All around the world, film photography is seeing a renaissance of sorts. New films are being produced, the market for vintage cameras is exploding, and more and more photographers are turning to an old medium for creative inspiration.
That trend is alive and well here in the capital region, too; head down to the Byward Market in the summer and it won’t be long before you see an analog photographer, Canon AE-1 in hand, making photos before scurrying off to get their film developed. Pop into one of the city’s camera shops, and you’re just as likely these days to hear chatter about T-Max and Acros films as you are about megapixels and battery life.
A year ago, Kenneth Charlebois wanted to try to bring some of this community together and give them a place to show their work and meet other like-minded photographers. So last spring, he launched Do it For the Grain — a low-fi photo zine dedicated to Ottawa and the photographers who capture it on film. It had utilitarian origins, at first — something he created because otherwise, it didn't exist.
“I feel like Ottawa is low-key very artsy,” he says. “I feel like a lot of people don’t dig too deep into Ottawa, and that’s where the reputation comes from.” (Full disclosure, I have occasionally contributed photos to the zine in the past as well.)
Flip through the pages of the monthly-ish zine and you’ll see plenty of iconic Ottawa spots: the OTTAWA sign in the Byward Market; street photographs made along Bank Street; landscapes from along the banks of the Ottawa River. And there is something refreshing about the medium, too. Whereas Ottawa often presents itself in polished terms befitting a seat of government, the photos in Do it for the Grain show a different, more democratic side to the city — the Ottawa where people need to live, not the Ottawa that lives in many Canadians’ imaginations. Based entirely around black-and-white film — a medium that can be shot and processed entirely in one’s home — there is a level of accessibility to it that you don’t find in many glossy photo magazines, where high-concept fashion shoots and fine art work can sometimes dominate.
“Something as niche as Do it for the Grain is prospering very well,” he says. “The response has been fantastic, and I’ve put only a minimal amount of effort into the promotion of it. It gets around by word of mouth...the Ottawa community is just the right size to grow organically.”
And grow it has. Do it for the Grain has emerged as a hub, of sorts, for film photographers in the city — a place for them to share photos, nerd out about film gear, and, importantly, to meet new people. On Thursday, the zine is holding its first birthday party with a show at Driphouse Cafe, where the work of many contributors will be on display.
The Do it for the Grain team — which includes other local film photographers — have also started staking out a physical presence, running pop-up darkrooms, offering workshops on traditional wet printing techniques in a make-shift darkroom in Hintonburg. (If you've ever wondered how all those darkrooms in movies worked, this would be the place to start.)
The long-term stretch goal is to one day make those pop-ups permanent and open a community darkroom, a low-cost spot for photographers without their own darkrooms to develop film and make prints.
“We’re definitely working on a permanent pace, but to get that sorted out we need grant money, because we’re going to need to do a lot of renovations and that does not come cheap,” Charlebois says. “Having the physical space is crucial in mind. I want it to be a gathering space of sorts, I want it to be an affordable darkroom space for us, because that is sorely lacking.”
If it’s a slow row to get there, that’s ok for Charlebois; all things take time, and what’s more important is making sure the whole project is accessible, and doesn’t cater only to those with money to splash around. (Film costs are high enough, anyways!) Whether it’s the workshops, or shows, the idea that all of it should be accessible to everyone is at the centre of the project.
“Expecting [profit] from the arts, it just feels so wrong,” says Charlebois. “I feel like everyone should be able to express themselves artistically, and if photography is the medium that you choose, it’s a cheap and easy thing to do.”
Do it for the Grain has already accomplished something important for the arts community here in Ottawa, in that it has brought people together.
“I really wanted this to create a community around it,” Charlebois says. “That’s really what it’s become. A lot of people have said, ‘Oh, I met so many people there, it was great to meet people with similar interests as me.’ There’s a lot of people who shoot casually, or they’re really passionate about it but aren’t going to go get a degree in it. They just want to kind of get to know people organically.”
Wherever the project grows, though, its origins in black and white film will always be a core part of its identity, says Charlebois.
“I think that niche just kind of keeps it interesting,” he says. “It gives them more purpose. It makes it more intentional.”
Do it for the Grain will hold their one-year anniversary party on Thursday, March 5, at Driphouse Cafe, starting at 8 p.m. There will be prints for sale, subscriptions to the zine available, and lots of other fun surprises.