In the digital age, this type of street portrait is now almost non-existent in the UK. In our small way we hope to keep this tradition alive, and to give the public a unique experience of having a genuine ‘old-school’ photo made for them.”
Photographer Martin Edwards is explaining why he and fellow Bristol snapper Luis Bustamante are mounting an exhibition of their unique, old-school photographic portraits of Bristol people. The pair has been making the portraits at various events over the last three years, including Brisfest and the Bristol Festival of Photography, and visitors to El Busta’s Travelling Photography Studio, at central Bristol photography store Photographique, can see the results – and even, on two selected Saturdays, to sit for portraits of their own.
Inspired by the itinerant photographers of old, Martin and Luis use a large-format film camera and portable darkroom to make while-you-wait photos.
The duo draws on the Spanish and South American tradition (Luis is originally from Chile) of street portraits made by “minuteros”, or minute-men.
“At one time you could find them here in the UK, at the seaside for instance, but no longer,” Martin explains.
“In an era dominated by slick high-street studios and digital effects, we simply want to acknowledge, if not revive, the tradition of affordable, individual street portraits.
As Martin proudly acknowledges, the duo’s working processes are rough and ready.
“We use paper negatives rather than film, which is not just cheaper and quicker, but also gives longer exposure times and makes people stand very still as they would have in older times. Each print has faults and imperfections, and there’s always a bit of educated guesswork in making them.
“No two will ever be the same, and none will ever be perfect. A good thing to remember, we feel, in the frantic and über-perfect world we often inhabit!
“One of the things we most enjoy is the fascination – the joy, even – on people’s faces when they see what we are doing, and more so when they have their portrait done and find out how the camera works and what goes on inside our darkroom box. Sometimes we run El Busta’s as a workshop at an event, and people can have a go at doing it themselves.
“This slows the production rate, of course, but enriches the experience for those taking part.”
The experience is not without its hassles, though.
“We’ve had our share of people in ‘altered states’, who can be a bit loud or off-putting for others for a while, and once or twice we’ve had objections from people who are suspicious of photographers.
“It seems sad that photography should come under suspicion these days; that motives can be assumed to be the worst, and that a potentially uplifting thing can be regarded badly. Our set-up is so obvious that we couldn’t photograph anyone or anything sneakily even if we wanted to!”
So, Martin, what is it about this older style of photography that so attracts you and Luis?
“I’m a bit old-school,” Martin reveals. “I started photography before the first digital camera came along, and learned about film, the darkroom and traditional black and white photography.
“Most of my personal, non-commercial work is still done on film. For me, there’s still something much more hands-on and grounded about the materials and processes – not to mention the sloshing about in chemicals! The photograph you end up with has a different feel and quality to it somehow – not better quality necessarily, just more individual.
“No two hand-printed photographs are exactly the same.”
Not that Martin sees himself as some sort of Luddite, anti-digital crusader.
“I use digital photography a lot and it has huge benefits over film for so many things: but good old black and white still has that extra something.”
As visitors to El Busta’s Travelling Photography Studio will see for themselves.