PetaPixel

Interview with Justin Ouellette of Chromogenic

Justin Ouellette is the photoblogger behind Chromogenic.


PetaPixel: Tell me about yourself

Justin Ouellette: I’m a designer, originally from Portland, OR and now living in Chinatown, New York. I’ve been doing photography for about 10 years, and mostly work with film. In the last couple years I’ve been doing more web design. My biggest project last year was Muxtape, a site for making & sharing personal mixes. Photographically I like working with people and bands. I’m mostly interested in intersections between music, photography and technology.

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PP: How did you first get into photography?

JO: I was lucky enough to go to a high school that offered photography, and also had an amazing instructor. It was just before digital started becoming something more than a novelty and we learned everything in The Old Way, developing our own film and making filter charts in a darkroom. I never stopped after that. The internet was already an incredible resource and fueled an insatiable appetite to learn everything I could about photography.

PP: What was your first camera?

JO: Pentax ME and 50mm f/1.8

PP: What do you use now?

JO: Hasselblad 500C/M mostly, also an Olympus Stylus Epic and Canon EOS-1N. I’ve experimented with a lot of cameras over the years but I think the Hasselblad is going to stay with me for the long haul.

PP: So you mostly shoot medium-format now?

JO: Yeah, I see the world in squares these days. I still enjoy the honesty of 35mm, though.

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PP: Could you briefly explain to PetaPixel readers what medium-format is, and what you feel the biggest pros and cons are?

JO: Medium format is a film size that’s much larger than 35mm but still small enough that it can come on rolls and be used with cameras that have more convenient operation than the typical large format setup, which uses single-exposure sheets 4×5″ and up. It usually means much higher quality images at the expense of having a huge choice of lenses and automatic niceties and accessories, like a light meter. It’s also a bit harder to scan and print, but not as hard as large format.

Subjectively, medium format negatives are much richer and more painterly, and the physics of light passing through a larger piece of glass and striking a larger surface make for images that feel distinctly different. I also like that the sometimes-awkward nature of the larger gear forces you into a more methodical process; if nothing else you’re forced to think more about each exposure and take them more seriously. It comes through in the final result.

PP: When did you start Chromogenic?

JO: 2003

PP: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned through years of maintaining the photoblog?

JO: I’ve learned a lot about organizing and editing my own work, which I’ve concluded is half the skill of photography. I’ve also learned that telling the stories of our lives through pictures is something that taps deeply into human nature, and a photoblog is just one way to do it.

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PP: Can you briefly describe your workflow?

JO: I develop black and white film in my bathroom, and color film I take to a lab around the corner. Either way I wind up with a long strip that I cut into threes and scan on a Nikon 9000. Usually I’ll do a quick preview of every frame (12 per roll), then go back and do a 4000dpi “for real” scan with anti-newton glass for the ones I like. From there I’ve got a neutral 81 megapixel TIFF in AdobeRGB which I color-correct in Photoshop. I use curves and try to make as natural adjustments as I can, and my final step is flattening, resizing, a little unsharp mask, and saving an sRGB jpeg.

PP: What’s the most common question you’re asked regarding Chromogenic or photography?

JO: Camera and/or film recommendations are a common question. It’s hard to answer because it’s a very personal preference, there’s no best film or camera. I try to encourage people to experiment and go with what feels right.

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PP: What do you think is the most valuable piece of advice you could give an aspiring photographer?

JO: Try everything once.

PP: Is there any one thing you’ve learned that has benefited your work the most?

JO: I’ve learned a lot of things over the years, but the importance of editing definitely sticks out for me. It can be tremendously hard to choose one good image of out dozens of similar variations, but the impact of presenting a single, cohesive frame can’t be understated.

PP: Who are your favorite photobloggers?

JO: Todd Gross (quarlo.com) is an all-time favorite, I also like Eliot Shepard (slower.net), Yamasaki Ko-ji (uwaa.org), Peter Baker (treemeat.com), and many others. I’ve been enjoying ckck.tumblr.com lately as well.

PP: If you could see one person interviewed on PetaPixel, who would it be?

JO: Bruce Gilden.

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PP: What is the favorite photograph you’ve taken, and why?

JO: I don’t have an all-time favorite, there are definitely some photos that stand out to me as representative for certain eras of my life, though. I think any photographer’s personal favorites have more to do with unspoken connections they may have with them; I know the photos that mean the most to me probably won’t for someone on the outside.

PP: What’s your favorite kind of photography?

JO: I love photos of people. I don’t know a word for it but my favorite kind of photography is the kind that tells a story in a single frame and feels simultaneously effortless and perfectly focused. It can be a true story or not, its plausibility is more important. It can happen equally on the street or in a studio.

PP: Does the fact that you shoot with a Hasselblad make taking photographs of strangers on the street easier?

JO: It can be a conversation piece (especially in New York where you see a lot of interesting cameras about town), but taking photos of strangers on the street isn’t a big part of what I do. Some people are brilliant at it, for me it’s hard enough to capture the people I know.

PP: What has been your biggest mistake so far in your photographic journey?

JO: I always feel like I could devote more time to it. Missed opportunities are the biggest mistakes. Overall though, photography for me is a lot about trial and error and that means making lots of little mistakes over time.

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PP: Do you have any tips on how a photographer or photoblogger should publicize their work and build a readership?

JO: Build it and they will come. There’s no magic formula to publicizing yourself, focus on doing quality work and the rest will fall into place. Connecting with the rest of photoblogging community doesn’t hurt, either (most people looking at photoblogs are photographers themselves).

PP: Do you have any other advice you would like to share with PetaPixel readers?

JO: Try every weird technique, try all the films, try things outside your comfort zone. It’s easy to get hung up on the “right way” to do things, but it’s important to remember that photography is a highly personal pursuit and there’s really no rules. Exposing a little piece of your individuality will make you a far more successful photographer than any amount of dry, technical prowess.