My modded Minolta XL-601 from ca. 1978

Project 36X

2013 was all about getting back into film photography for me. Going into 2014, I did mostly documentary and urban photography in my new surroundings on Washington, DC’s Capitol Hill. Having moved back to Germany, 2015 was the year of my 52rolls project. It was a blast, but difficult to keep up shooting and scanning and editing and writing up essays to go with each and every one of the 52 posts for that year. On the digital front, 2015 was the year I began seriously feeding my Instagram account, helped along by a new iPhone.

So, now that we’ve already left January behind: What is my plan for 2016?

For one, I am settling into a style of documentary/ urban/ cityscape/ street/ whathaveyou photography. Perhaps a bit inspired by Stephen Shore, perhaps a bit taken with Mary Ellen Mark, William Eggleston, Berenice Abbott, and Luigi Ghirri. But really, none of that too much, and clearly not at anything resembling that level. I’ll be true to it, though, and see where it takes me. In slide, negative color film, or in black and white, or even in digital here and there.

Then, I also want to try some more instant photography. I have two instant cameras, and they should see some more use. And portraits. And flash. And portraits with flash. There’s always something to be learned there.

My stable of Super 8 cameras

Big and Small. My little stable of Super 8 cameras.

And then there is Super 8. It’s kismet that Kodak announced a new push for Super 8 filmmaking at CES 2016 with their Yves-Behar-styled new camera, slated for late this year. 2016, after some efforts in 2015, will be my year to get to grips with Super 8.

For one, I’ll shoot it as movie film. In black and white (Tri-X in my Minolta XL-401, provided that camera works well after I managed to get it running again last week) and in color (likely Kodak 50D or 200T in my Minolta XL-64 which I also need to test out, having just modded it to run at 24 frames per second).

But I will also attempt something else. Something that I have been thinking about for months. I will take still photographs with Super 8 film. That might seem like an incredibly bad idea, considering people disparage miniature format photography for its subpar image quality, and many don’t even give 35mm full consideration. Medium format and 4×5, that’s where it’s at for many of my photography friends. And sure, having shot some larger film, I understand the appeal. The detail you get is amazing. The pictures have a whole different kind of presence. It’s magical.

But that’s why I’m running the other way. I realized again, when hearing one photographer say that he doesn’t like 35mm because he finds the pictures he takes with it boring, that there’s a chance to do something different here. If photography is about visuals, then the visual of a grainy Super 8 frame will be radically at odds with large format beautiful pictures. It will be something much more normal, democratic, ephemeral.

My modded Minolta XL-601 from ca. 1978

Be Still, my Camera! Slightly modded Minolta XL-601 from ca. 1978.

Project 36X will start on my 36th birthday. I will shoot for 360 days, close enough to a year-long project. And when I’ve shot a whole roll of Super 8, its 15 meters of film will hold 3600 images. The numerology works out well here, and that’s nice, but the idea isn’t tied to it. What I am interested in is the sheer abundance of pictures on one roll of film. It should fit pretty well into these digital times in which we’re rediscovering vinyl and film and fountain pens. The subject matter? Whatever I can get in front of my lens. I have 3600 images to make, after all.

How do I intend to do this? I bought a Minolta XL-601 camera last year as my first foray into Super 8. I tested it with film, and it works. I’ve subsequently bought two more Super 8 cameras, so I don’t desperately need this one to be a movie camera. It has a frame by frame setting, it takes two AA batteries, and it has both auto and manual exposure. I have modded it (very non-intrusively and reversably with mostly gaffer tape, a screw drivers and a permanent marker pen) to be a still frame super 8 camera that I can bring with me anytime.

March 21st is my birthday. That’s when the project begins. Many things can go wrong with something like this. I’ve tried to prevent some of them to happen before even starting, but nothing is perfect. In the worst case scenario, I will have shot 3600 frames and will have nothing to show for it. That would be bad. But that’s part of the challenge: to do a lot of work and not be sure how, or if it will turn out. As the Dorothea Lange quote goes, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” If I have images to show at the end of the year, that’s great. If something goes wrong and I don’t, I will still have learned to see a little better.

I will only know if everything has worked out at the end of the year, after I’ve sent in my roll of Super 8 to be developed and scanned. I’m hoping to get single frame, high quality (4K or thereabouts) scans that I can then go through, edit, color grade, and generally mess with. But until then, I won’t have anything to show for. It’s quite a gamble, and it’s an admittedly strange project to undertake.

I am anxious to see what will happen. Time to order some film.

2 comments for “Project 36X

  1. urbanhafner
    2016/02/09 at 13:03

    35mm is boring … That sounds like me Torsten. 😉 But then I do like the small form factor of 35mm cameras so I will persevere.

    And your project sounds insane! I have a half frame camera, but I rarely take that one out as 72 frames is just too much for me. I can’t imagine 3600 frames!

    • 2016/02/09 at 13:08

      It’s a bit nuts, I admit, but man, is it the cheapest way to shoot film. There may just be a ton of pictures of my desk, tv, or bedroom window in the end. Oh, and yes, that may have been you. Didn’t want broadcast it for all the world to see, but since you’ve de-anonymized yourself 😉

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