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When I first heard of the 12×12 Photo Marathon being held in Vancouver, Canada this year I was more than a little intrigued. As Vancouver is only two hours north of me I started looking into what the competition would entail. Unlike the more ‘modern’ photo safari competitions, this contest takes things back to the basics. Contestants are given a roll of film with only twelve exposures. Yes, film. I know, this is a digital photography website, but I thought this competition was a nice contrast for those of us who have become accustomed to the endless nature of digital. I also hope it may spark interest from readers out there to start their own competition because, as Vancouver’s organizer Morten Rand-Hendricksen notes, the competition is really about bringing together people who love photography, be it digital or film.
The photo marathon concept was not my idea thought I wish it was. The concept was thought up somewhere in Europe a long time ago and has hundreds of different iterations throughout the world. For example there has been a photo marathon in Copenhagen, Denmark for over 20 years and last year Canon put on several photo marathons in Thailand and south-east Asia. It’s sort of an open-source project you can grab and run with in any way you want.
My introduction to the photo marathon came when I was a student at the University of Oslo in the late -90s. The student photo club had picked up the project after the previous event planners gave up and I participated. Back then film was still the only serious medium for photographers so the novelty factor really wasn’t there at all. It was more of a test of photographic skill and thinking on your feet but it was still really cool (and exhausting).
When I came to Vancouver in 2002 I noticed there were a lot of small groups of photographers around, but they didn’t seem to communicate with each other. So when there were contests or events they were largely confined to one or maybe two small groups. I figured putting on a photo marathon would be a chance to bring all these different groups together, but I didn’t really have time so I just kept talking about it. Finally almost 8 years later my better half / partner in crime Angela stood up and said “seriously, either you do this thing or you stop thinking about it” so I said “ok, let’s do it now then” and we made it happen.
As it turns out the timing couldn’t have been better: The proliferation of digital cameras is now so complete that a contest based on film is a true novelty and people were itching to test their skills under the now disordinary restraints film imposes on the photographer. I guess you could say it was meant to be.
When we started planning we tried to guess at how many people would want to participate. After careful consideration we figured we would get maybe 20 people in all but even so we decided we had to put a cap on it if by some miracle more people wanted in. The number 60 was set because we figured 720 photos was about as much as we could handle. When we sold out a week before the event we realized setting that cap was a very good idea. And after putting on the Raw Talent exhibit in which we hung every single photo in a gallery space we realized we can’t actually handle more than 60 participants so that’s the number we’ve set for this year too.
Registration for this year’s event has not begun yet but we hope we can fill the 60 spots this time around too. The interest from last year’s participants has been through the roof and we’ve also had a lot of inquiries from people who could not participate last time. Right now we are trying to figure out a way of releasing the tickets in staggered batches so more people have a chance of joining in and not all of the tickets get ripped away immediately. Only time will tell how this will work out.
Personally I have a really hard time parting with my old cameras so I was surprised when we started getting questions from participants on how they could get a hold of “old” 35mm cameras a week before the event. It was kind of a wakeup call for me actually. I realized 35mm cameras are now considered obscure collectors’ items. And that’s really sad. There are some truly amazing 35mm cameras out there that put their digital rivals to shame.
On the event day we saw a lot of really old gear. As in all-manual SLRs from the late -60s and early -70s. And a lot of it was borrowed, from parents, uncles, neighbours and so on. There were also a lot of people who went out and bought old cameras from camera stores and thrift stores. One couple went all out and purchased a Diana and Banana-Cam (http://www.flickr.com/photos/carolbrowne/4186177137/). Sadly those cameras were not suited for the low-light conditions of the day and their films were largely ruined.
Several of our participants came up to us at the beginning pleading us to help them load their film so this year we are making an instructional video on proper film loading. Sadly there were two participants who did the entire 12 hour run only to discover their films had not wound at all. It was devastating and not something we want to see again. I’m hoping they’ll come back this year and give it another go.
The photographers participating last year were from all over BC. Mostly people from Vancouver and the Lower Mainland of course but we even had a guy from a diamond mine way up north participating (in fact, he won one of our prizes!). The themes for the contest (12 in all – one for each hour) are deliberately vague, ambigous and open to interpretation. Judging from the expressions on people’s faces when theme 2, “High Hope” pretty much said it all: This is a contest based on creativity and visual skills more than it is a scavenger hunt. None of the winning pictures were shots that could only have been taken by a local.
To put it another way I think participating in 12×12 might be a very cool way for out of towners to experience Vancouver and get to know the local photography scene.
Like I said before the origins of the photo marathon concept go way back to a time when film was the only option. And because of the almost ubiquitous penetration of digital cameras a lot of the photo marathons that are being done today are digital (don’t ask me how that works – I have no idea). I was pretty hard on the film element. Not only is film final – you only have 12 exposures for 12 themes – but you are limited by the capabilities of the film, and that forces you to think twice, three or even ten times before you actually press the shutter release.
To see just how dependent we have become to the ability to immediately review our pictures you needed only watch the participants during their first shots. I spotted several people who would snap a shot, tilt the camera back and stare at the empty back of it only to realize that there was no screen and the result of that fraction of a second would only present itself weeks later. It’s sobering.
To me film requires more commitment than digital. With a digital camera you can rattle off a couple of hundred shots and pick the best one. With film every single picture is a financial investment. And because there is a limit to how many exposures your film carries you also have to conserve. The photo marathon takes this to the extreme by restricting you to one exposure every hour. As a result you have to really REALLY think through your shot, frame it properly, do your exposures right and then, when you are certain you are ready take it and move on.
The judging procedure was, to be quite honest, absolutely brutal. Not because the photos were bad (they were actually very good) but because of the sheer volume. This year we are working on a custom application based on Microsoft Live Labs Pivot to help in the sorting process. If everything goes as planned we will launch the app online during the event with last year’s photos and present this year’s photos at the gallery exhibit in the same app.
We’ve gotten some requests to take the event to other Canadian cities and it is something I would very much like to do. The main caveat is that we need the support of a local photo club to do so. Here in Vancouver we have enough friends and contacts to pull it off on a shoe string budget but if we were to go to for example Winnipeg or even Seattle we’d have to find funding for the team, find a location for the marathon itself, local sponsors for prizes and most importantly a team and a venue for the exhibit.
Let me put it this way: I want to bring 12×12 to as many people as possible – it’s a fun event and there are no strings attached other than having fun with photography. So if there are people or clubs out there who want to collaborate I’m all in.
After the last marathon I was left with a feeling that I needed to take more good pictures, with an emphasis on good. I’ve been wanting to dust off my Hasselblad, buy a box of T-max 400 and developer and start shooting B&W again. But more than anything it has put me in touch with a long list of great people and photographers in Vancouver.
The number one question we got after putting on the first 12×12 was “why are you guys doing this?” The answer is we want to build a community and help connect people who love photography with other people who love photography.
I want to thank Morten for taking the time for this interview and fueling my curiosity to have such a competition in my own town. All entries for the competition can be found at the 12×12 Vancouver Photo Marathon’s Flickr photostream. Information for this year’s competition can be found on the 12×12 Vancouver website and Facebook page. And if you’re wondering what all the themes from last year’s competition were, here’s the list: