Instant/Surf: The Polaroid Photography of Matt Smith01 . 04 . 17
Cornwall is, and has a history of being, home to some incredibly creative people; from the artistic hubs of St Ives and Newlyn in the 19th and 20th centuries through to the present day, creativity in many mediums both develops here and is drawn here. Some people pursue their creative endeavours full tie, whilst others enjoy them as a past time that sits alongside their working lives and other hobbies. Our friend Matt Smith falls into that later category. Matt lives in St Agnes, just over the hill from us. He has a regular job, he surfs, and he has a passion for polaroid photography that often sees him taking photos before or after a surf at a local beach with one of his incredibly interesting instant cameras. In a world of instant digital photography, where people snap phone photos of the waves before or after a surf to share on social media, we wanted to shine a spotlight on Matt's interpretation of instant surf photography and celebrate some of his beautiful images.
Can you tell us a little about instant film photography?
Using Instant film, often called polaroid, is taking a photo and holding the developed print in your hand a few minutes later. They are original one-off works of art and at the same time extremely complex chemical reactions. At one point polaroid were selling millions of packs of film a year, then digital came along and sales plummeted. Now just a few companies produce it but like vinyl it's experiencing a resurgence in popularity. I've been shooting it for over 10 years and hope to do so for as long as I can get film. Instant film always generates a reaction from those seeing it the first time and it's a pretty addictive way to take photos.
Much of your work focuses on surfing and surf culture, but the action of surfing must be difficult to photograph on equipment that isn’t known for capturing fast moving subjects. How have you gone about combining your passions of surfing and instant film photography?
Yeah these old cameras have wide lenses, slow shutters and of course it's one shot at a time. You need a wave you can get pretty close to if you want to get a picture of someone surfing where they don't just look like a grain of sand stuck to the print. So I try to take photos of the things that surround surfing, like people at the beach, lineups, surfboards, landscapes and waves.
What cameras and films do you use the most?
At the moment pretty much just polaroid film in various cameras. Film is mainly the peel apart style but some of the classic type polaroid with the fat white bottom border too and some of the larger 4x5 size as well. I do shoot some black and white medium and large format film too occasionally. I have probably 4 or 5 cameras I use a lot and a few that get the occasional outing. Becoming a camera collector is all too easy so I sold everything I never use. And spent the proceeds on film….
What are the biggest challenges presented by instant film photography?
I prefer original polaroid film, and the last batch made expired in March 2009, so even the 'freshest' film is almost ten years old, and many of the cameras are 40 or 50+ years old as well. Putting those two elements together creates a challenge, but this is also what makes it so rewarding when it all comes together. Instant film isn't cheap to use, there are only a couple of companies left making it and Ebay prices are going through the roof. When one shot can cost the same as a beer you tend to be careful… I'm also not that good at keeping sand off the prints whilst they dry!
Your chosen medium has sometimes required you to get creative with your equipment. Can you talk to us about some of the woodworking that you’ve done to adapt your cameras?
Tinkering with cameras is all part of the process... it’s great to get something working again or to improve it and give it a new lease of life. I've modified a few cameras to put different lenses on them or to change the film they use which is fun and stops these great cameras being paperweights. I've always liked trying to work with wood and whilst I'm no expert it is something I enjoy. I wanted a camera that had some certain functions but couldn’t afford to buy one, so I decided to make one myself out of wood and attach a lens and film back to it.. It went through three versions and served me well. To be fair my woodworking skills need some polishing but it’s certainly something I’ll do more of.
Instant film produces an incredibly nostalgic look. Is this outcome part of the appeal for you, or is it the process that you love?
I think it's both. I love the soft look and colours polaroid film gives, and whilst I can't control that 100%, I have learnt how to get the results I want in a lot of situations. But I also find the process extremely rewarding, I’m often just as pleased to have created an image I like from really old film with a camera I have worked on, as with the actual image itself.
You don’t only haul your camera kit around the local beaches, you take it away on international trips. How do you balance the packing list of surfboards against cameras and film?
My hand luggage is always full of Polaroid cameras and film, anything else that fits in that bag is a bonus. I'm going to Sagres, Portugal in May with my family, which will be a different packing challenge so maybe ask me again after that!
Is your photography largely spontaneous, or do you ever plan shots?
Pretty much all spontaneous. I occasionally go out with a shot in mind but most of the time I am shooting before or after I have been surfing myself. I just like wandering around the beach and coast with a camera.
Do you have any longer term photography projects that you’re working on at the moment?
I'd like to get better at portraits, so am trying hard to do more of those.
From where do you draw your inspiration?
Mainly from being at the beach, the coast, or outdoors somewhere. There is a huge community of extremely talented instant photographers out there, all of whom give their own take to using the film and cameras. I’m inspired by wet plate photography and any of the other older photographic processes. There are so amazing surf photographers, way too many to mention or even know about. I personally prefer surfing inspired landscapes than the 600mm lens from the beach, but of course still appreciate all good surf images. Surf photography from the 60s and 70s is incredible because the film just looks so damn good. I also get a lot of inspiration from skate and snowboarding images too.
To name just a few of the many photographers that inspire me: Ryan Tatar, Bernard Testemale, Joni Sternbach, Matt Georges, Leo Sharp, Chris Burkard, Adam Harriden, Matt Schwartz, Leroy Grannis, Ron Stoner, Francois-Xavier Laurent, Morgan Maassen, Bastian Kalous , Arto Saari, Atiba Jefferson, Romain Juchereau, Rommel, Ian and Erick Regnard… this list could go on and on….