In this interview, we meet photographer, filmmaker, and educator Gregg McNeill, who joins the PONF team as our key tester of the prototype of the PONF Camera, and leader in the PONF Foundation for Photographic Education, which will provide resources to Fellowship members. He is currently based in Scotland, but was born in the United States and has lived all over the world, working as a director of photography and photographer on TV and film documentary projects including the acclaimed “Outside The Wire” for The Red, White, And Blue Project, the heartfelt story of soldiers working to make the lives of children better in climate of war in Afghanistan. He has also worked on many other commercial and personal projects. Because of his love of all types of picture-making, from digital filmmaking to traditional (or alternative) photographic processes such as wet plate collodion, we think he is an excellent resource for all of us in the PONF community and his test images are certain to be beautiful. Without further ado, we are pleased to introduce Gregg.
PONF: Where are you from, where did you grow up? Where are you living now?
Gregg McNeill: I was born in Michigan, grew up in Ohio, moved to Virginia and currently live in Scotland with my wife and daughter.
What is your earliest memory with photography?
My mother used to take snapshots with a Kodak Instamatic. The ubiquitous form factor of that little camera has stuck with me. It used the blue flashcubes. There were always a few stashed in a drawer in the living room.
Describe your first encounter with digital photography.
I was shooting for a company in Virginia and they had bought a digital camera that I was asked to become proficient in using. It was an early Nikon (I don’t remember the model number). I was a fairly late adopter of digital photography. This wasn’t intentional, it was just that my personal work wasn’t calling for it. After using several digital cameras, I understood digital’s place in both my professional life as well as my personal work.
Several years ago I was shooting a documentary in Afghanistan. I was shooting both video and stills. There would have been no way to do that job with film. I was a one-man band, with all of my gear carried on my person. In addition to the video gear, I had a Canon 40D (that had just been released), a kit lens, a Nifty-50 and a 35mm 1.4 prime. I shot some of my best portraits with that set-up. Digital was definitely the right tool for that job.
I feel like in the last 5 or so years, we’ve gotten beyond the Film VS. Digital debate and that is a good thing for the photographic community in general. Both mediums have their place and we need to remember that. Analogue photography is becoming what it was always meant to be, an artistic medium that can be practiced by anyone. It’s not as cheap as it used to be, but any artistic pursuits never are.
What is your favorite film and camera or image making equipment/process?
That is a tough one.
I have a great affection for the Pentax K-1000. It was my first camera. Its shutter clack has always been comforting to me. The K-1000 is in my opinion the very best student camera ever made. It’s very sturdy and has an accurate meter. The 50mm 1.8 lens that came with mine is a great piece of glass. To this day I still shoot with it. I love the quality of image this camera and lens produce. When coupled with TMAX 3200 and a high acutance developer. The sandy granularity of the images brings to mind the classic looks of old-school street photography from the 40’s and 50’s.
The Original Holga is right up there. At one time I had 5 of them. Each one had a different personality, photographically. I shot exclusively with them for about 5 years. The removal of the inserts meant that I was framing and exposing to the edge of the film itself, often including the edge numbers of the film in the final image. The focus fall off and vignetting combined with the 6×6 format made this a wonderfully challenging camera to shoot with. It’s tough plastic construction meant that they could sit in the bottom of my bag all the time. 2 or 3 Holgas were my constant companions for many years.
The Bronica ETR always felt really great in my hands. The 2¼ frame was a really nice format for framing objects and people. The tack sharp lens and rectangular frame was a nice compliment to working with the Holga.
Where the Holga taught me to let go and embrace the unknown, The 4×5 Graflex Press Camera brought me back to a place where I had to really slow down with my images and concentrate on the components of the frame again.
When I took up Wet Plate Collodion, I bought a Vageeswari 10×12, my current favourite. It’s the most simple and honest camera I have ever used. The process of Wet Plate Collodion is the most challenging, frustrating, amazing and fascinating process I have ever done. I constantly feel challenged and right at the edge of my comfort zone. I haven’t been this excited about photography since the first time I got excited about photography over 30 years ago.
Favourite film is easy: Medium Format Tri-X Pan ASA320. The tonal gradation and grain structure of that film was always second to none.
What has your career been like?
I’ve been making images since I was a teenager. My photographic journey has taken me through many film formats (Minox, 35mm, 120mm, Polaroid, Pinhole, LomoKino, 4×5, 8×10, 10×12). I am currently obsessed with the Victorian wetplate Collodion process. I split my time between Corporate Video and Documentary work and Wetplate.
What are some of your favorite or most formative past projects or roles?
My first University photography teacher (whose name has been long since lost in my memory) had a tremendous influence on me in ways I didn’t realize at the time. She instilled in me, among other things, the maxim of framing in camera. So that we couldn’t crop our shots in the darkroom, our first assignment was to hand cut our 35mm negative carriers out of matt board so that the whole frame of our printed work was presented within the grindy uneven frame of the carrier, sometimes showing portions of the sprockets. (I kept that negative carrier and when I later moved to Medium Format, I cut another neg carrier, this time in 6×6, for that very purpose.)
This idea of framing in the viewfinder had an enormous effect on my work. It kept me looking at the frame as well as objects within in the frame, moving a step here or there to keep things out of the frame or move things into the frame.
Knowing that whatever I saw would be included in the final print, made me very aware of my subject and it’s relationship to the other objects in the frame.
Another incidental effect this would have on my work was that the edge of the negative carrier and the film frame itself worked as another frame for the image, allowing me to let highlights blow-out on the edges of an image, not having to worry about detail in a bright sky or a streetlamp, to save more important detail in the darker parts of the image. A side effect of this is that the neg carrier became part of the image itself. This would also tune me into experimentation with frames within a frame (the jagged neg carrier would become the frame of the frames within the frames.).
I was working for a media firm in Alexandria, VA. One of their clients, a group that certified sustainable forests, needed images for a new campaign and website. My boss had seen my work on Flickr and asked me to shoot some images of old growth forests and executives in those forests. He told me that he liked the “old-timey” look of my work.
When I started to explain what I would like to do, he stopped me and said, “I don’t understand a word of what you’re saying. Just do whatever you need to do and show me when it’s done.” The only stipulation he added was that he wanted me to take the digital Nikon to shoot backup images of the portraits, just in case. I walked away from that conversation knowing I had the Holy Grail of assignments. It would be one of the best photo experiences of my professional photographic life. The Film tally of that project was: 120mm Tmax 400, 120mm Ilford Delta 3200, 120mm Portra 400 NC, 120mm Portra 400 VC, Polaroid 690, Polaroid 3000 BW , Minox 400 colour, Minox 400 BW, 35mm Portra 400 NC, 35mm Tmax 400, 35mm Tmax 3200. Cameras used: Canon A-1 (28mm 2.8, 50mm 1.4), Canon T-90 (wide zoom), Pentax K-1000 (with a screw-mount East German 400mm f5.6 lens for portraits), Minox B, Holga, Holga fitted with a pinhole, Polaroid 200 Land Camera fitted with a pinhole, Nikon Digital (kit lens)
The first leg of the trip was to Shenandoah National forest. I was awestruck by the size of some of the trees. I came back with several amazing images. I had them scanned by another photographer I knew. This was one of my first experiences with a hybrid process (capturing on film and finishing digitally).
The second leg of that trip would be to a National Forest outside of Vancouver, British Columbia. Words fail to describe the beauty I captured there. For the post on this series of images I purchased an Epson Perfection V750 scanner and a wet-scanning kit, as well as several film holders and ANR (anti-newton ring) glass. The library of images for this job was as vast as it was varied. I loved using the different formats and films within the same project and the results were great.
How did you get involved with PONF?
I contacted Rafaello through Instagram when I saw one of his first posts about the project. I told him that I wanted to talk to him about what he was doing and that I’d like to test the camera and help him refine it. We met at a café in Edinburgh for a ‘quick chat’ that ended up being a 2½ hour in-depth conversation about what we loved about film photography, cameras and lenses.
Tell us about your role with the project.
I will be one of the very first testers of the camera, sharing my work along the way, and also will play a key role in the PONF Foundation with a focus (pun intended) on education. I will be co-writing educational materials and leading courses on photography available to members of the PONF Fellowship.
I am very excited to introduce this camera into the world and I’m looking forward to helping new photographers make the most of the PONF system. My personal goals for this project are to get more people shooting and help young photographers to gain enough experience to be able to shoot with intention.
What I mean by this is to visualize the image that you are after and using your knowledge of what your camera, film (or sensor) and chemistry can do, and more importantly they can’t do. With this level of understanding of your tools, you can more easily make the images you want rather than hoping for something amazing to happen.
What are you interested in besides photography?
As a filmmaker and photographer, my vocation and my hobby have joined forces to destroy me.
Let’s end with your advice to another photographer but with a twist: Ten words or less or a Haiku.
Know All Of Your Tools
Always Shoot With Intention
Go! Make Images