A common reason for taking up film photography is that it forces one to slow down. I started shooting film three years ago, so by that logic, I have already been “taking things slow.” But recently, I had an epiphany about what slowing down must encompass that came by way of a 1950s folding camera. The Minolta Semi P, launched in 1952, was a surprise purchase resulting from a long-simmering interest in classic cameras. After arriving, and initial basic tests of functionality, it sat untouched for a while because my Maxxum 7 had my full attention. My beloved Maxxum 7, the pinnacle of Minolta camera wizardry, and the Semi P are about as close to opposites as possible.
The Semi P has no rangefinder, the shutter must be cocked before firing, and it lacks an automatic stop when advancing the film. Thus, taking a shot requires: advancing the film, determining the distance to the subject and setting that distance directly on the lens, metering the scene, setting the aperture, setting the shutter speed, cocking the shutter, composing, then finally, taking the picture. That is a lot of steps, especially after using a Maxxum 7.
The image above is what happens when one fails to execute the required steps in the proper sequence. I had three double exposures and one blank frame out of sixteen shots on this roll. That I was forced to slow down goes without saying. But success requires more than just slowing down the time between steps; it requires mindfulness.
Much is made in popular culture of being in the moment or mindfulness. My take on mindfulness had been something akin to concentration or focus. But this folder made me realize that something deeper is required. I was focused and concentrating but on the specific steps—on the metering or distance or composition—but not in all aspects at once. A few times, I was lost in thought composing a scene or measuring distance and forgot to advance the film. The blank frame came while moving between locations. While looking at shadows, I could not remember whether I had advanced the film —I had. On realizing I was making costly errors, I took a few minutes to consider what I was doing—how my approach was disordered.
From there, I took a different approach. Instead of going from scene to scene and setting up the camera as I went, I began to organize the entire shot in advance. Through visualization and talking aloud, I would build the expected image mentally. Once that process was complete, I would advance the film and take the shot. This worked. The interesting thing is that I thought this approach was more or less what I had been doing for the last three years.
Looking back, I realize that during the visualization step, I was integrating all image elements. Distance, light, shutter speed, shadows, framing, and story were being woven together in a way they had not previously been when using more advanced cameras. For example, when I have a split-image microprism or autofocus, I know the image will be in focus, and I can guesstimate DoF based on the aperture or check by stopping down. But with the folder, I could make no such assumptions. A difference of six inches is significant with f3.5 but not so much at f11.
For the pumpkins, I wanted enough depth for them to be sharp but for the background to be as blurred as possible while being close enough to get the framing right. With a digital camera, I would have fired off shots until it looked right. Using a more advanced film camera, I would have focused and moved in until the framing looked right. Folder in hand, I had to visualize. Having achieved a more mindful approach to shooting film, I realized this wasn’t the first time I had to change my approach to creating an image because of a lack of mindfulness.
Since discovering I could draw in 2020, human faces have always been challenging. Actually, “challenging” is not the best word to describe my frustration. I simply could not do it. The proportions were never correct, and all my attempts looked like badly drawn cartoons. After many exasperating attempts and giving up for months at a time, this past summer, I finally succeeded. How? One day, after another series of failures, I stopped trying to draw, closed my eyes, and visualized how I wanted the image to look. I imagined how my hand should move, how the lines should evolve and curve, and where the shadows should be. This lasted about 15 minutes, then I picked the pencil and had my first success drawing realistic facial features. The Semi P made me realize the same approach applies to photography.
Having developed a more practical, experiential concept of mindfulness, I can see its effects on all my creative activities. And seeing this approach work is, in turn, mystifying, exciting, and a little bit unsettling because I don’t understand what is happening in my brain. My appreciation for the Semi P and double exposures has grown immensely, recasting this image from an absent-minded mistake into a reminder to close my eyes and consider what might be. It is amazing what one can discover by taking (drawing) a few pictures–not bad for an afternoon with a 1950s folding camera.