Interview with Mark Forbes


Q: Hi Mark, welcome to Pellicola! Introduce yourself to our readers.

Hi guys, thanks very much for the opportunity to feature my work in your magazine. I’m a photographer living in Melbourne, Australia. I was born in England, and have lived in the Netherlands and Sydney too. One of my favourite memories as a child was being in airports and on planes travelling from place to place. It was like we were always going somewhere new and mysterious - we never lived anywhere for more than a few years at a time when I was younger.

Q: Tell us how you discovered photography. Do you remember when and why did you start taking pictures?

My dad had a picture he took from a sailing boat in Sydney harbour enlarged and hung on the wall. That really is my first memory of any photograph. The first time I have any vivid recollection of taking pictures myself is when I was at school in the Netherlands in year 10 (15 years old) and we were leaving to move to Sydney. Usually we were not allowed to bring cameras to school, but as I was moving I snuck in a little film point and shoot (it could have been a disposable) to take photos of my friends in my last days there. So it was really all about taking pictures to not want to forget things - which at the simplest level is why many photos are taken. After that I really don’t remember much about photography in my life until after leaving university and buying a film SLR at the airport to go on a trip to Europe.

Q: Why do you still shoot film?

That is a great question. There are so many reasons that help to answer this for me.

Firstly there is the tangibility of having the photo recorded on a physical negative - I enjoy holding them, scanning them, cutting them into strips, sliding them into the sleeves, writing on the sleeves and filing them away. I’ve always been fascinated about the power of a photography to document something and I think that having a physical record is an important part. Then there is the fact that there is no way of reviewing what you’ve just shot. This means that when you’re out and shooting on film, you get more time to actually focus on being in the moment and I’ve found that it actually makes the experience of shooting much more enjoyable. I honestly believe that shooting film has improved my photography, as instead of going out and shooting 10 similar frames of one scene, you think more about what you’re going to shoot on film and often approach a photograph with more intent - resulting in more keepers (and less photos to review later). Delayed gratification - the joy of scanning and seeing photos that you (forgot that you) shot weeks ago is tangible. I travelled to USA & Canada last year, and shot over 30 rolls of 35mm across a few weeks. So seeing those images for the first time a month after really felt like opening surprise Christmas presents. The limitations of film, from an ISO point of view, force you to be more creative - and so you end up shooting very differently. When I was in Tokyo a few years ago, the quickest film I bought was ISO400. At night in the city, if I’d have been shooting a digital camera I would likely have set the camera at ISO3200 and shot with a high shutter speed. As I only had the film camera with 400 speed film in it, I ended up shooting at shutters of 1/8 or 1/15 resulting in some motion blur and a completely different feel to all of my daytime images. Lastly it also means you don’t have to worry about upgrading your equipment all the time to get a newer sensor. Having said all that I do also shoot digital (with it’s other benefits), I just prefer to shoot film. Long answer to a short question.

Q: If you should define your style, what would you say?

I find that a hard question to answer. I do enjoy shooting quite a few topics from street photography to urban landscapes, architecture and portraiture. Also straying from captured moments to much slower or fixed scenes. I’m not really sure how to define it.

Q: You are also a street photographer, how do people react when you are close to them with a lens pointing at them?

Yes, I enjoy shooting street photography. Standing close to someone with the lens pointed in their direction for any length of time is usually something I would avoid doing though. Generally I try to to blend in with everyone else and be as invisible as possible. With street I’m mainly using a rangefinder with the exposure already set and focus pre-determined using zone focus based on distance to subject. This means that the only thing left to do is compose the photo and push the shutter, so the camera only needs to be at my eye for a second or two - if a quick photo is all that is possible. You also learn to judge over time if someone will be unhappy with their photo being taken, however most people are not aware that I’ve taken a photo. So really it’s just a case of blending in, being observant and practicing.

Q: There is an increasing interest for vintage cars shot at night and you’ve been “infected” too. What’s interesting about that and why do you think there is a shared interest?

Absolutely infected - guilty as charged! I think for me there are a few things going on there. I’ve always had a fascination with transport in general. In a previous life I also worked for Holden (General Motors in Australia), so I’ve got a soft spot for cars - especially the older classic ones. Then there is the documentary aspect, as older cars genuinely are part of history that need to be preserved as their numbers diminish around us. The older cars seem to have their own personality too - as people have owned and loved (to various extents) these cars for sometimes decades, ageing in parallel with them. From a purely aesthetic point of view, the older classic cars have a beauty and flair to their design that you just don’t get from modern cars - so there is also that aspect too. In terms of shooting them at night, the way they are lit by low light with a little street lamp or two gives them on a whole other dimension. Sometimes this is eerie and sometimes peaceful - but to me it just adds to the personality of the cars. It also becomes a lot more tricky shooting them on film at night, with it being harder to focus, long exposures with reciprocity failure to account for - so it is just more fun due to the challenge. Lastly I think that there is also a huge nostalgic factor at play too. I have always loved looking at old photos in general, and it just makes you wonder what life was like. So I guess photographing them is just a way of capturing that feeling.

Q: In 2017 you visited Fukushima, can you tell something about that experience?

I wanted to shoot a project that had some real significance to it. A story that needed to be told, that the mainstream media wasn’t likely to cover. There was also the documentary aspect to the project that really resonated with me. I’d previously been to Japan in 2008 for a two week holiday and really fell in love with the country and people. It was so different to anywhere else I’d been to. So choosing to revisit it was an easy decision. I knew that February 2017 would mark the 5 year anniversary of the Tōhoku earthquake, the resulting catastrophic tsunami and corresponding nuclear melt down. After some reading, it became clear that in early 2017 people in the outer parts of the nuclear exclusion zone were shortly about to be given permission to return to their houses. I could imagine that each one of those displaced residents would have vivid memories of the events of March 11, 2011 and also vastly different experiences of the following five years being forcibly displaced from their homes. For residents that were just being allowed to move home, the project looked to contrast the stories of those choosing to return with those who would not or could not return. This involved both photography and interviews (via an interpreter) about their experiences and their feeling about nuclear power. I was also fortune to be granted access to the inner nuclear no-go zone to document suburbs that will likely not be safe for human habitation for many decades - if ever. The interviews were at times harrowing and painful, but at other times full of hope for the future and happiness at what is still to come.

Q: If you could meet a great photographer (present or past), who will he or she be?

There are lots of photographers that I would love to meet with. At the top of the list is Trent Parke - as his work is exceptional, and he is the only Australian member of Magnum. Another would be William Eggleston. Being someone who loves to shoot colour, I admire his use of it in his portraiture and photography in general - especially the fact that he was very much pioneering in this area.

Q: Do you have any upcoming projects?

I’ve got many projects that I would love to photograph. These are all at the very early stages at the moment, from travel or street photography to portraiture. Aside from that I do tend to shoot regularly, and then see themes or threads in my photos after letting them sit for a while. Then use those threads as a starting point for the start of a story or longer term project. There are a few rolls of Aerochrome in medium format currently sitting in my freezer waiting to be defrosted too. I’ll probably keep the plans for that under wraps at the moment.

Q: Thanks Mark. Before leave us, suggest us a film or an album.

Thanks again. Sure, I might have to choose more than just one though!

I’ll go with 3 of each if that’s ok….

For films I am a big fan of: Pulp Fiction - the classic Tarantino. Casino - all round a great film. ET - even though I haven’t seen it for a long time, I’ll add it for the nostalgia factor as I’m an 80s child.

Albums I find harder (and would rather go with just a band in general), but I’ll try to stick to the rules somewhat and choose these 3 that have stood the test of time: Interpol / “Our Love to Admire” Portishead / “Dummy" The Avalanches / “Since I Left You”

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All images © Mark Forbes