On the Road with Film Photographer Ethan Covey

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Ethan Covey’s photographs linger through time and space. Records of insatiable wanderlust, they arrive as unfinished stories, longing for an imaginative viewer. The understated familiarity of Covey’s subjects invites nostalgia and inspires reverie. Created with an ever-growing collection of vintage cameras, a timeless aesthetic prevails, whether depicting a barren landscape in Utah or a motel room in Amsterdam. I interviewed Covey at his Brooklyn studio before he departed on another journey.

Above photograph from Desert Speaks

Photographs © Ethan Covey

Ballad XLII (left) & Flag, Sparta, Georgia (right)

CR: How much planning goes into your travel? Do you have locations in mind before you leave?

EC: It varies a lot, depending upon the type of trip. In general, I tend to sketch things out and then toss those sketches as I get inspired. It’s good to have a framework, and to break from it. I find it always takes a little while to find the soul of the place. The pinnacle, as far as travel goes, is having the time and space to get lost and chase whatever it is that keeps us going out there.

From Desert Speaks

Where is your favorite part of town to visit to get a feel for an area?

The corners.

Why shoot film in 2018?

Working with film will make you a better photographer. So, as an aspect of the craft it can’t be beat. I also enjoy the tactile nature of film—loading, spooling, winding, drying negatives, handling prints… I love having photography be something I can smell and touch. So much of our lives are played out in pixels, it’s nice to have a break from that.

Ballad LIV

What determines if you are going to use color or black-and-white film for a project?

Very generally, I tend to work with black-and-white for portraits and color for my location-based work. But I enjoy breaking my own rules.

Nikki

The images comprising Ballads were taken from more than a dozen cities across the globe, yet the series feels extremely coherent—as if the photographs could have all been shot on the same day. How do you maintain a consistent aesthetic when editing images from such a diverse set of locations?

Ballads took a long while to come into focus as a project. I’d been noticing in my work that I tended to gravitate towards capturing certain types of light. I’d be on location somewhere and return with a “travel story” that consisted primarily of images of windowsills and drapes, or the reflection of light on a wall. Over time, and with the help of a few good friends, I began to see the threads, which tied that work together. And that it was, more than anything else, what I was drawn to trying to capture as a photographer.

At the moment, I’m just launching the initial set of images in the series, Ballads 2016-2018. The series consists of 75 images, which I shot over the last couple of years in 17 locations.

Ballad II & Ballad XII

The “road” runs deep through the history of American photography. Are there any photographers whose work has had a particularly strong impact on your approach to the subject?

Eggleston and Shore, obviously. Robert Frank. I really enjoy the landscapes of Victoria Sambunaris. And all my friends out there shooting film.

From Desert Speaks

In Desert Speaks, a human presence is felt despite the absence of people in the images. Was that an intentional omission?

I’m glad you brought this up. It is a very purposeful element of both the Desert Speaks series and Ballads. There is an imprint of humanity in all the images, but I want the human element and impact to be what’s shown, not people themselves. So, in Desert Speaks, there are roads and paths, signs, buildings, pieces of litter. I enjoy photographing how these elements act in concert with both nature and humanity—they are creations of man, crossed and layered upon the landscape.

And with Ballads, there is a conscious effort to capture the missed moments of human interaction, as if your eye wanders while in conversation with a friend and becomes fascinated with the play of light on the carpet. I want my images to pay honor to those moments: the cosmic in the quotidian.

Ballad XXII & Ballad LXV

Are there any locations that you wish you could have remained at longer?

Really all of them. I rarely find myself feeling finished with a place. There’s always the urge to explore further, experience different seasons, types of weather, and the way these factors influence the light. If I had to pick one, at the moment it would be the desert—and desert towns—near Joshua Tree.

From A Man-Altered Landscape

What tips do you have for photographers planning to shoot on the road?

Look behind you. Listen to music and know when to turn it off. Use paper maps instead of GPS. Oh, and know your gear! There are plenty of times for playing around with new toys, but man it sucks when you are traveling deep in a project and realize you don’t know your setup as well as you should.

From A Man-Altered Landscape

What are your go-to cameras and films?

For 35mm, my favorite camera currently is the Minolta CLE rangefinder. I love my Nikon L35 AF and Olympus XA2 point-and-shoots. I love the way the L35 vignettes, and my XA2 has a really three-dimensional way of capturing light that is probably due to a DIY light leak fix—whatever it is, I love it! For medium format, probably my Mamiya 645 1000s. It’s a grand ol’ brick of a camera. And I’m busily getting acquainted with a Graflex Super Graphic 4x5 large format camera—more coming with that soon, I hope.

For film stocks, I tend to gravitate to Kodak Portra for color—usually the 400 ISO, and often shot at 200. And Ilford HP5 for black-and-white, pushed as needed.

From A Man-Altered Landscape

Where to next?

In August, I’ll be shooting a project called Homestead that I’ve been planning for a couple of years. It’s a weeklong motorcycle trip that my father and I are taking, traveling to and photographing the locations throughout Vermont where my family has lived since the 1700s. We have a route that nearly encircles the state, traveling on as few paved roads as possible. We’ve identified a couple dozen properties—either exact addresses or best-guesses—where our family members have lived.

Those details aside, what I’m most excited about is the time with my dad. What a cool opportunity to have right, spending a week touring the land of our ancestors with my father? I’m honored. The photography is second to that experience.

Ballad XXXVII

I’m also in the midst of planning the next installment of Negative Space, a film-focused photography show featuring the work of New York-area artists that I curate. I’ve held two so far, with the third event coming this fall. Each features the work of 10 or so photographers who work with film and are dedicated to analog processes. I want to foster the development of a community of film photographers in the city, so we can show each other’s work, trade tips, put faces to names and so on. It’s been great fun so far and the next show is looking very strong.


Cory Rice

Ethan Covey

To see more of Covey's work, follow his Instagram and check out his website.

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