“I was looking for images with more ‘soul’. That’s when I started working with film. I loved the excitement and risk of taking photos where I had no idea how they would turn out.”
Britta Hershman (born 1979) is a photographer originally from Hamburg (Germany), but currently residing in Virginia Beach, VA (USA). She’s a so-called self-taught photographer, but has a lot of other photographers to thank for generously sharing their knowledge with her. Britta Hershman learned from her husband, a former Navy photojournalist, from fellow photo club members, by conducting weekly altprint experiments with a good friend, and also by countless hours of self-study and practice.
“I find myself drawn to multiple types of photography, both modern and historic. I initially learned with a digital camera, but quickly fell in love with analog photography, using film, cameras, and printing methods from various eras of the history of photography. I particularly enjoy printing my images on watercolor paper as cyanotypes and van dyke prints.”
Interview with Britta Hershman
Britta, why did you become a photographer?
I couldn’t help it. My husband and I have lived in the mountains, on the coast, and overseas. Each place has its own unique beauty, and photography has become my way of exploring the world around me.
What does photography mean to you? And what do you want to transmit with your pictures? And in other words: What is it at all that a photograph can say? Especially keeping in mind the over abundance of photographic imagery in today’s society.
Photography is a way to capture and share my vision. By taking, or more accurately creating a photo, I can manipulate what my viewer ultimately sees. My subject may be part of a larger and not-so-remarkable scene, but the camera allows me to record and share only what I want to. In this way, photography is a way of capturing what I believe to be beautiful, dreamy, and timeless, and sharing that with my viewers.
You are a traditionalist, an analogue photographer, enjoying film photography. Why?
I learned photography with a DSLR, but at a certain point, digital photography became too predictable. I was looking for images with more „soul.“ That’s when I started working with film. I began by picking up an antique camera at a flea market and jerry-rigging a roll of 35mm film in it. I took the camera on a walk through Naples, Italy, which is where we lived at the time. I had no way of knowing how far to advance the film in between frames, so I just guessed. The result was a single whimsical panorama of overlapping street scenes of the city. I loved the excitement and risk of taking photos where I had no idea how they would turn out. I was hooked. I then moved on to plastic “toy” cameras, then more antique cameras, pinhole cameras, instant cameras, and cameras from every era in photography. I still prefer working with film now: medium format, 35mm, and instant.
You also like to experiment with other alternative photographic processes. Can you explain what you do exactly?
“I paint the solution only on the part of the paper where the print will be made, which means that each of my prints has visible brushstrokes around the edges – part of what makes every finished product a unique original.”
I enjoy making alternative prints of my photos. My favorites are cyanotypes (blue prints) and van dyke prints (brown prints). I first use my home computer and printer to create a custom negative of the image I’m going to print. I make sure it’s black and white, invert the colors, and print it onto a special type of transparency. Cyanotypes and van dyke prints are contact prints, which means that the negative is the same size as the finished print.
I then paint either cyanotype or van dyke photo solution, which are both yellow liquid chemicals, onto heavyweight watercolor paper. Since the solution is sensitive to UV light, I have to do this indoors away from windows or at night. I paint the solution only on the part of the paper where the print will be made, which means that each of my prints has visible brushstrokes around the edges – part of what makes every finished product a unique original.
Once the paper is dry, I wait for a bright and sunny day. I then carefully tape the negative over the sensitized part of the paper, press it in a specially modified picture frame, and lay it outside in the sun. As the UV rays react with the chemicals, the yellow chemicals behind the negative change color, and the image appears. When cyanotypes have turned a deep blue-green and van dyke prints a medium brown, I bring the frame inside and rinse the paper under running water. Van dyke prints are then soaked in a special fixer bath and re-rinsed. The prints are then air-dried overnight, pressed for at least one week, numbered, signed, and matted.
What does digital photography mean to you?
While digital photography doesn’t provide me with the same thrill as analogue and alternative processes, I find it useful for taking high-quality photos to print using alternative methods. It’s reliable and convenient. I also enjoy taking family photos with my DSLR. It is always by my side.
Why do you consider it to be important to still work the old-fashioned analogue way? And what can you learn from analogue photography that helps you to become a better digital photographer?
“All of these appeal to me. The more time I spend creating an image, the more meaningful and rewarding the experience becomes.”
Since there is a cost to each image (film, developing materials, printing materials), analogue photography forces the photographer to slow down, to be thoughtful and deliberate, to know his or her equipment and to know the craft of photography. All of these appeal to me. The more time I spend creating an image, the more meaningful and rewarding the experience becomes. It can also serve as a reminder to be equally thoughtful with my digital photography and not just shoot dozens of photos of the same subject just because I can. It’s the quality that matters, not the quantity.
Can you recall any special moment shooting pictures?
I remember the moment I learned to see in black and white. It really is possible! I was exploring southern Italy on a foggy day, and I found a historic neighborhood with beautiful, centuries-old row houses and ornate lampposts. Everything was enveloped in a thick, silent fog, and the colors of my surroundings were muted. And suddenly I saw the world in black and white. That is to say, I could picture my black and white photos before I even took them. It was a pivotal moment for me. I have loved and preferred monochrome photography since that day and have never looked back.
Which photographer has inspired you most? In what way?
I adore Leonard Misonne’s mesmerizing soft-focused pictorialist landscapes and cityscapes. I hope to someday be able to evoke a small fraction of his photographic magic.
What’s your favorite photography quote?
“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”
There’s more to photography than pressing the shutter button. We take snapshots but make photographs. Making a photograph involves taking time to prepare, to know one’s camera, to think out the image beforehand, to purposely choose a film or printing method, to take into consideration the season, the mood, the light, everything, and bringing everything together in one image. Knowing that I worked hard to create an image makes it that much more meaningful to me in the end.
How would you describe your photographic language and creative process?
I strive to capture what is timeless and classic in my photography. I like subjects where the viewer can’t easily tell in which decade or perhaps even in which century the photo was taken. When composing shots, I look for telltale signs of modern civilization and keep them out of my photos whenever possible.
“I am convinced that analog photography – the traditional methods of capturing, developing, and printing of images – has a particular beauty, depth, and soul.”
By the same token, when developing and printing my photos, I prefer processes that lend my images a historic, classic, or timeless look. I am also proud to contribute, in whatever small way I can, to the revival of analog processes that have all but disappeared. I am convinced that analog photography – the traditional methods of capturing, developing, and printing of images – has a particular beauty, depth, and soul and deserves to be kept alive for future generations to practice and enjoy.
What’s important in order to develop an own photographic language?
I think by regularly taking the time to create photos and self-critique them, one will naturally develop a style, a preference, and a photographic language.
Every photographer is going through different stages in his formation. Which “landmarks” do you recall that have marked you and brought you to the place where you are today as a photographer?
“Embracing the wide variety of results film can give and the serendipitous and unpredictable accidents that sometimes render film photos uniquely, beautifully imperfect.”
Pressing that roll of 35mm film into an antique camera was a turning point for me. It was the beginning of my exploration of the analogue photographic world. Soon after, I discovered lomography: embracing the wide variety of results film can give and the serendipitous and unpredictable accidents that sometimes render film photos uniquely, beautifully imperfect.
A second turning point was meeting my alternative photography twin and partner-in-crime Genevieve Neal. We encouraged each other to become educated about alternative photography, film developing, and printmaking and eventually began working with those processes together. Genevieve is a gifted photographer, both digital and analog, and I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today if it weren’t for her friendship, enthusiasm, and support.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
My goal is to create timeless images using historic, creative, or rare photographic techniques that complement the character of the subject.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
I draw inspiration from nature, history, and also from historic photographers and antique postcards.
What kind of photography equipment and photographic supplies do you use?
I enjoy taking photos with plastic cameras, such as the Holga and Diana. I also use both Canon and Nikon SLR cameras with 35mm film, as well as Polaroid cameras for instant photography. To make my prints on watercolor paper, I need special photographic chemicals, watercolor paper, my custom-printed negatives, a Japanese hake brush, and a special picture frame.
What’s your favorite website about photography?
I am a fan of Photojojo. I use their caffenol recipe to develop my black and white film, and their countless photography tutorials are a great place to learn new tricks or find inspiration for new projects.
What photography book would you recommend?
“The Magic of Black and White” by Andrew Gibson. It captures exactly what I love about monochrome photography.
Which advice would you give to someone starting with photography?
Balance practice and theory. It’s fun to pick up the camera and just start shooting, but there is a lot to be gained from study, from truly learning the craft, whether it’s through a class or from other photographers, books, e-books, or otherwise. Take the time to learn, and you will reap the rewards.
Last but not least, let’s switch roles: Which question would you have liked to be asked in this interview about your work that I didn’t ask? Please feel free to add it – as well as the answer.
Q: What sizes are your alternative prints?
A: Most of my prints are 4 inches (10 cm) square, matted to 8×10. I occasionally make rectangular prints up to 8×10 inches.
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I can’t think of anything else to add. Thank you for the opportunity to share my story and my work!
More about Britta Hershman
For more information about artists practicing traditional and alternative processes of photography you might enjoy the features about Nancy Breslin (“Visual Form Of Journaling”), Steven Taylor (“Excellency From The Darkroom”) and Christian Finbar Kelly (“Moving Forward By Standing Still”).