Lomography film stocks such as the Lomography Color Negative ISO 800, Berlin Kino B&W and LomoChrome Purple. Can you share with us your experience shooting these film stocks?

Yeah, speaking of weddings, there are a couple wedding photos that are not in my Korean Weddings album shot on Berlin Kino 400 that I really like. I had forgotten that was the film I used. I was surprised how nice they came out in that dark wedding venue. I liked that film overall, but I’d consider having more of it for dramatically-lit scenes like that.

Lomography Color Negative ISO 800 is the most underrated color film available, in my opinion. If I really need to “get the shot” or I want to be ready for any sort of lighting conditions (indoor or outdoor, day or night), I trust Lomo 800 the most. I love the cinematic look it has. Come to think of it, if I could only shoot one color stock for the rest of my life, it would be Lomo 800.

I shot a few rolls of 120 LomoChrome Purple with my Mamiya, and I really liked the results I got with some cityscape and landscape shots. I didn’t like it as much for people photos, but for nature and architecture, I would love to have some around all the time. Making an entire forest turn purple is a really cool party trick!

Credits: andcon

Lastly, do you have any current projects you'd like to share with us?

Film-wise, I just want to print my work in a darkroom. That’s the last part of the film process that I haven’t had a chance to try, so I will always feel like my work is incomplete until I manage to print it. The darkroom print is the finished product to me. Non-film-wise, I will share that I started writing fiction around the same time my shooting began to wane. I feel like shooting film unlocked that desire as well.

Despite shooting hundreds of rolls of film, I’ve never considered myself a photographer. Oddly enough, I’ve always felt like a writer, but until recently, had never written anything. I shot a photo on Portra 800 of a woman in a teal skirt some years ago. That photo got me started on a novel, which is currently over 250 pages long. That was a first.

Shortly after, I got an idea for a second novel I’m like 30 pages into. Perhaps film was the bridge I needed to start writing. I am still figuring out how to finish a novel, but the ideas keep piling up, and I like the path I’m on these days. If anyone reading this is in Seoul and wants to walk around and shoot, message me!

We'd like to thank Andrew for sharing his images and stories with us! To view more of his work, visit his LomoHome.

written by sylvann on 2024-04-24 #culture #people #places #south-korea #andcon #andrew-contreras #korean-weddings

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