I can still remember when digital photography first started to gain prominence. There was the initial speculation and rejection from most traditional film photographers and of course the whole digital versus film debate that was the topic of far too many conversations. That was over a decade ago. In the digital rat race that is media today, the idea of shooting film is about as logical as bringing a knife to a gun fight. The latest cellphones have more mega-pixels than the flagship Canon DSLR did when I popped my digi cherry like 13 years ago. I cut my teeth shooting film and I lagged as long as I could until the demands of my role as a full-time BMX journalist were too great for an emulsion only workflow, and nowadays my film cameras spend most of their time in a closet—and that story is similar for many other photographers, as well.
However, that's not the case with Travis Mortz, who is a die-hard film only photographer doing everything in his power to keep the film flame alive. Travis' backstory is like most BMX photographers, a rider first who later discovered photography and then naturally combined the two. But possibly even more impressive than Travis' passion for shooting only film—and processing/scanning it all—is his huge camera collection and general wealth of camera knowledge. Travis could quite literally give one camera from his collection to every BMX photographer who still shots film and he'd still have a bunch leftover. This Photographer Spotlight is the first we've featured comprised entirely of film photos—and come to think of it, might actually be the first time we've had any film photos in a Photo Spotlight. Admire the photos that were shot, processed, and scanned by Travis and then dive into the heavy interview with the modern day ambassador to BMX film photography.
What is your BMX background?
I’ve always been on a BMX bike since I was a young kid growing up on a Powerlite P-36 with the Power Bend bars and steel Odyssey Twisted pedals, but I didn’t start seriously riding BMX until I borrowed a friend's bike to go to the local skatepark when I was 14 years old. Once I learned how to drop in and jump the small box jump at our skatepark I was pretty much hooked on Freestyle BMX. Up until that point I had only ever tried dirt jumping with no success so when I learned about riding park and street I finally found the BMX outlet that worked for me and I haven’t stopped since then.
And how did you first get into photography?
When I was in high school my buddy Dylan was in a photography class and would always shoot old film cameras and black and white film, I was home schooled so I was pretty much doing nothing all the time. One day we went out to the local flea market and found a Nikon EM SLR, which was basically an aperture priority camera that gives you no exposure control. I bought the camera for $60 and I shot about 15 rolls of film within the first month of having it—I was hooked.
So you were you shooting film right from the start…
Yeah, like I mentioned, my camera had no exposure control so I was shooting film, but still had no idea how it all worked. Soon after I bought the 35mm I decided to get a digital camera because I was shooting so much film that I couldn’t really afford it and my results weren’t very good since I was basically always shooting a slow shutter speed due to lack of understanding. Once I got the digital camera I started going to school for photography and my first class was an all film class so I’ve never really strayed away from my roots in that regard.
Other than the camera on your phone, do you own a digital camera? How often do you use it, etc…
No, I actually haven’t owned a digital camera for almost three years now. I really don’t have the desire to shoot a digital camera anymore because it seems to take away all the magic for me. I use my phone camera daily, but I see those images merely as “visual post it notes” as I like to call them. In my mind my phone makes the same product as any other digital camera on the market so it's really all I need. It's great for sending a photo to a friend or showing my mom how cute my kid is being at that moment, but when it comes to actually making images that matter it has to be done on film or it just won’t last.
How many cameras do you own? How many of them do actively shoot with? And which is your favorite?
Oh man this is a real doozie… Well, I have to admit I am an active camera hunter and I’m quite good at finding them, so right now I have probably about 120+ cameras on display in my house. Believe it or not, I actually use a lot of them, I just counted the folders in my Dropbox for 2017 and so far this year I have shot film in 25+ different cameras and well over 50 rolls and the year is just getting started. Nothing is more exciting to me then the thousands of different outcomes you can get from shooting different film cameras. My favorite camera will always be my Hasselblad without question, but some of my other favorites include my Nikon F2, Nikon SP rangefinder, and Graflex RB Super D Polaroid camera. Something about shooting through the ground glass of a Hasselblad really gets me in the zone and makes every frame feel so significant.
Is there a camera that you yearn to own still?
That is a really good question, much like a Pokemon master, I am on the hunt to "catch 'em all" and so far I have pretty much owned all of the cameras on my dream list. I guess if I had to think of one camera I’ve yet to own I would say the Hasselblad X-pan. Your photos [Jeff Z. ]from the X-pan are a great example of a tool meant for every job, the photos of Tyler Fernengel in his Michigan article are just so beautifully composed and really none of those X-pan shots could have been done with any other camera.
Thanks man! So… I've never really spent the time comparing Nikon and Canon. When I was shopping for my first major camera back in 1999, all the photographers I looked up shot Canon. So I went with the flagship of the Canon line at the time, the EOS-1N RS. However, I know you're a Nikon guy and I'm sure you have a good reason…
Ah yes, the old Nikon vs. Canon debate… To be honest, the answer is very simple, Nikon has not switched their lens mount since it first came out in 1959, whereas Canon switched when they introduced AF in the 80s. Because of that there is so much more Nikon glass in the world available and the lenses work on every camera they have ever made. So for me the choice was simple because I like old glass—I like shooting manual focus and I like cheap lenses. Canon makes a great camera these days, but I’d still always buy Nikon because I have some 30 year-old lenses that I still want to shoot with.
How often do you shoot a photo, process the film, scan it, and post it to Instagram all in the same day?
Actually, I do that quite often, I spend about four days a week in my darkroom developing film so my finished rolls don’t stick around too long in my house. I would say that every time I develop film I have shot and developed at least one roll same day. Sometimes I'll have space in my tank so I'll just shoot a 24 exposure roll in ten minutes just to throw it in there to have same day photos.
Compared to capturing a digital image and then sharing it, shooting and then sharing a film photo takes a lot more steps. Would you mind describing/breaking down what that process entails? [For those who aren't familiar with processing and scanning film].
Yeah, no problem, so I've managed to accumulate all kinds of things to make this process go faster and now I can process a roll in about an hour start to finish, but typically it would take a bit longer. Once I’ve finished a roll of film I have to go into a dark bag and roll it on to my film reels, put it in the tank and close the lid. Then I stick the tank onto my JOBO film processor—which is a device that will regulate water temperature for color film as well as agitate my film for even development. Once that is done I start the development process which takes usually about 30 minutes or so, during this time I play Mat Hoffman's Pro BMX 2 on the PS2 I have set up in my darkroom which usually makes this process feel like a privilege. Once the film is done developing I put it into my film drying cabinet and play Mat Hoffman for about 20 more minutes. After I’ve heard the song Passenger about six times I bring my film up to my house where my scanner lives and it takes me about 15 more minutes to scan my film and have my digital "copies" of my images. So the way I see it is if you spend more then an hour in Lightroom “editing” your hundreds of photos from the day then you really can’t say that film takes too long!
But once your film is scanned, don't you bring the file into Photoshop to adjust the contrast, sharpness, and remove specs, lint, etc…
That's a great question Jeff. Yes, I absolutely do bring my scanned images into some editing software to remove dust and edit contrast and things like that. That is the best part about being a film photographer in 2017—my digital scans are just a digital representation of my physical negative. Since I’m able to digitize these negatives not only do I get to participate in all the digital benefits that any digital photographer gets to enjoy, but I also get to shoot any vintage camera I want and be in complete control of the photographic process at the same time. I know I don’t have to tell you how awesome it is to have a binder full of negatives, but of course I still want to text my friends the photo I shot of them at the skatepark, as a film photographer I’m still able to do both.
Do you process anything other than B&W film?
Yeah I do, because of my JOBO processor it makes developing any film really simple. I have started developing color print film (C41) as well as slide film (E6) which is really awesome because I can basically buy any roll of film on the market, shoot it and develop it in the same day.
Personally, I really miss printing in the darkroom. How often do you make your own prints?
Printing in the dark room is what it is all about! Being able to make a real photograph with light and chemicals will really put it all into perspective. Personally, I don’t print as much as I'd like to, but I still manage to get in some printing probably once every three months or so. I often find that I am too busy shooting more film to stop and choose a few frames to make prints of, it's a habit I really gotta break since I’ve got a darkroom and all.
I had my start shooting film, and I can remember when I first started shooting digital photos and I would get a dialed shot—one that if it were shot on film I'd be really hyped on—but since it was digital I just had this feeling like the photo didn't count—which is silly, but that's how I felt at the time. Can you relate to this at all?Wow Jeff! It’s really great hearing you say that, actually, yes this is exactly how I feel today. It’s not so much that the photo doesn’t count, but the photo doesn’t “exist” without technology, so a digital file is just too vulnerable for me. The thing about a film photograph is that it is tangible—it has “value”—and to every photographer out there who has shot film they will agree. So if I’m making a digital image that is not tangible and can't exist without a computer it inherently has less of that real physical value. So basically, the way I see it is if a film photo is worth a dollar and a digital photo is worth a dime then no matter what the subject is the film photo will always have more value and more significance even if the digital one looks better! I’m here to make photos that will last a lifetime and film has proven to be able to make that possible, so I shoot film.
When you were first starting out shooting, where there certain photographers who influenced or inspired you?
Yes absolutely, you were THE photographer. When I found photography I was 100% a BMX kid so my walls were lined with the pages of RideBMX and my life was surrounded by our sport. The only reason I picked up my camera was to shoot my friends riding, so naturally you were a huge inspiration to me. The magazines I covered my walls with were like 2006 era issues so I really feel like my photographic style came from that time in BMX… the simpler "turndown, table toboggan" years. I, of course, valued other BMX photographers, but I don’t know, it seemed like there were guys that were part of BMX and shot photos while being a part of it and then there was guys like you, who were there specifically to photograph BMX, so because of that your images stood out as “photography of BMX" and not just snapshots of BMX tricks happening.
And what about today?
Since then I took a strong interest in the history of photography and some of the greatest photographers that have ever lived are my biggest motivators to keep doing what I am doing. People like Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, and of course Ansel Adams, are some of the people that inspire me the most. Oh! And recently I’ve met Grant Brittain, who is a very decorated skateboard photographer and that guy is the fuckin' truth! That guy is why we need more film in BMX because to this day he still prints in his darkroom photos of Tony Hawk when he was a 12 year-old kid skating his ass off all the way 'til now. It is people like him that made me realize that we need to really be mindful of all the BMX history that we're documenting because if it weren’t for that one guy shooting film we wouldn’t be able to see old photos of Tony Hawk as a kid.
Can you give us five reasons why shooting film is superior to digital…
Ha, yeah I think I can do that. Number one reason is that film is tangible. It exists, you can touch it, you can feel it, hell… You could eat a film photograph if you really wanted to! Because of this reason it is also archival—which means that it will last in a box for decades so you can see your photos again and again and again for years to come without doing a damn thing.
The second reason is because it slows you down. We don’t need 350 photos from a two-hour session at the skatepark and when you shoot that many it not only makes it harder to find the good ones, but it makes all the photos have less meaning to you. Going to the park with one roll of film is going to give you 36 to choose from and you will no doubt have more good photos then the alternative 350. Less is more!
Film photography is REAL PHOTOGRAPHY! It cannot be denied that shooting film is the true test of a photographer and because of that it feel’s so damn good when you get a great shot because you made it. Not a computer, not a digital camera, but you! The way I see it is if I was a guy that had an interest in photography 20 years ago I would have had to shoot film, so why shouldn’t I shoot film now if I really do love photography?
Fourth reason is because it is so so cheap! People have this idea that because I have to pay to have my film developed then it is therefore expensive to shoot film, but this is just not so! If an entry level DSLR costs $600+ and a cheap film camera is $50 then you will have $550 left over to buy film and chemicals and a scanner! If you want to shoot photos then film is the cheapest way to go. I just bought one of the same cameras Edwin [De La Rosa] shoots with for $5!
The last reason is because it’s easy. People often don’t realize how forgiving film is so they are scared of “messing it up” but that is so so hard to do. Film has “latitude” which is basically a cushion for error that makes it very hard to mess up so badly that you will have nothing to look at. You really cannot mess up so go out and buy a roll and give it a shot!
And can you give us a few reasons when you see digital being the better option?
Yes I can, I think digital cameras have so many good purposes, but I personally feel like it's best for images that don’t need to last forever, for instance, product shots of bike parts absolutely should be shot on digital or maybe a quick portrait for an online post, you know things that don’t need to be kept for a long time? If you’re shooting photos of your family and you want your children to see them in 30 years then you HAVE to shoot film because our computers, iPhones and hard drives will not do us any good in the year 2050.
Tell us about your Frankenstax camera…
Ha! The Frankenstax is my custom made camera that shoots Instax wide film. It is the only camera that allows for manual focus and manual exposure on Instax wide film. I basically got tired of shooting the crappy plastic cameras made for this film so I decided to build my own camera out of an old polaroid land camera, a large format lens and a manual crank Instax wide back. Now I basically have the ultimate instant film camera and it's the only one in the country.
I know you shot one photo every day for the entire of 2016 with the Frankenstax. Are there any other ongoing projects you're working on?
Yeah, that was a very demanding project that I’m really glad is over. It was an awesome experience documenting every day of the year on instant film because now I have about 400+ photos from the year in addition to my project and let me tell you… no SD card has ever made me feel the way a few hundred Polaroids does. This year I am working on a little side project I’m calling “Headlines” where I just document the different headlines of major newspapers as some sort of a visual timeline of events. It's easy to forget the news as days go by so my hopes are that my photographs will shed some light on the more important events and prevent them from being forgotten.
Your girlfriend is a photographer as well. What type of photography is she interested in? And what's it like having two photographers in the house? Does she share the same opinion about film as you?
Yeah she is an excellent photographer actually, but when we first met she had never used a real camera in her life. One day I basically explained the “sunny 16” rule to her and gave her my Rolleiflex TLR to shoot and she picked it up immediately, since then she has shot well over 100 rolls of film and has never once used a light meter or a digital camera. She really likes photographing people and documenting our son growing up, it's really great having her around because I get so many awesome photos of myself and because she lets me buy any cameras I want. She is really the reason I started pushing people to shoot more film because she started with no photography knowledge at all and is an experienced film photographer now. She gets more weddings then I do!
You shred on the bike, and you're constantly shooting photos, but I think of you as more of a photographer and not as "BMX photographer" specifically. What do you think?
Thanks man I appreciate that! I would have to agree with you on that, when I started out all I shot was BMX because that was all that I did with my life. Once my friends stopped riding and there was less stuff going on at the park I found myself bored with my camera and wanting to shoot more subjects so I basically challenged myself to photograph anything and everything. More recently I’ve become a dad and my gears have shifted towards documenting my family for them to see when we get older. Just by having the thought in mind that my kids can see all the things I’ve done in my life through my archives that single thought alone is what keeps me shooting film of every subject I find interesting.
How often do you shoot BMX?
Really, as often as I can, it is still what I love to shoot the most because it is a real challenge. What I love about BMX photography is all the work that goes into each shot, you have to know how the rider does the trick and study it to figure out the best approach for each new trick and I just really love that challenge. I broke my ankle in November so lately I have been going to the park with my knee scooter and a few rolls of film and I’ve been having so much fun being able to take it all in and watch the session unfold.
What is the scene like where you live? I now you have some garage ramps and some concrete parks in the area…
The scene in my area has definitely been stronger then it is today, which kinda bums me out, but at the same time we’ve got a few really dedicated kids that fucking love BMX and that makes me so excited. As a photographer, it is almost our job to keep our finger on the pulse of the local scene and I have tried my best to do that and to document our local riders and build them up because its hard to stay motivated when everybody else is on a scooter or some shit. Yeah, over the winter last year my buddy Dylan and I wanted to go on a BMX road trip, but it rained so instead we bought some wood and built my garage up in about a week, some gnarly sessions have gone down and it feels like real hearty freestyle BMX every time I have the crew over for a session
Have you ever considered moving somewhere with a more thriving BMX scene so you could shoot more?
While I would love to be around more BMX because I really love shooting new people and big tricks, I really love northern California and have never considered moving anywhere else. Where I live now is in the foothills below the Sierras and when I’m not riding I am basically in paradise, now that I have a family moving for me is less likely then it was when I was younger. However, I hope to make more trips to southern California to shoot BMX.
When going out on a street mission to shoot riding, what do you typically bring with you?
Well, before I was a film guy I would be telling you all about my Quantum flashes and zoom lenses, but now that my life is a bit more simple I mostly shoot with available light which makes my bag much lighter. My go to camera for BMX is my Nikon F100 with a 85mm f1.8 on it or a manual focus Nikon 16mm F2.8 fisheye lens (one of those old lenses I like so much) The F100 is just such a breeze to use and I can just fly through a roll if I want to. Then for medium format I would usually bring my Hasselblad, or lately I’ve been shooting with my girlfriend's Mamiya 645 super that actually has a 1/1000th focal plane shutter which is great for BMX stuff. In addition to those cameras I'd probably bring like 5-6 rolls of film just in case and I’m good to go for the day.
You were/are an instructor at Woodward West Media Camp, correct? What did that entail exactly? And what was the camper's attitude towards working with film?
Yeah, I still go out to Woodward every summer and a few years ago I decided to start bringing my chemicals to camp and teaching the kids how to shoot and develop film. I’m very proud of this because we are actually the only Woodward camp that teaches this and so far the kids have loved it! I basically start the week out teaching the kids how to read light without a light meter then I give them some old ass cameras with no meter and a roll of film and send them out to shoot. When they come back we develop the film just hours later and they get to see actual images that they made and it builds that confidence up! I’ve taught an 11 year-old girl how to shoot and develop her own film—and when she came to camp she was shooting her camera with auto ISO on. Her dad emailed me and told me that she went home and taught him how to use his camera. I would say it has been a huge success and I don’t plan on stopping because the kids love it. At the end of the week the kids are allowed to pick five photos to print in the art show and let me tell you that each one of those kids were more proud of their film photos then any of the ones they shot with the cameras they brought from home.
You go through great lengths to raise awareness of film photography with your YouTube channel, Forest Hill film lab, and even organizing a film sports photography workshop with your friend Dave at the Napa skatepark. What drives you to be proactive with exposing people to shooting film?
Basically, since I’ve made the switch to film my photography has really started to thrive and I’ve been able to make some images I’m really proud of and basically I just want to tell everybody how awesome this shit is! I’m like that awkward dude at the skatepark that wants to talk to you about the Bible, except I want to remind people that film is the answer! I feel like we all have gotten caught up in the digital world with Snapchat and Instagram and all that stuff. Maybe people have forgotten that we aren’t taking photos for them to last an “instant” we want them to last forever! So I feel it is my duty to convert real passionate photographers to shoot film as a way to preserve some of our experiences in life. You guys still see my photos on a cell phone, but they all live in a binder somewhere as well.
Just for conversation sake, I think it's safe to assume that as technology progresses and people change with it, when Kodak and Fuji stop making film and all the hoarded expired film the world over gets exposed, what are you going to do when there's no longer any emulsion that hasn't seen light?
Well, this is an interesting one… I really feel like if there are enough people passionate about something that it will live forever. As an example, the first photographic process—which is the “daguerreotype” process—was invented in 1839 and people are still make images using this process today. Because of this reason I really don’t expect to see film die in my lifetime, but as a precaution I am always buying up as much film as I can get my hands on!