In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!
I’ve taken photos all my life and I’ve written stories for as long as I could hold a pencil. People have described my books as filmic, with a lot of intense imagery. In my photography, I like to create a narrative sense, implying a world that exists beyond the edges of the frame. The visual way I think was probably formed by my early love of both photography and Surrealist painting.
When I was growing up in New York, I was able to see a lot of Surrealist art work. Salvador Dali and Yves Tanguy were early favorites. They touched something in my SF and fantasy-loving kid brain. I wanted to be an artist too, but I couldn’t draw or paint. Then I saw Man Ray’s Surrealist photos and the short film Un Chien Andalou, and realized that I could create Surreal science fictional and fantasy landscapes with a camera.
In my bedroom, I’d set up elaborate tableaus out of anything lying around the house, from toys to machine parts to weird incense burners from head shops. Easter Island heads and rockets were my favorites back then. I’d try to recreate scenes from paintings and movies, or ones I’d read about in SF books. I never succeeded, of course, and that was probably a good thing. When I realized I couldn’t match other people’s work, it forced me to create my own original scenes. I’m convinced that building and lighting these complex little tableaus helped me later when I would visualize scenes in my writing.
After I assembled a scene I liked, I’d light it with colored bulbs (my favorite) or regular bulbs set up behind sheets of colored tissue paper. This last technique was far from perfect and not terribly well thought out. The heat from the incandescent bulbs would frequently cook the tissue paper, resulting in a smoky bedroom or the occasional fire. I learned to keep a glass of water around just in case. Of course, my mother had no idea that my hobby might result in me torching the house or my photo career would have ended quickly.
Back then when shooting, I used whatever cameras were lying around the house, mostly little Kodak Instamatics or disposable cameras. I preferred the disposables because I could control when I sent in the film to be developed. That way no one else had to see my work. This is was important back then because (1) I didn’t know what I was doing, and (2) most of my shots would be underexposed, overexposed, blurry and, well, a real mess. But no one had to know any of that except me—I could just show people the good shots. Learning that no one had to see my lousy work until I’d had a chance to edit and improve it would be a good lesson for my writing.
As my images and technique improved, I moved on to better cameras and quickly became a fan of digital shooting. Why digital when I started out shooting film? Because digital shooting helped me see my worst photos immediately. That way, I could learn to adjust my shooting on the fly. It also kept me from going broke developing roll after roll of bad film.
Today, I mostly shoot with three cameras: A Nikon D700, an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II, and a Holga.
The Nikon D700 is the camera I use the most. It’s a very straightforward full frame sensor digital camera. It mimics the shooting style and technique of professional film cameras and it does it very well. For me, it’s a very solid meat- and-potatoes device. I don’t use it to shoot video or anything fancy. It takes great still shots in a lot of lighting conditions and that’s all I want from it. But it’s bulky and heavy and, while it’s a rugged camera, I don’t always like traveling with it on planes. For that reason, I have a separate travel camera.
When I’m on tour, I’ll often bring my Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II. It’s about a third smaller than the Nikon and half the weight. It’s a Four Thirds system camera, meaning it’s entirely digital and has a smaller sensor than the Nikon. Because of this, the Olympus shots contain more noise—a kind of visual grit. If you shoot well and in decent light, it’s barely noticeable, and there is software such as Noise Ninja that help clean up your shots. Unless I have a project where I want the absolutely best shots possible, the convenience of the Olympus outweighs any of its limitations.
But for all the time I spend working to get the most professional shots possible out of the Nikon and the Olympus, I have to admit that my favorite camera is the Holga—a legendary piece of junk. Your typical Holga is a film camera equipped with a cheap plastic lens that often distorts whatever you’re shooting. And the body is made from low grade plastic that often doesn’t close completely, letting light leak inside the body so the images will come out with streaks and bleached sections. And I love it.
The Holga is so unpredictable that you have no idea what the final look of any shot will be. This often leads to a lot of wasted film, but also moments of unexpected brilliance. My favorite film to use with the Holga was Fuji 3000-B black and white. In my opinion, black and white is the only way to shoot with a Holga. More often than not, your photos will have a distorted, even ghostly grimness that reminds me of trying to shoot artfully with a surveillance camera. There’s no other camera around that will give you the look or the shooting experience of a Holga.
Unfortunately, Fuji stopped making my favorite Holga film. That’s why I backed a digital version of Holga on Kickstarter. It’s as quirky and unpredictable as the film version, but a lot cheaper to work with since you don’t waste film on under- or overexposed shots.
I know I’ve talked a lot about different cameras, but not just for photo geek purposes (although that was a part of it). Each of the three cameras I work with comes with its own strengths, limitations, and techniques. For me, writing works the same way. In prose, I’ve written science fiction, fantasy, horror, and comedy. I’ve also written film, animation, and comic scripts. Like the cameras, each of these formats comes with its strengths, limitations, and requires different techniques.
I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without photography and I wouldn’t be the photographer I am without writing. Each art form feeds the other. When I’m overwhelmed by words, I can retreat to the non-verbal word of photos. When images no longer satisfy me and stories start taking up more and more space in my brain, I can go back to writing. Ideally, I like to balance the two forms. I try to write when I’m shooting and shoot when I’m writing. I fail a lot, of course. That’s how life works. But I’ve learned so much from writing and taking photos that I wouldn’t want to give up either one.
Richard Kadrey is the New York Times bestselling author of the Sandman Slim supernatural noir books. The Everything Box, the first book of his new series about a thief named Coop, is available from Harper Voyager. Some of his other books include Sandman Slim, The Perdition Score, Metrophage, Butcher Bird, Dead Set, and the graphic novel ACCELERATE. Sandman Slim was included in Amazon’s “100 Science Fiction & Fantasy Books to Read in a Lifetime,” and is in development as a feature film.