Collaborator Interview: Photographer Adam Lee on analogue Processing in the Digital Age

Preface: The Symmetry Scarf was produced by Laboratory London in collaboration with photographer, Adam Lee. The scarf print was shot on film and processed in a dark room. Natasha Hussein speaks to Adam about his love of photography, the joy of dark room processing in the Digital Age and how stepping outside of a creative style we are accustomed to can lead to unexpected yet interesting results. 

NH: How did you discover your love of photography? 

AL: Well, first and foremost, I am a musician. In my early days of setting up a social media presence, I was in need of a new profile photograph. Having been to professional photographers in the past, and with an insatiable penchant for self-sufficiency, I decided to research cameras. I was a student at university, and saw one of my friends with a basic Canon DSLR, and thought it was the coolest thing in the world. For many months I was set on the idea of getting one very similar to it - a £3-400 affair with a kit lens - but, at the time, could not afford it, and so continued researching. HD video was a new thing, and this was at the dawn of Canon’s revolutionary incorporation of a scanning full frame sensor into cameras such as the 5D. My sights were no longer set on a beginner’s camera. I would spend ages reading reviews, user experiences, analysing photographs, and settled on the target of a semi-professional Canon 7D - their flagship APS-C camera, to this day. One graduation gift later, I was landed with my dream 7D and 17-40mm L lens. 6 months into my obsessive shooting with this camera, I had heard of the release of a new camera that everyone was obsessed with: the Leica M9. A digital, full-frame rangefinder, this thing looked so slick. It was small, silent, discreet, stripped back to the minimal essentials and aesthetically beautiful. I wanted one! Until I learned of the price.

"The first film I ran through it, was the first film I developed myself, too. I was determined to - once again - be entirely self-sufficient, and process and digitise the images within my bedroom, without relying at all on a photo lab."

Further research brought me to realise that the Leica M was a legendary camera design pioneered in the 1950s. This rangefinder design was, in fact, older still. These cameras had no flashy features - the bare essentials. So, I further researched camera design history, and ended up learning that you could in fact get a non-Leica film rangefinder for next to no money. I spent £21 and bought myself a Minolta Hi-Matic 7S on eBay. The first film I ran through it, was the first film I developed myself, too. I was determined to - once again - be entirely self-sufficient, and process and digitise the images within my bedroom, without relying at all on a photo lab. I spent £2000 on a Canon digital that I used for six months. The rest of my photographic journey was to be completed on film and - until very recently - on cameras that cost under £100. Now, I finally have a Leica film body made in 1957, a matching lens made in ‘58, and this has been the only setup I have used since.

NH: Tell us more about the Monochrome Symmetry photograph. What is it? How did it come to be? 

AL: Honestly - I was bored that day, walking down a commercial street in London, and I encountered a shop that sold household lights and fixtures. This odd, abstract chandelier was displayed in the window, and I thought it might make an interesting photograph. Shot on an old Konica Auto S2, and Ektar 100, I processed it in black and white digitally. This was in my early film days - before my staunch dedication to monochrome film and processing began in earnest. The photograph - I thought - wouldn’t be anything of note. But once the film had been dried in my shower, I saw an interesting negative hanging in front of me, and sure enough, it was an interesting photograph once scanned into the computer. The irony of all this - the photograph in this project is the furthest removed from my typical style of photography. I photograph people, not still life - but perhaps that’s what made it interesting...

NH: Who and what inspires you?

AL: My inspiration is the urban cityscape, the characters it draws, and capturing the apparently mundane in a fraction of a second, and finding the artistic expression within it. That and the process. Analogue photography - every step from taking the photograph with the camera, through to developing and handling the film and prints - is a cathartic experience that is, in and of itself, an inspiration. It is addictive. Like an artist paints with his brush, a photographer paints with light, medium and chemicals. Getting it right is a lifelong learning experience, and the challenges it presents - when rewarded with a good image or two - make you want to get back out there, take another photograph, and process another film. In fact, the combination of variables is probably so great, that there is no ‘right’ way to do it - simply different. The process is as big a part of the artistic result as taking the photograph is.

In terms of photographers that inspire me, I would have to give the clichéd answers that every street photographer probably gives: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt and more recently Trent Parke.

NH: How do the other areas of your interests, such as the Science and music, affect your work as a photographer?

AL: They drive me to photograph. I get bored very easily, and work best when I have multiple interests and projects on the go at the same time. When I get bored of music, I will pick up a camera etc.

NH: What surprises you about your art form?

AL: Getting the image. With film, you do not see the photograph until the process. Every experience is a surprise.

NH: Where has your art form come from?

AL: Trial and error - repeated experiences in the field. 

NH: What’s next for you in photography?

AL: Photographing more, and more. The 35mm format enchants me. It is a challenge from a technical perspective, to draw a large, high resolution image from such a small negative. Optics, film and process - together with photographic discipline - all come into play. For me, I want to push the limits of my format as far as I can, and develop extra large, high resolution and acutance prints. Playing with print sizes 20x24” and up is next on my agenda.

NH: What is your greatest challenge as an artist?

AL: Feeling continually inspired. There are days where you go out, and you cannot get so much as a single photograph. Inspiration comes as an unpredictable wave whose constant I have yet to discover. Other days, you go out, and you’ll get many of your finest images on a single roll of film. You literally feel ‘on a roll’ some days, and good images flow through your hands. My challenge is discovering and isolating this lucky streak, perfecting it, and being able to understand what it is that makes good images.

"Feeling continually inspired. There are days where you go out, and you cannot get so much as a single photograph. Inspiration comes as an unpredictable wave whose constant I have yet to discover."

NH: Where can we find you hanging out?

AL: Cafés - always. If not, walking down a semi-busy street - finding areas where the modernity of bustling city life juxtaposes the elegance of archaic architecture. This combination for me, has often been conducive to good photography.

NH: What about your personal aesthetic? Are you able to describe a bit about your own dress style?

AL: Boringly similar. A t-shirt and plain trousers are always part of the outfit. Often dark and muted colours, too - particularly useful for blending into the background when photographing evasive Londoners.

NH: Where can we find you online?

AL: For photography, Flickr. I am ‘Adam Lee Guitarist’ there. 

Also, Instagram - my current favourite place to melt all my interests together: http://www.instagram.com/AdamLeeGuitarist

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/AdamLeeGuitar

YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/AdamLeeGuitarist

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/AdamLeeGuitarist