As an amateur analog film photographer, I am inspired by successful professional photographers who, during the digital revolution, chose to continue entrusting their personal and professional work to film and analog printing techniques.
One of those is the American photographer of Cuban/Italian heritage, Manuello Paganelli. Another is the Swiss photographer Guido Baselgia, who I will feature in the next installment. I was curious to know what had kept them loyal to film as professionals, especially when the strong digital headwinds were pushing back relentlessly.
Manuello Paganelli is colorful and communicative, filled with determination and drive, but imbued with child-like charm, generosity, and a gentle spirit. He was Ansel Adams’ last student. After learning as much as he could from this stellar mentor, he entered his career as a newspaper photographer and then started freelancing, with his work appearing in just about every magazine you can think of.
After 2000, he embraced digital photography for his commercial work. The increasing demands from clients to see results immediately, even straight out of the camera, made its use unavoidable for most professionals. Manuello saw as its biggest asset the huge advantages digital photography offers for work in color. Color printing from film has long been the Holy Grail of analog photography, a complicated process with multiple possibilities for error. Strangely, his digital color portraits of celebrities tend to be somewhat over the top, without the nuanced technical and emotional subtleties of his black-and-white work.
For personal projects, however, Manuello never strayed from his first love of black-and-white film photography. And it is here that his enormous talents as a photographer shine. His website lists the projects “Black Cowboys”, “Native American Project”, “Cuba”, “Romania”, “Europe”, “China”, in that order. Although he tried his hand at landscape photography, trying to emulate his mentor, even Adams recognized that his strength lay in photographing people in their countries and cultures.
In the early 1990s, he began to document the lives of Black cowboys, a cultural subset that started after the Civil War when former slaves who had skills in cattle handling moved to the western United States to find work on cattle ranches. Today, the heritage lives on in Black rodeos that are prevalent in the West.
At about the same time, in the late 1980s, he began a long-running, very personal project photographing life and people in Cuba. The project, which continued until at least 2015, also involved a search for long-lost relatives from his mother’s side of the family.
Besides these two major projects, Paganelli has traveled extensively and documented indigenous peoples of North and South America, Romania, China, many countries in Europe, and, most recently, India, Turkey, and the Midwest.
He is also active in leading workshops and consulting for the business side of photography, as well as providing portfolio reviews. He is represented by the renowned Weston Gallery and Obscura Gallery.
I caught up with Manuello in a video call from his home in Carmel by the Sea in California, and we talked about his work with analog photography and his thoughts about it.
Stephen: How much of your work is with film now?
Manuello: Most of my work is with film, probably 90%. Also, for magazines. There was a time when it went from film to digital since everyone wanted everything immediately. But I still kept doing a lot of film work because clients loved the way I worked with black and white.
Do you do any color work with film?
Oh no, I stopped doing that a long time ago.
And do you do your own printing in the darkroom?
Yes, I do all my own processing and printing.
Have you had digital photographers come up to you and say, Manuello, why are you still using film?
Well, let’s start with this story: A few years before Covid, my oldest son was around 15 or 16. He came to me one day and said he wanted to learn photography, whether I could give him a camera. I thought it was going to be a digital camera, so I showed him one I would suggest. But he said, “No, I would love to learn film, not digital.” “Why is that?” I asked. “Because everybody’s doing digital, and it all looks the same. There is no uniqueness; there’s no soul in most of that work.” “I see,” I said, “okay, do you want color or black and white?” “I would love black and white.” So I dug around in my boxes and found my first camera, which was the Canon F1, and that’s what he started shooting with. And he loved it.
Almost the exact same thing happened to me with my teenage children as well!
I think our young people are also looking for the element of surprise. They don’t want to have to look at the screen on the back of the camera but want to see the negatives for the first time and be surprised by what they captured.
I lead a lot of workshops, and if a photographer is serious about his work and wants to improve, I tell them that in my workshops, they must cover the screen on their digital camera. Don’t look at anything, I say. If you want to check the settings, lighting, etc., that’s okay. But once you have it, cover it, and don’t check it every time you shoot. I say this for a lot of reasons. The main one is confidence. If you stop that habit, then with time, you don’t need to constantly look because you feel good while you’re shooting. Also, the other reason is that by looking at the screen, you may be missing the best shot of the day by looking down. So, if you are on target with your subject, don’t let go of those moments because the best ones happen so fast.
At the end of the workshop, some of the participants feel so comfortable shooting that way without their screens that they only look at the screen at the end of the day when everything is done, when we are going over the day’s work. And some of those people have told me that when they went back home, the first thing they did was buy a film camera and start shooting more film.
Why did you stay with film?
I’ve always loved film, the feel of it. And, as you know, I was mentored by Ansel Adams. I’m so glad I stayed with it. Of course, after 2000, I ended up shooting digital because my magazine clients always wanted results like – yesterday! Everyone had to do it. But now more and more clients love the film look, and I’m getting hired for that.
There have been a lot of people who have made a great living with commercial, advertising, and magazine photography – using digital and Photoshop and all the rest – who maybe would have never been able to reach such a high level had they used film. Digital photography has made everything easier to achieve. Just look at the iPhone. You can take a picture with the iPhone when it is almost pitch black, and you still get a really great image.
I know some younger photographers who came into photography with the digital world. I have mentored them, and they have worked for me as assistants. They have shown me RAW images, and I think if I had shown that to a client in the film era, they would never have ever called me again! But these photographers are so skillful with Photoshop and Lightroom that by the time they finish working on the image, it’s better than what any master photographer ever did during the film era. And in any case, it’s better than the first image they took!
Do you think that the skill set has shifted? With film, we are concentrated on making the image we capture in the camera the best possible. Exposure, lighting, and the relationship between aperture and shutter speed all need to be as close to perfect as possible in order to be able to make a quality print in the darkroom. With digital, the talk is often all about post-processing, where it is possible to fix all those elements if you make mistakes.
Yes, but you know, it’s not the real thing. Is that really what we want from photography? I am glad I stayed with film because there is simply more purity in it. Adjusting contrast and doing some dodging and burning is all that I do in the darkroom. If there is a Coca-Cola can in the background, it stays there because I am documenting a subject. I’m not going to take it out because I don’t like it.
Cheating has become so simplified; it’s like a pastime. It’s no big deal anymore. Someone will mix two images to make a better image, yet that is not what was before them as they photographed.
You’re probably aware that there’ve been some renowned photographers, even photojournalists – often going for a Pulitzer, World Press, or other big award – who got caught adding things to the image that weren’t in the original frame. Some lost their jobs. That’s the reason that hardcore news magazines started asking photographers to send the RAW file along with the jpeg to check on the truthfulness of the image and protect their reputations. Truth in photojournalism has always been a problem since the invention of cameras. But in the age of digital photography and artificial intelligence, it has gotten even more slippery.
So I’m glad I stayed with film because being able to do film helped me be taken on by the Weston Gallery or the Obscura Gallery. It helped me be part of a current exhibition running at the Monterey Museum of Art, “Sacred Encounters,” or the upcoming exhibition at the Torrance Art Museum in Los Angeles. That is really an honor to have my work shown in art museums. That’s what we all want as photographers!
I feel there’s more respect when people see that your work was done on film. They – clients as well as other photographers – recognize the difficulty, especially people who know anything about the process. Film photographers stand out in the crowd.
A few years ago, I always had the feeling that digital photographers looked down their noses at those of us who stayed with film.
I didn’t feel that way. I thought it was the other way around. The film people felt like digital was too easy. And there are quite a few very skillful film photographers who are now just working with digital. I respect that. But I think most people doing digital don’t realize how hard it is to make it as a photographer, especially if you started in the film era.
For me, digital is just so darn perfect. Everything is perfect. I love it when I’m processing or printing an image, and I see something at the edge of the frame, a speck or a small filament, or a little light leak. And when these minute imperfections get into the image, that’s okay, too, because I don’t want my work to look perfect. I want my pictures to have the feeling of originality, that there’s nothing that was taken out. That’s how you capture truth.
Looking at hundreds of images a day, I so often feel that many digital photographers see basically two options: Try to replicate film or take a raw image and work on it until it is over-perfected, with over-saturated colors. Both routes are immediately visible and seem to permeate social media.
Yes. These over-processed images are out of this world. You see them and know that they’re not real. For me film has more integrity, especially black and white. I prefer black and white because it goes straight to what matters the most right away. With color, you see the image, and it is beautiful and can be powerful, but at the same time, your eyes are going to different things: the blue thing in the back and the yellow thing in the corner. With black and white, you don’t see any of that. You go to what matters the most right away. You are captured by the power of the subject and the image itself. With color, there are so many distractions.
A good example of that is the photograph I see hanging on the wall behind you of the South American girl. I’ve been looking at it during our conversation, and as a viewer, I go straight to her eyes – knowing and confident. I don’t even want to know what color her beads are!
Yes! I love that photograph. She was such a strong young woman!
Manuello, thank you for your time. I enjoyed getting to know you a little better and look forward to seeing your next projects.
Manuello Paganelli’s “Black Cowboy” images will be part of a major upcoming exhibition at the Torrance Art Museum in Los Angeles, California, “WESTERN VALUES: Re-thinking the ‘Old West’”, which opens January 20, 2024.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephen Smith is a professional choral and orchestral conductor and an amateur photographer and linguist. His photographic interests are in analog medium and large formats. Born and raised in the USA, he has lived as a dual-national in Switzerland for 40 years.
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