Focused on Photographs: Meet Gregg McNeill

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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 VC1had 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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Thanks Gregg! To follow Gregg’s work, you can check out his wet plate website, Dark Box Images, his commercial photo/video website, Blue Box Images, or you can follow him on Flickr or Instagram. Stay tuned to learn more about the team here at PONF, and the development of the world’s first multi-back 35mm film and digital camera.
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A Weekly Update – Big Things Ahead!

Hello from the team at PONF! We hope everyone is doing great, and that you’re shooting lots of photographs, wherever you are in the world. We have a lot going on behind the scenes right now, and lots of exciting developments to the camera which are right around the corner, so grab a cup of tea and prepare to get excited about the best camera ever, coming to life very soon!

How soon, you may ask? Well, we are pleased to tell you that the very first PONF Camera will be on the market in mid 2018, with presales opening sometime in the second quarter. This means that this year, directly from the PONF website, you’ll be able to exactly customize your camera, making it unique and personal to your needs with our configurator tool. We’ve got plans for both SLR and Rangefinder PONF Cameras…let us know below in the comments which you’d like to see first.

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As you probably know, PONF is Photography On Film. We have no shortage of ideas for ways our beloved camera will be adaptable for the different films you love. 35mm is just the beginning; by 2019 we plan to create backs to accommodate instant film, 120 film, and large format sheet film. The fearless PONF Camera will allow you to seamlessly shoot multiple formats, making the most of an analog shooting experience.

On the digital side, the PONF camera takes full advantage of sleek, state of the art tech. The digital back will be powered by the powerful, endlessly customizable RaspberryPI Compute Module 3, and will feature Sony sensors, your choice of APS-C or Full-Frame. By 2020 the system will also have a 6×6 digital back, for mind blowing detail made possible by the medium format sensor. We are also developing high quality optics, based on our favorite legacy optics from the years, lenses made with image lovers in mind. This complete system is made to work with your images in a complete workflow, from the snap of the shutter to the scan of your negative and everything in between.

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What is possibly more exciting than the hardware of the PONF camera though, is what we’re planning to do with it. The customization of the digital back will allow each photographer to set up the critical functions of the camera in the way that suits them best, including creating extra accessibility where it’s needed. The camera can even be programmed to connect to and control drones, audio equipment, and more. With integration into the Internet of Things, the camera will have the capability to sharing and backing up directly to the cloud. Video and digital stills are effortless and intuitive because of all of this. There are huge technological and usage implications in this brilliant marriage of expert IT and a deep love for photography in its essence.

Ok, I get it. It sounds fantastic, and perhaps too good to be true. You’ve maybe heard about projects like PONF before, proposing a mythical, modular future for photography but a camera never coming to fruition. We are promising that this is different, the beginning of a new kind of camera company.

We are founding the PONF Fellowship and Foundation for Photographic Education, in which we will feature original courses, lessons, photography exercises (from basic analog to advanced digital to alternative processes and beyond!) made by our partners, photographers working both in the field and in academia. PONF strives to be a happy exchange of knowledge and expertise to invigorate photography and inspire the generations of photographers in the future. We are looking for a community that share the same values and dreams.

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Tirelessly in literally hundreds of hours in meetings, we are now working on the creation of a community of companies, individuals, universities, R&D institutions to improve the knowledge about photography available and improve the quality of the projects we work on. It’s about cooperation, not competition. Our team is made of experts with nearly a combined century of experience and spanning generations, all with a love of this medium which spans a time nearly half the life of photography itself. That’s how you know it’s serious. We are here to make something meaningful.

Like I said, a lot is happening behind the scenes, it’s happening really fast and we are all very excited to report that the progress on this project is steady and very positive. Sign up for the newsletter, tell your friends, write your favorite journalists, let us know your feedback. Our next big announcement comes February 15, but we have more awesome content planned before that. Thanks for reading. Now, go take pictures and don’t forget to label your film rolls.

Katherine

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PONF Multiback Open Camera – Fact #3

The PONF Multiback Open Camera brings together computers and photography.

The digital back of the camera is a fully functional micro-computer, internet and cloud connected, with a Linux Operating System, running on a RaspberryPI Compute Module core.

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The digital back can be programmed by the user, so it can accomplish specific tasks like:

  • self driving on drones and robots
  • image, pattern recognition
  • external sensors control

And, if you are not into programming, PONF courses and lessons will help you.
Want to have a professional programming? We have you covered, too.

Follow the project development at PONF website or on Facebook.

A Camera For All: An Open Letter to the PONF Community

KPhipps-10Hello PONF, I’m Katherine Phipps, nice to meet you. I’m pleased to introduce myself to the growing community as the new PONF Marketing and Communications Director. I’ve been shooting photographs for nearly a decade now, and have been working in and around the photography industry since 2015 when I graduated from Pratt Institute with a BFA in Photography. When I first heard of the PONF Fellowship, I was enthusiastic to get involved with an organization which is so committed to creating a camera which is meant to suit the needs of all photographers, no matter which side of the imaginary digital vs. analog line they fall on. In fact, I find the need to decide one versus the other to be arbitrary and limiting as they both have their own distinct place in the modern world as a way to make photographs, in art, in professional photography, and perhaps most importantly, in  photographic education.

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I fell madly in love with photography when I was 16 and let me be honest in saying that it has been the longest standing, most healthy relationship of my life. I shot, processed, and printed hundreds of rolls of 35mm and 120 (shot exclusively in my Holga) black and white film in my two years of amazing photographic education under the loving guidance of Nicole Croy, who has since been recognized as one of the best photography teachers in the United States by the Society of Photography Education. In 2011, I was awarded a Regional Gold Key for my photography portfolio and a National Silver Medal for a photograph in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. I then decided to pursue photography and art as a career and moved to New York for art school.

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The hybridization of analog and digital photography is fascinating to me because it quite literally offers unlimited possibilities in image making to artists. When I was a sophomore in college and preparing to transfer from a tiny upstate art school to the school of my dreams, Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, the then-new department chair Stephen Hilger visited the group of incoming students and described the method of working he was introducing into his curriculum. It involved taking photos on film and then using incredibly high resolution scanners and large format printers to make a final print.  Where the more purist students guffawed at the idea of editing their precious negatives in Photoshop rather than meticulously c-printing them, I saw reference to my beloved darkroom process in every step and began to transition my workflow to include digital editing and printing processes.

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Screen Shot 2018-01-09 at 3.41.05 PM.pngFast forward to senior year of art school. I wasn’t working in the darkroom much anymore, but I was incredibly prolific: I was shooting exclusively large and medium format now for my art and making large prints on rag paper. I was also developing a style I really liked in silkscreen, which informed a gum bichromate print that I worked on for 30 hours and really loved. I was making books and preparing my gallery show. I’d also began working for a wedding photographer and was not only editing high volumes of images for him but also learning to make photographs that I liked with a DSLR at weddings and in the studio. I will admit that as a film shooter accustomed to extreme contemplation in my photographic process, it took me a lot of practice before I was able to use my digital camera intuitively, fast enough to capture every moment the way I could see it unfolding before my eyes. I missed a lot of times but I was able to see my mistakes in real time: missing focus, botched exposure. That instant feedback was valuable. Now, my clients trust me to document some of the most important moments in their lives, to accurately translate their intimate experiences into art, and I am confident that I can do it, because not only have I found an equipment setup that really works for me, I know that camera inside and out from experience.

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Once I left school I was hit with a massive realization I had not expected: for the first time in six years, I didn’t have access to a darkroom or the expensive medium format cameras I had been using, and my photography process had to change. However, I was using my digital camera a lot, as I had managed to secure a steady stream of small shooting and editing gigs which was really thrilling until I dropped a hard drive and had to experience both client frustration and a gut wrenching six weeks of anxiety while I waited for the miracle of data recovery to be performed. I learned an important lesson about the impermanence of pixels and my desire to shoot film was stronger than ever, but I had a silly misconception that serious artists didn’t shoot 35mm film and thus I was resistant to using the Canon Rebel K2 I’d carried everywhere with me in high school. Even more so the Holga I’d once bragged about in my Photo 101 class, much to the chagrin of my artsy professors keen to teach exposure and contrast.

Screen Shot 2018-01-09 at 3.53.41 PM.pngIt all changed when my friend told me, after listening to me lament my hard drive woes, that Lomography was hiring for customer service in their NYC office, a position I held only briefly before my role expanded to Online Marketing, PR, and Community Manager for USA and Canada. My time at Lomography was deeply formative and I acknowledge with gratitude that I unlearned every pretentious idea I ever had about photography: that it wasn’t for everyone, that we shouldn’t document our lives intimately with selfies and snapshots and every kind of picture in between, that there is any sort of hierarchy in equipment or format. I was fortunate to work with many artists, students, journalists, educators, curators, musicians, and best of all, the creative geniuses on the Lomography team around the world in my years there and was inspired by all of it. I learned to trust the process and not worry about the outcome, in order to produce a something better than you could have imagined. This is the beauty of analog, the magic of the latent image. But above all, I would say my greatest takeaway is that everyone has something meaningful to express and capture through photographs if given the opportunity.

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The other really important thing that I learned at Lomography is that in general people do not only love film in the so-called “digital age”, they crave an interaction with something tangible and are definitely willing to experiment with cameras aside from their smartphone. Instant cameras and mobile instant printers saw a huge jump in popularity between 2016-2017, and major media outlets like TIME and the Today Show touted the resurgence of analog among consumers, while Wired and Wall Street Journal wrote guides about which cameras to buy. Proudly declaring that film was not dead, many companies released new cameras as well as new film emulsions and formats, much to the delight of film shooters, who for years had only heard news of camera stores and film factories shuttering their doors. I can confidently say that whereas early in my career in art school my colleagues and I worried about the sustainability of our love for film, this is clearly not a problem anymore as there is an evident, renewed interest in analog. The 2000s digital pro-sumer popularity boom is waning, once again making space for a bright future for film photography.

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All of this to say, my experience in photography is a number of things: academic, professional, artistic, democratic, experimental, fluid, but most of all, driven by a love of pictures and a recognition of their importance in our lives. Everything I’ve learned so far has lead me to believe that the more photographers connect with one another as a community, and connect with and refer to analog, alternative, and even antiquated photographic processes as a medium, the possibilities for photography in the coming age are limitless. There is an integral place for digital photography and digital workflow in the modern world, and there is no reason that the two forms of photography cannot exist side by side as I personally see them both as necessary and important tools in my practice of photography. This is why I’m pleased to be on the team bring PONF to life. I’m passionate about photography, and photography on film. 

One of the first things I worked on was updating the website with more information about the PONF project. What do you think of the new design? Do you have questions or thoughts to share? We want to hear from you.

Comment below or drop me a line: katherine@ponfcamera.com

All photographs by Katherine Phipps except the first portrait, by Daniel Schaefer, and the instant photograph of Katherine and Al Roker, by Kyle Depew.

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