Shedding Light on Gordon Lewis
Gordon, thanks for letting us grill you! Let’s get the basics over with: How did you get started in photography?
My father was a graphic arts photolab technician. Although he wasn’t an avid photographer himself, the fact that he would often come home with prints he had made triggered my interest in photography. Other important influences were a teacher I had in middle school, who taught me how to use a 4×5 Speed Graphic press camera. In high school I had a teacher from England named Colin Sprang, who taught me how to develop and print. Once I got confident in the darkroom I was on my way.
Why did you stop being a pro photographer?
I was never a full time pro photographer. I did it more as a side-line. I’ve always earned the majority of my income as a writer. That said, when I moved from Los Angeles to Philadelphia I discovered that I’d have to start from scratch to build up a photography clientele. With a wife and three kids to help support, I put paid photography on the back burner and concentrated on writing.
I have to ask: How old are you exactly…?
As of today, I’m 56 years and 40 days old.
I really like your blog, Gordon, but I have a small problem: When I read it I hear a stern internal voice that sounds a lot like Stanley, from The Office (American edition). Could this be because of your bio photo? Man, I feel like you’re looking at me saying hey Mis, did you forget to put film in the camera again? Are you really that grumpy, or is it all in my mind?
It must be all in your mind, dude. I’m one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, and if anyone tells you different I’ll kick his ass. [Ed. note: Gordon sent me the photo at the beginning of this article as proof, and although I’ve looked for evidence of Photoshop retouching, I cannot find any. I think he is actually smiling!]
You have a very direct writing style on your blog: no frills, no shrills. In contrast, your photography is often very colourful. How do you explain this discrepancy?
My work may be colorful, but at its best it’s also stripped of non-essentials, just like my writing. I also have a substantial amount of work that’s in B&W, so in my opinion there’s not much discrepancy.
Good point! Continuing with your photography style (and related to my previous question): you like shapes and shadows, abstract forms, elements that I would normally associate with B&W photography. While you do shoot B&W, you often take these photos in colour, which always shocks me as I would have converted them to monochrome. You’re like a colour B&W photographer 🙂 Any comments, sir?
That’s a pretty astute observation. I often do convert my color photos into B&W, but I’m not fanatical about it. Generally speaking, if it looks good in color I see no need to convert it to B&W, especially since my printer (an Epson SP R800) does such a poor job of monochrome printing.
Do you do all your own printing? I’ve debated getting a printer, but given my low volume of prints I just use an online printing service. Would you advise me against this?
I do all my own color printing but I prefer to have a online lab do my black and white prints. An inkjet printer capable of printing B&W to my standard would cost at least $800 and I don’t have that kind of money right now. If you aren’t doing much printing then an online printing service is certainly more economical than buying and using an inkjet printer. Printer manufacturers make their money on the cartridges, not the printers, so high-volume printing can get quite expensive. On the other hand, having your own printer is undeniable faster and more convenient, assuming you know how to get the best out of it.
You’re married and have three very cute kids, although I’ll bet they’re a handful. How do you juggle the responsibilities of your job, fatherhood and being a husband with your passion for photography?
That’s easy: My family is my priority. Photography comes second, at best. That said, I take a lot of pictures of my kids, family vacations, relatives, etc.
I’ve often thought of having kids just so I could get some willing models. My wife is very camera-shy so I figure if I can get them young and teach them the camera is a good thing…but I digress! You recently became a victim of the failing global economy. How are you handling this unfortunate situation? Is it affecting your photography? I find that if I’m going through a difficult time I often forget about photography almost completely.
I’m still looking for full-time employment as an instructional designer but pursuing freelance assignments in the meantime. So far, I’m having a lot more luck with the freelance work. One of the contracts I’m working on is developing three Speedlite flash tutorials for Canon’s Digital Learning Center website. Also, as you know, I’m still doing my blog, so I’m still finding ways to keep photography in the mix.
That’s pretty cool, you’re writing for the Big C; I couldn’t imagine a better person for the job. But this brings me to the subject of gear, which you only touch on briefly in your blog. I know you bought an Olympus for a trip to London (and then you gave it up), but apart from that I have no idea what cameras you like most. So tell us what your favourite film and digital cameras are.
I don’t write much about gear because I don’t want to give it more attention than I think it deserves. Aside from specific advantages that apply only in specific situations, one camera is just as good as another in the hands of a skilled photographer. That said, I do my digital shooting with a Canon EOS 30D and my film shooting with a Canon EOS 1n or EOS Elan 7.
When I’m in an old school street-shooting mood I pull out one of my manual focus film bodies. Of these, my favorite is a Nikon FM3A, followed by an Olympus OM-1 and a Pentax ME. All three are small, lightweight, and inconspicuous. People seldom notice me shooting with them. Even if they do, once they discover that there’s no screen on the back they look at me with pity and continue on their way.
I like your choices—three classics. The OM-1 is reputed to have the best viewfinder of any 35mm camera ever. So how many rolls of film do you shoot a month? And which film do you prefer?
It depends. When the weather is good I might shoot 4-6 rolls per month for a few months in a row. When the weather sucks I often won’t shoot any film at all.
My favorite B&W films are Fuji Neopan 400 and Ilford Delta 100, depending on how much light is available. My favorite color neg film is Fuji Reala 100. I don’t shoot much transparency film any more, but when I did my favorite was Fujichrome Provia 100F.
You mention Zen very often; are you a practitioner? If I may be so bold, I do find a certain Zen-like quality in some of your photos, in the sense that they reflect quietude and invite introspection.
I have studied Zen and still practice Zen meditation. I’m not affiliated with any of the local Zendos or Roshis, however, so I wouldn’t say that I’m a practitioner in the formal sense.
Onto sunnier matters. Why do you like classic cars so much, and if you like them that much, why did you move from California to Pennsylvania?
Classic cars are fun to look at. They have a design aesthetic that speaks to a certain time and cultural values. Some have an ageless cool that transfers to the owner. As much as I hated to have to leave the land of cool rides, California’s public schools rank 47th in the nation. Pennsylvania’s public schools rank 10th. Since I couldn’t afford to send three kids to private school, and since I have relatives on the East Coast, the choice was clear.
Let’s talk formats. You still like shooting film, so give me three good reasons why you enjoy film, and another three why you enjoy digital.
- I grew up using film. I know how my favorite films will perform in any given situation.
- The film cameras I use have fewer bells and whistles than digital cameras. For me, this allows for a more direct and intuitive interface.
- I don’t have to worry about backing up my film photographs or buying more hard drive space. I just file it and I’m done.
- You have more control over how you can process the image—for better or for worse.
- You can immediately tell what a shot looks like and whether it was correctly exposed.
- It’s easier to upload photos to a blog or someone else.
FWIW, I tested one of the first consumer digital cameras ever introduced: the LogiTech FotoMan, introduced in 1990.
Wow… While we don’t have Gordon’s review, you can read this to get an idea of what the prehistory of digital photography was like. How things have changed…
To finish up our chat, tell me what photographers you admire and have been inspired by?
The photographers whose work most inspires me are Elliott Erwitt, Ralph Gibson, Art Kane, Mary Ellen Mark, Diane Arbus, Albert Watson, Robert Frank, and Anthony Barboza, just to name a few. You’re not too bad either.
Oh stop it, Gordon… Flattery will get you everywhere! 😉
It’s been a pleasure having you on EtL—I will see you on your blog, and I hope our readers will too. We wish you the best of luck in your future endeavours.
Thank you. Given today’s economy I can use all the help I can get.
All photos: ©Gordon Lewis.