Shannon Richardson is the photographer behind electrolite, a photoblog that won the “Best Black and White Photography” award at the 2007 Photobloggies.
PetaPixel: Could you tell me a little about yourself?
Shannon Richardson: Lets see. I am a commercial / advertising photographer based in Amarillo, TX. I’ve been working in that field for the last 14 years.
PP: How did you first get interested in photography?
SR: I guess it started when I was a kid. I had a Brownie camera was given to me and I played around with that as well as Super 8 movie cameras. As a teenager I made short films and that got too expensive so I became more involved with still photography. My first 35mm camera was a Pentax K100. I took a journalism class in high school and learned to develop film and print in the darkroom.
I got more serious and moved to medium format photography with a Pentax 645 in 1990. Then from there I shot only in MF black and white photography. A few years later I worked for an advertising agency and got my foot in the door doing commercial work and started my own photography business.
As digital cameras began to be the standard for commercial work, I sold off my Mamiya RZ67 and bought a Hasselblad 503CW to concentrate on my personal work.
PP: Do you use the Hasselblad 503CW with both a film and digital back?
I only shoot film in my Hasselblad. My digital work is done with Nikon cameras.
PP: What equipment do you use nowadays? Anything besides the 503CW?
SR: Occasionally I shoot with a Holga or vintage Diana, but that’s it.
PP: How was the transition from your Mamiya to your Hasselblad?
SR: The Mamyia was too bulky to carry around and was not getting much use since most of my commercial work was being shot with digital SLRs. I had always wanted a Hasselblad. I love the square image it makes.
PP: When did you start your photoblog “electrolite”?
SR: Four years ago. It seemed there were quite a few appearing back then and I decided it would be a good project for me. It has motivated me and I’m amazed I’ve kept it going this long.
What’s the story behind the name “electrolite”?
electrolite is the name of one of my favorite R.E.M. songs. I wanted something simple and sort of ambiguous. It was the first title that surfaced when I started putting the photoblog together.
PP: What kind of photographs do you post to it?
SR: Most of my personal work from several projects I’m working on. Of course the majority of it is black and white photography. I don’t shoot much color but every now and then one makes an appearance.
PP: Do you take color photographs and convert them to black and white in post-processing?
SR: No I shoot mainly on Tri-X 320, which I develop myself. If I shoot color film its Portra 400.
PP: Could you tell me about your workflow?
SR: Well I shoot on 120 film that I develop myself. From there I scan the negative and do in photoshop what I’d do in the darkroom – dodge, burn and adjust contrast. My goal is to make my online images match the warmtone paper I print on when I do get into the darkroom and print.
The cost of printing on real photographic paper has gotten expensive so the digital darkroom just makes sense. I save the real darkroom for portfolio and gallery prints.
PP: Where do you develop? Is it at home?
SR: In my darkroom at my studio.
PP: What are some personal tricks you’ve learned regarding portraiture?
SR: Hmmm I guess the biggest thing is overcoming the fear of approaching strangers to ask them if I can photograph them. That never goes away. I took a Santa Fe Photographic Workshop a few years back and my instructor who has been photographing for years said the same thing.
I think what works for me is that I appear harmless. I’m not tall or imposing so I think that helps. Most people seem flattered that I want to photograph them. I normally approach them and say I’m a photographer and would like to take a few images. They ask why and I’ll usually say I’m working on a project that they fit into. If they appear apprehensive when I first ask sometimes I’ll just say I’m a photography student working on an assignment for class and that usually disarms them.
It’s a constant struggle though to put myself out there. But its part of why I photograph.
PP: Do you have any memorable or awkward experiences with photographing strangers?
SR: It’s always awkward. The most recent memorable experience was this cowboy I shot by the cowboy motel. I had seen him earlier in the week in downtown and wanted to photograph him but of course I didn’t have my camera. I hate when that happens because it’s an opportunity that will never happen again. But later that week on Saturday I was driving near the motel looking for things to shoot and I look up an see him walking across the parking lot on his way to the motel. I quickly pulled in and got out before he got away.
He was quite the character and had no problem getting his permission to take some photographs. He invited to his room at the motel, so I followed him in and visited for a while. Thats the first time I’ve had an 2nd chance at a missed photo opportunity. But I think it worked out better this way.
PP: Can you tell me about your shooting process?
SR: Well most of the time I’m working from what I come across. I try to have my camera with me the majority of the time. Sometimes I know what I’m looking for i.e. a project I’m shooting, but then a lot of the time I simply just stumble onto a situation that I wasn’t expecting. I call these moments happy accidents.
And of course shooting with a Hasselblad you get 12 shots and everything is manual. I try to make every shot count. You have to think about what you’re doing and you don’t get instant feedback. Its a very in the moment kind of thing.
So the whole experience of putting myself in an awkward position of photographing people I don’t know and going with what happens creates a rush and a high. Then I can’t wait to get back and develop the film. Yes it’s all very intoxicating.
PP: What are some personal tips you have for an aspiring photographer to improve their craft?
SR: Study the history of photography. See what others have done. Going to a gallery and looking at the work is inspiring. Also push your comfort zone a little bit. Try shooting different subject matter than what you usually do. It’s a good eye opener and motivator.
And of course its not the equipment, its the photographer that makes the photograph.
PP: What’s the hardest part about your job?
SR: Professionally and personally it’s staying motivated. Oh and lugging the equipment around.
PP: What are some challenges you’ve faced along the way?
SR: I guess on the photoblog the biggest thing has been keeping it going. Like I mentioned before motivation can be hard. I started the blog to do just that – keep me shooting for myself. For the most part it has been successful in doing that, but sometimes I feel like I’ve run out of the things to shoot.
A big challenge professionally has been learning to do the business part of the job. It’s no fun and most professional photographers will tell you that. Plus self-promotion is an endless endeavor as well.
PP: What do you wish you had known before you started doing photography professionally?
SR: Oh, that it’s not as glamorous as one might think it is. It’s hard work but I can’t imagine doing anything else.
PP: Would you recommend film or digital as the first medium for a new photographer? Why?
SR: I’d recommend shooting film. Unlike digital you really need to learn how to use the camera manually and understand how to properly expose film. To see light and how to capture it. Plus the whole aspect of being mindful of what you’re doing as you shoot. Of course there is no instant feedback. You have to wait and see what you have after the film is developed. That’s where the happy accidents appear. It bothers me that learning to photograph this way seems to be getting lost in the digital age. Shooting digital is like being on autopilot and firing off shots as if it were a machine gun.
I believe digital has its purpose. I’m just a film guy.
PP: Who are some photographers you regularly follow online?
SR: Well I follow quite a few on flickr. As far as photoblogs go I keep up with gotreadgo, hello, no traces, terror kitten and my lucky life. Two of my all time favorites have called it quits – making happy and travis ruse.
PP: Who is one person you would like to see interviewed on PetaPixel?
SR: I think tread would be a great interview. He combines excellent photography and writing. I think he has some of the best writing on any photoblog I’ve ever come across.
PP: Any final thoughts you’d like to leave with PetaPixel readers?
SR: Well I’d really like to thank everyone who has been looking at my images on electrolite over the past 4 years and for all the great comments and questions as well. Anyone out there wanting to start their own photoblog the best thing you can do is just get it going. Put your work out there. And those who have have been keeping a photoblog going, I hope you keep at it. I enjoy seeing your photographs.