Editorial and fine-art photographer Mark Peckmezian, who shoots for The New Yorker, The FADER, Dazed and Confused and other clients, moves comfortably between various esthetics using a diversity of tools. In an email interview with PDN, he explains what gear he carries and how it informs his work.
PDN: What equipment do you carry on a typical job?
MP: I generally get away with shooting film. For those jobs, on location, I’ll usually take my Hasselblad 500C/M with four film backs and a set of lenses, a Voigtländer Bessa with a Leica Summicron lens, and sometimes my Rolleiflex TLR and Graflex 4×5. Generally, the Hasselblad is my camera of choice.
I also bring Nikon and Metz flashes, and usually my Profoto lighting kit: An Acute 2400 pack, three heads, beauty dish, black foil, umbrellas and soft boxes, gels, etc. For film, in black-and-white I shoot Kodak Tri-X 400 and sometimes, Ilford Pan-F. But Tri-X is the best. In color, I mainly use Kodak Portra, but sometimes I’ll use Ektar. I only wish they still made Tri-X 400 in 4×5! Ugh! I lust for that. Digitally, I generally use a Nikon D800 with 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm Zeiss lenses.
The desired esthetic determines most such choices, although that is often hemmed in by practical factors. On location, like a recent shoot with [rap artist] Tyler, The Creator for The FADER, I used a simple portable kit with my Hasselblad. On a recent job in South America, I had to use digital because of the risk of airport workers refusing to hand-check film, and it being x-rayed.
PDN: Why so many different cameras?
MP: For a recent story I did for Muse magazine, I used everything: my Voigtländer, Hasselblad, Rolleiflex and 4×5. Each camera has an entirely different feel and I chose the camera according to the concept for each photo. This was particularly appropriate for this story because it was part of the concept for the story to play between a variety of different fashion/historical esthetics.
For natural-light shots where I wanted flare and soft tones, I used my early-model Zeiss 150mm for the Hasselblad or my 1930s Rolleiflex. Each has inferior lens coatings that make them especially prone to flare.
PDN: Why do you choose to stick with film?
MP: There are a lot of reasons. I like the personality of film—or, rather, the different personalities of different film types and cameras. For celebrity portraits, film has the huge advantage of precluding publicists and handlers from interfering with the shoot. There are a few notable occasions where I probably couldn’t have gotten away with what I shot but for the fact I shot film—like the Bill Gates shoot for Bloomberg Businessweek.
For my artwork, film has a conceptual import that is often critical to what I’m going for. Namely, I often want to create images that are timeless—from no readily identifiable place or era—and film has been the common form for the entire history of photography until 20 years ago.
PDN: How does the gear affect your aesthetic? Does each piece of gear contribute to your overall style, or do you get different things from different cameras?
MP: The lenses determine much of the quality, I think. The Zeiss lenses for the Hasselblad have such a particular personality, you can spot it a mile away. It generally trends towards sharp, defined and contrasty, with a very particular coloring. For all these reasons, the lenses work well for any poppy or hard-flash esthetic, like the bodybuilding convention I shot for Sportsnet. I have a Hasselblad Softar soft-focus filter that I’ve become obsessed with and use very often.
The Rolleiflex lens has a totally different personality: sharp, but low-contrast and prone to flaring beautifully. I use it a lot with black-and-white. I also love the slightly wide 75mm perspective. I shoot in many different styles. I choose cameras, lenses and film accordingly.
PDN: How do you choose between, say, the Hasselblad and Rolleiflex when you’re on assignment?
MP: For a recent fashion story I shot for The Happy Reader (a new magazine by the creators of Fantastic Man), I decided to do it all on Rolleiflex. I find that the Rolleiflex loves Tri-X and hard flash—for some reason it’s just perfect for that camera. If I shot it on the Hasselblad, the contrast would be too harsh. The Zeiss lenses for that are great, but can often have too much contrast and definition. The Rollei gives a softer rendering.
Sometimes it’s determined by budget or turn-around time, but it’s mostly decided well in advance, and is based on my concept for the shoot. The right pairing of the style with subject is critical in my mind. I might decide on a low-key and classical esthetic, in which case I’ll bring my 4×5 and Pan-F film. And so on.
PDN: How often do you use portable flashes? Will it differ from studio to location shoots?
MP: I bring my portable flashes with me all the time, on everything, even if only for inconspicuous fill lighting. I also bring the aforementioned Profoto kit. I love hard flash, and even on shoots where the key shot is with other lighting, I’ll try a few options with the flash. To me, hard flash is not merely an esthetic, it’s an entire mode of shooting.
For a shoot in my own studio, like the recent one with Laverne Cox for Dazed and Confused, I obviously use any and everything I have. For shoots at rented studios—which is to say, for bigger budget shoots—I usually switch up my lighting quite a bit. I’ll get Profoto Pro packs, twin heads, octoboxes, and other gear I like, but don’t own.
PDN: Will what you bring to a shoot differ on an editorial job, as opposed to your your personal work?
MP: The distinction is shrinking more and more—I feel lucky to be doing my commissioned work in a way that is more and more like my personal work. This is a freedom I didn’t always have.