Interview with Rey Castañeda

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Photo © Reynaldo Castañeda

When did you become interested in photography?

I started doing serious photography in 1989, when I was in Saudi Arabia. But my introduction to photography was when I had my first instamatic camera around 1979. During that time, we frequently visit Mt. Makiling. And the first photograph that I did was a picture of a horse tail. It turned out to be a big hit among friends! But I have no interest in photography yet. I even assisted my Uncle, who is a Commercial Photographer, in his Darkroom. He was commissioned by a stainless steel manufacturer to photograph all of their products which will be displayed in an Exhibition. We did 16×20 prints. I was the one who processed the exposed photo paper into the chemical baths.

My first film camera was a Canon AE-1 Program and I’m into color photography, then I went to Saudi Arabia in October 1989 and continue photographing the landscape there. When I came back for a vacation, I gave up my camera to my uncle and bought me the first Nikon autofocus analog camera, the Nikon 2020.

My photography is going nowhere at that time. I didn’t get the concept of exposure and even my composition was really bad. So I was told to join a camera club and there is one in Riyadh. And it looks like it will take a long time for me to really get a good picture. In short, I’m a big disappointment! But fortunately the photography club, Filipino Photographers’ Guild, offered a basic Black & White Processing and Printing Workshop.

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Photo © Reynaldo Castañeda

So how did you progress in doing your Black & white Photography?

In that workshop, I was introduced to film processing. I read lots of books and magazines such as the Camera and Darkroom, etc. These led me into understanding how to expose B&W films. Somehow, the learning of photography is completed. From the time I did darkroom work for my Uncle up to the time I bought my own enlarger, I found out that I see better in Black & White rather than in color!

Tell us about your first exhibit.

After I got a full functional darkroom, it took me less than over a year when I stage my first solo exhibit in Gallery 139 in Alabang Town Center. I had an artist friend who encouraged me to do it. His name is Raul Lebajo, a painter, who looked at my photographs and said “Come, I’ll accompany you to Gallery 139, you’ll have an exhibit.” After my show, I thanked him and he replied “Why say thanks? It’s your work who did the talking, not me.” I still believe that the other reason I improved a lot is because of my Uncle’s way of introducing me to visual arts.

My first solo exhibit was done in large prints and got decent review. I also had group shows in Al- Tuwaiq Palace and at Philippine Embassy, both in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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Photo © Reynaldo Castañeda

What subjects do you enjoy photographing? And why?

I enjoy photographing the Landscape. But, not the big picture kind of photography. I rather shoot close ups, abstracts. That way, your image becomes personal. You are presenting your own point of view, a personal vision. The image tells you who you are. I guess that’s the reason why I am going to photograph for the rest of my life.

You’re a photographer and a photography teacher, right? How do you find teaching?

Yes. At De La Salle University, College of St. Benilde. I find teaching to be very rewarding. People appreciate you for what you have done and they treat you with respect. Although the pay is just fine. Some of my students express their appreciation by visiting you, giving you a box of Premium photo paper. Small tokens, here and there. I like that very much.

Who are your photographic influences?

Ansel Adams because he devices a way of exposing film and Steve Mulligan, for simplifying it. Mulligan introduced me to the world of personal abstractions. The Westons, Edward and Brett. More so with Brett, for his abstract photographs. He became famous in Paris at the age of 18 years old.

I’ve noticed that you preferred shooting in black and white rather than color. Any reasons why?

I can best interpret my vision in Black and White, I guess. I can “see” through it better than color. One thing I like about Black ad White image is that it is always open for re-interpretation. A viewer can see something different from the other. But there are good color photographers and digital imagers. They are the best in their field. But my preference is Black and White.

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Photo © Reynaldo Castañeda

What do you look for when you photograph?

I think that feeling is better for me than looking. I usually end up putting my camera to a spot where I felt something that is in front of me. A lighted old wheel casting shadows on a beaten floor, maybe, or being attracted to an old door, or a window. I should be the one to enjoy the photograph first. And if it resonates with the viewer, then that would be an icing on a cake.

How do you approach working in a landscape with the large format camera?

Large Format camera is a contemplative medium. You don’t rush things. You always press the shutter when you feel it is right. Not in rapid fashion. Sometimes you walk into or stepped into a possibility. Sometimes you notice it peripherally.

Aside from silver gelatin silver print, what other, traditional methods or alternative processes do you do?

I dabbled in Iron based Cyanotype and Silver Nitrate based Van Dyke processes. This summer I am going to experiment another silver based process which is Salt Printing where the art paper is treated with sea water.

What dark room methods do you use for developing film? Can you share some tips for those who are starting out?

Just basic procedure. No secret in that. You just load and agitate. And follow data guide. But the most important thing is Be Consistent. No short cuts. To control the process, you need to understand so many things. Like a certain film to a certain chemical, to a certain dilution, to a certain temperature. A lot of combinations, and different end results. So if you are really serious in doing black and white photography, learn one film at a time. And if you have access into so many films, learn each of them, then, choose what you prefer.

What are your thoughts about the trend in making photographs from digitally scanned negatives?

Ah, that’s what you call hybrid. Mostly, hybrids ends up just in monitors. You expose film, process it, scan it, Photoshop it, and ends up in a file or monitor. Any process is valid. For as long as it ends up as print. Now to complete the artistic cycle, there should be someone who will validate the merit of your work, which is the print, by the Viewer.

What advice can you give to anyone interested in large format photography?

Be ready, it’s expensive. Be passionate. It doesn’t have to be large format. But I still believe that if you care enough about the things you photograph: no.1. you should use a tripod. No.2. use at least a 4×5 large format camera.

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