An Interview with Osmyn Oree
We had a chat with Osmyn Oree whose interest in photography began when he was a teenager. Osmyn explained his preference for film over digital, as well as candid over edited shots. His goal as a photographer is to present real subjects to the world in their most natural form. Read on to learn more about Osmyn!
When I first met you, it was at the Lancaster Photography Collective. What brought you there? Have you been to other meetings there as well?
What brought me there, initially, was the buzz, and the people I didn't know. I love meeting new people. Getting a photography collective around here is harder, as is keeping it going. The group that I saw, and the people I didn't know, really drew me in. Hearing everyone, and talking to everyone, was awesome. I got to bring my side of the story, and my view of photography in Lancaster.
I have been to other ones, like the Wrightsville Camera Club, but they've been smaller, and didn’t last very long in a sense. I like to photograph people, but I know a lot of people like to photograph flowers, or things that don't talk back to you. That's important to me - getting that interaction between two photographers, or the person you're photographing. That's why I’m doing it. Because, I like people.
You mentioned the Wrightsville Camera Club. Did you grow up in Wrightsville?
No, I found out about that in the paper when I was 15 or 16 years old. I had just started getting into photography, so my pictures weren't that great of course. They met at the hospital every week for a couple months, then I realized it wasn't for me. They would go on these trips to an orchard, and there would be no one there, and everyone would just separate. I didn't know what to take pictures of, because there were no people.
Were you the youngest there?
Yeah, I was the youngest.
What brought you to photography at age 15?
Back then, I really wasn't into it. It actually started during my first college experience. I went to a private school, Lebanon Valley College, and I really didn't like it. I felt like I wasn’t prepared enough for college during high school, so when I got there, the work just kept coming at me. It was more than I'd ever done, or thought to do. Then, I got a camera for Christmas, and I thought it was great, because I could channel stuff through it to get through that difficult time in my life. That's how it started.
Do you remember what the camera was?
It was a Canon Rebel XTI. I wanted that one for some reason, and my parents got it for me for Christmas. I still have it! It's dying, but I still have it. It changed everything. It changed my life. I just shot everything.
What were you doing with the pictures after you shot them?
I was just going around and showing other people via computer. It was just me taking pictures of stuff to get my thoughts out there.
Right now, you're really people focused. Was it like that back then?
Not back then. I was considered to be a commuter at LVC, even though I lived right down the block. I didn't connect with people too much, because I didn't really have anyone to talk to outside of the Commuter Club. When I got to art school, that's when it really clicked, and I realized that I like people more than I like anything else. That was in 2007.
Were you an artist before the photography?
No. I wanted to be a writer at one point, and then I realized that I’m not that good at writing. I realized at college that I couldn't do it full-time, because I would have to do a lot of editing afterward.
Tell me about how you got into shooting on film.
I used to be super digital, and I thought film was too slow, and that you couldn't see what you were doing.
So, for a while, you were anti-film?
I was 17, and I was going to think what I wanted to think, and not accept anything else. What changed that for me, was I got a hold of a 4x5, and I realized how awesome negatives were. I primarily stuck with photographing people, as well as some still lifes. I would shoot twenty to thirty sheets, and it was just a lot of going back and forth.
What is a 4x5?
It's a camera with a 4x5 inch plate of glass on the back, and there are bellows in the back that extend back and forth. You use that to focus your image. You can do tilt-shift manually, and change the perspective of objects and faces. Along with the 4x5 piece of glass on the back of the camera, the negative of the camera is also 4x5 inches, allowing you to get a lot more detail.
How did you become exposed to them?
In school. We had a class with 4x5s, and they were teaching us basic studio stuff. You use 4x5 film holders to hold the film before exposing it with the camera. Each holder can hold up to two sheets of film. You put the film holder into the camera, and when you’re ready, you take the film slide out, click the shutter, put the slide back in, flip it over, and then you have another shot to go. It was a very slow process, but that's why I loved it.
What made you develop such a passion for this?
If you think about megapixels, and high-end fashion photography tools now, that's what a 4x5 is to film photographers, or people who use film. It just captures so much detail, because the film is 4x5 inches. It just gives you much more detail than a little 35mm image does. The clarity is ridiculous. It could capture the dimples on someone's cheeks. It’s an image that you can't really replicate.
What would you tell your 17 year old self now since you found this love for the 4x5?
Slow down. I had to think about everything it took to get those pictures, and the process. To not to take four-hundred pictures and then think about them later. If you slow down, and use that process to your advantage (with digital as well) it helps you minimize the ones you have to edit, because you already have the good ones done.
Do you still shoot digital?
I do, but it is very rare.
Do you apply your film techniques when using your digital camera?
I've tried, but I don't like it. I don't like seeing the image first. Even if I apply those steps to digital, it just doesn't feel the same. It isn't slow enough for my thought process, and how I shoot now.
Tell me about the equipment you have now.
I use a lot of equipment. I use my phone for social media purposes. My Sony a6000, I use to show behind-the-scenes photographs. My film camera is a Hasselblad 503 CX. It came out around 1997, I think. It’s one of the older workhorse cameras, and they still make them today, because they're that good. It is unbridled quality. It's just crisp!
What film are you shooting on?
I use 120, which is a step up from 35mm. I can’t remember the size of the negative, but it shoots in a square. There's an ILFORD color process film that I use for black and white, and I also use Kodak Portra 160 and 400, as well as Kodak Ektar 100. Those are the main ones I use.
Where do you develop your film?
Perfect Image Camera downtown. Every since I was in college, they've been doing my stuff, and have been doing a great job. I can’t complain.
Are you just getting the negatives back from them?
Yeah. I scan everything in, and edit everything that way.
How do you do your editing?
Very minimally. There isn't a lot.
What editing do you do?
Curves, color correction, and contrast if need be. And, maybe blemishes, but that's about it. I try to leave it as plain as day. I try not to lie to the viewer. That's why I like film. There isn't room for much manipulation. What's on the film is always going to be there, and it’s harder to change.
What is your process for choosing what to shoot?
The figure stuff came out of college. I have really high standards when it comes to figure work, because you're representing a human being who's putting themselves out there for you, to show other people in a very vulnerable way. You have to do them justice, and represent them in a beautiful, and thoughtful, way. This mindset comes from a lot of the people that I photograph being my friends, and they're letting me show them in that light, so a lot of it comes from me being honest with myself, as well as the person in front of me. I don't want them to change, or wear makeup for the camera. I don’t want someone who's going to pose for every shot, because I only have twelve and I need to make them count.
During a shoot, you only get twelve shots?
Usually, it’s thirty-six. I take five rolls, so that's twelve shots per roll. I usually limit myself to three, just so I don't get overzealous and waste film.
When you're setting up a shot, are you looking for a pose?
When I set up the shot, I'm looking to shoot the same thing multiple times for bracketing purposes, and just in case I miss something. A lot of the time, I may have a few poses in mind, but then I’ll shoot that same pose three, or four, times. I bracket a lot to see what I can do with the light, and I gravitate towards shooting in bright/high contrast light. A lot of the poses don’t come from posing. They come from the natural movement of the model. We’ll just be talking, and they’ll move a certain way, and then there’s the image!
You try to capture the candid shots.
Yeah. It's candid, but it isn't. I'm not fast enough to catch a candid image, but I am trying to get a natural image. I like to just go with what I'm thinking about. I sometimes like to go off of what other photographers are doing, and it develops into my own thing. Sometimes I’ll have a pose in mind, but that pose will look very stupid. What works best is when you just be yourself, and let the creativity happen.
Do you practice some poses with your digital camera?
I try not to, because with film, it helps me slow down, and actually think about what I want. It's the process of me getting what I want the first time, and getting the shot right first. I think digital helps in that it lets me see what exposure is correct, and what looks best. But, it takes me ten to fifteen minutes to set up, and actually start photographing, depending on the subject.
What's going on in the room at that point?
Lots of small talk, or me just talking about life. I usually plan about fifteen steps ahead of myself, so I'll map out an area in my head, and think about where I'm going to shoot this subject, and what pose is next. Then, I'll get sidetracked, and go off the plan, but I do try to plan!
Has there been any skepticism with the rawness of your photography? Has anyone come to you to complain?
A little bit of skepticism, but not complete negativity. When I was in college, there was more, but the people I was shooting didn't really know if they wanted to do it. They were already in there head about maybe not wanting to do the shoot, so you have to find people who are willing, and want to participate in your artwork.
What are you looking for when finding a subject?
Now, I'm trying to be as versatile as possible, so I'm trying to find people that aren't skinny and tall. I look for different body types, hair textures, skin colors, and all kinds of stuff. I like a mixed bag of people when I make photographs.
I see a realness in your photos, more so than glamour.
I don’t want to show pictures of people being who they aren't. I want someone to look at my work, and see a person, a naked person, but the person as a whole. They're looking back at you, and confronting you as well, in a vulnerable state.
Is photography a business for you?
No. I hope it will be one day.
Would you just like to sell your art, or maybe be a photographer for hire?
I've tried the event circuit, and I can’t do it. My whole thought process of slowing down prevents me from doing that sort of work. I've seen tons of wedding photographers bring home twelve-hundred images, and make a wedding book for their client. It’s too much. That's the business, don’t get me wrong, but I just can’t do it. I like events better, because it's more fluid, and no one's really paying attention to you. I do shoot those digitally. I would want to be more of a gallery artist, because that's where my work fits in. I have a message for everything that fits in to my photography. I’m not too worried about selling it, because it is a hard thing to sell. A lot of people don't want a photo of a naked person hanging in their house.
How receptive is Lancaster to this type of art?
(Laughs) Its one of those things where I'm trying to take it slow, and I don’t want to push the envelope in people seeing things like that, but on the other hand, I do. It's not sexual, or objectifying, but it is in the minds of the people around here, in my opinion. I can only show my work in certain venues that are accepting of the work I do. Some would call it “edgy”, but i don't like that term. I try my best to get my work in shows around here, and I've done well with what I can get. Instead of doing prints lately, I've been trying to do books of my work, as well as mini-prints. I have just started a couple of projects now, so I'm working on those. I'm also doing a compilation of my previous works, and seeing who likes it. It's still a way of displaying my work, but I don’t have the cost of frames, and mattes, and putting it all in a gallery. It's an easy outlet.
Would it be easy for you to find a collection of your works to put in a book?
I think I could. I have of hundreds of thousands of photographs to choose from. I think it would be easier, because there are images I can think of now that I know exactly what was important to me, and they have a story to go with them. I have a series of photographs of this woman who's in her room, and it's completely clean, and well put-together, and then fast forward four months later, and it's a completely different environment. In the photograph, it almost seems like you're looking at two different people. Images like that matter.
What do you have in store for 2017?
I'm working on a couple of projects. One really important one to me right now, that's about cultural identity, and people of color, is called “I’m Still Black”. It deals with my cultural identity as a black male, and dealing with my culture, and not fitting in with the norm, or stereotypical view, of what it is to be black in America. I'm trying to figure out a place in my culture, and using my photographs as a buffer between my world, and my culture's world. I conduct walking interviews, and take photographs of people who feel the same as I do. I'm super excited about that. I'm also doing a couples project, which is really simple, but I’m trying to do it in a unconventional way. I try to have more staged photographs, but still convey that message of love, rather than of separation.