Isa Gelb has a refreshing perspective on the visual world. Her memorable photos are unexpected and challenge our preconceived ideas. The forcefulness of her personality shines through in her wonderful work. I loved reading her nuanced take on why she uses film. She’s known on social media as Punkroyaltiger; be sure to check out her work on Tumblr, Flickr, and Instagram.
I asked her eight questions about her work and her current projects. Our online conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
You seem to prefer film over digital. Can you tell us why?
Indeed, I do, for many reasons. The first one is the color rendering of film. I like, aesthetically, the grain that you get. It is much more pleasing, natural and smoother than digital cameras. Film grain and film aesthetics add another dimension to a photo that in my opinion makes it more interesting and charming. Sometimes you will have a picture that comes out slightly out of focus or with light leaks, and even though it’s not what you expected, you end up loving it.
I also find interesting that you will get results that look very different from what you have seen in reality, by using different films and cameras under different weather and exposure time.
But the main reason I really love film is the limited number of exposures available on a roll. It obliges me to be more selective and shoot less but better. When it’s time to check out the scans, I am not scrolling through tons of images that completely lack of interest. Don’t take me wrong, I’m not saying that with film I take only good pictures; I get many bad ones—that no one will ever see—but I feel I’m wiser in the choice of my subjects. (Okay, not all the time.)
Being liberated of the instant gratification on the screen allows me to follow my instinct and better enjoy the moment. Another thing I also enjoy is that by the time I get back my films developed from the lab, I often have forgotten about some photos I have taken. It makes super exciting the moment of discovering what’s on the roll.
Last but not least, these analog cameras inspire confidence and simply feel right in the hands. The sounds of the shutters and winds are just amazing. The brutal “CLONKK” of the F3, the elegant “SCHLING” of the G2 or the spongy “SCHNNIIUUUUWW” of the Mju are music to my ears.
You created the magazine Underdogs. Can you tell me a bit about it?
Underdogs is a quarterly magazine about contemporary photography. At the beginning, it was a selfish project. I simply wanted to give myself the opportunity to flip through a magazine in which I enjoyed every image. I had viewed tons of online photography magazines over a period of years. I experienced a frustrating dissonance of personal “likes” and “dislikes” about each one. And this frustration spurred me to produce my own magazine, as a place where I could feature those photographers whom I personally appreciate and admire.
One of the defining features of Underdogs is its emphasis on the photographs themselves, and the minimization of textual commentary. I have always believed photographs should be able to stand on their own.
My goal (less selfish) was also to offer exposure to photographers who never or seldom answer “calls for submissions,” and that’s the reason publication in Underdogs is by invitation only. I do not intend to be exclusive for the sake of being exclusive. While a formal submissions process might theoretically provide me with more excellent photography, the truth is that reviewing open submissions would drain my time from preparing and presenting the work I already desire to publish. However, from time to time I receive self-submitted portfolios that I ultimately invite into the magazine.
Curating is a special and rewarding experience if I feel free to chose pictures that are not selected by photographers who often tend to send their best series or images that they are proud of. I personally tend to pick up the opposite, the less spectacular, the less perfect, the less obvious because, in my humble opinion, their flaws bring out more beauty. But of course in the end, I never publish a selection that is not validated by the photographer himself.
I want to add that the last issue marked the third anniversary and it really makes me happy to get so much good feedback from photographers and viewers from all over the world. I did not expect such success at the very beginning.
In another interview, you mention that you want to “give credit to that sense of modesty I witness, rather than using artistic means to amplify it and change its nature.” Do you consider yourself a documentary photographer?
Documentary photography is close to photojournalism, requiring deep knowledges of the subject/area the photographer wants to study. With that kind of photography, you have to think about why you originally wanted to work with the topic and make decisions about how you want to represent the subject. I’m far from this state of mind and even if I were in it, I have neither the skills nor the time for such kinds of preparation.
I’m more into the “spontaneous shot” thing: I see, I snap, I move on. My pictures are just some kind of “mental souvenirs”; they “are not memories” but they “make memories” to me. It’s that simple.
The great Saul Leiter once said, “I go out to take a walk. I see something. I take photographs. I have avoided profound explanations of what I do.” I couldn’t agree more.
Can you tell us about the projects you are working on these days?
Making projects is not my thing. I live from day to day and rarely plan ahead. I can’t handle working on series or other long-term projects. I get bored very quickly. I’ve been thinking about making a book, but my laziness is stronger than my will to start working on it. Also, I feel more comfortable making relevant associations with the work of other photographers than with mine.
Pairing/sequencing/laying out pictures is a difficult exercise that must bring out beauty and sense. It requires lot of time and I don’t have much. So for now, I’ll try to keep focusing on Underdogs and shooting as much as I can.
Do you like the region or city you live in? Do you like your home? Do these affect your photography?
I live in the close suburbs of Paris, an ugly place that I’d like to leave if I could afford it. And I work in Paris.
This city is defined as the most beautiful city in the world, but this statement is overrated in my opinion. In the past, walking through the streets was an enjoyable photographic moment but for a couple of years now, Paris has no longer been attractive to me. Lately, most of my good images have been taken while traveling and just a few in my neighborhood. But I still carry a camera everywhere I go because I always anticipate finding a striking subject.
What’s your state of mind when you’re taking good photos? Do you think there’s any connection between your mood or mindset and the results you get?
I actually never know if a picture will come out well. I sometimes have the feeling it will, but I only know when I’m checking the scans. Especially when I use a point and shoot; that can brings unexpected results and often nice and/or interesting surprises.
You know, I don’t intellectualize art, even less my own approach to photography.
I’m more intuitive than cerebral, so before you asked I had never questioned myself if my mood affects my pictures. Actually, I believe it affects more the way I look at my surrounding, I’m less attentive and feel distracted more easily.
But at the end, in shape or out of good shape, it’s all the same to me. If something catches my eyes, I’ll snap it.
Who or what inspires you?
I guess all the good photos I’ve looked at through zines, books, exhibitions, websites, and blogs are stored in a corner of my brain and unconsciously inspire me when I come across a subject that is worth being photographed.
All the films I’ve watched about masters and influential photographers who share secrets and allow us to discover the way they work have had a strong effect on me too. They opened my mind.
Curating Underdogs helps me to get inspiration. I learn a lot from others and truly believe that keeping a fresh eye isn’t just about seeing, it also comes from talking. I gain much from the dialogues I have with other photographers.
One final question: Can you tell me briefly about a couple of photographers I may not be familiar with yet but you would recommend checking out?
It’s a tough question! There are many. But here’s my short list: lately I came across the strong documentary work of Stacy Kranitz, which I highly recommend checking out. I’ve also been a big fan of Albert Elm since I discovered his raw work in the British Journal of Photography. And, because I love car pictures, I enjoy the series “Waiting for the Sun” by Josef Hoflehner.