Inspired by urban spaces and architecture, Australian photographer, James Sarantos who is now based in Berlin has been photographing the underbellies of subway stations for the past couple of years.
Aptly titled 'Our Babylon' this photographic project captures the gritty yet alluring landscapes of the various underground metro stations he had visited.
In this freewheeling conversation with Your Local Newsstand along with an exclusive documentary film, James chats about his formative years, his relationship with cities and spaces and how Our Babylon exists on as a project that could be viewed as past, present and future.
"Most of my photos are shot within urbanised areas or metro stations. My largest inspiration for ‘Our Babylon’ was Berlin in Germany
and this was where most of my photos are from. There were also
a fair few photos from other cities that I have lived in or visited
such as Vienna, Melbourne and even Hobart!"
"My journey with photography began at about 12, by discovering an old unused Konica C35 EF in one of my parents’ drawers. It turned out that this camera had been purchased and owned by my grandfather, shortly after emigrating to Australia in the 70’s. I was always fascinated by the idea that this camera had created all of our family memories and began taking my own photos with it. I was from then on influenced to create snapshots and document my surroundings."
Yeah that's right. It was like a dream job to even have today. It was some years ago
when you know film labs were quite common in pharmacies and corner drug stores.
Hey James, so you got your first job at a Noritsu Photo Lab?
It seems that the years you spent working in the lab had a lot of influence on your photography works and approaches.
Well it’s quite funny. It was my first job so I just took everything as it came. And so I never really thought too much about what I was learning about. Even though I was passionate about photography at that time, I was more interested in hanging out with friend. But what I learnt that was really interesting in the way that it was all done informally but also you had to ensure that you are being careful to make sure that you weren’t messing up any of the chemicals. So the pharmacy that I worked in didn’t have a darkroom itself. We would always work with the film in a dark bag. So I sort of learn to keep light away from unexposed film and all these basics film photography stuff at a very early point. But yeah, I was involved in the whole part of the developing and scanning process. I had to learn how to attach film leaders, run it through the development cycles. Then once the film was developed, scanning the developed negatives as well as correcting images. And then going all the way through to cutting the negs up and printing. As well as maintaining the lab itself. And obviously the biggest part is correcting the images when you are reviewing them. And I think this part for me was really informal. There was no specific theory taught to us. At this time, I really learnt colour theory and how to correct images by eye. This gave me a really strong sense of colour and how it can influence the final image which I use in a lot of my photography images today.
I’ve always been drawn to strong, geometric forms and aesthetics in cities and urban areas. Particularly, transportation networks and their infrastructure and how the abstraction of these spaces can result in particularly appealing aesthetics. My collection of work began after I noticed the increasing volumes of people in the urban spaces I lived in and the transportation networks I travelled on. I figured, that with an increasing global population and urbanisation, it might one day not be possible to easily see many of these spaces completely empty again. This thought was what compelled me to start to capture these urban spaces as they are today.
Your photography style is pretty distinct in terms of the tones, colours and feel of it.
I like to stay lightweight and keep a low profile when I am out shooting, so my main shooter is a trusty Rollei 35s. It's one of the smallest completely manual, fully mechanical (no batteries required!) 35mm film cameras available. As its fully mechanical, I love the idea that this camera could be with me for a lifetime and by the end of its days have also shared a lifetime of memories.
What were these photos shot on?
Shooting at night should be more challenging, but I actually find it easier. I always know that I need as much light as I can get and that usually means shooting wide open and with a shutter speed of around 1/60 as a starting point. My go to films are 800 ASA or above, so I use this to my advantage to collect enough light. It means I can pretty much set my camera and forget, unless I am shooting something with drastically different lighting conditions.
I like to take advantage of different colour shifts that can be perceived by the specific film I am shooting on. I prefer to use tungsten balanced film stocks, so that various forms of light lighting will impact the tone of the image differently to a daylight film.
So how challenging was it to shoot at night with very low light?
You made a comment about how due to globalisation, these metro stations will never be empty again. And your photographs of these metro stations are silent, empty, and to a point could be perceived as eerie and slightly dystopian. Was this your way of eternalising a place?
Well, that was what was really interesting. I mean I think it’s a really apt time that this collection has come together now. Especially during this Covid19 situation because I have seen an uplifting number of people posting photos of empty spaces especially in my home city of Melbourne. I think in a way these photos did sort of inadvertently foreshadow what these spaces could look like. But although many aspecss of life would change, I think other aspects would go back to normal and eventually people would need to travel using public transportation networks.
Melbourne has grown a lot in the last 10 years and it’s almost doubled in population. And the spaces that I used to frequently visit when I was younger and they would be completely empty, I noticed are filling up. This is a phenomenon around the world and I guess some people that live in bigger cities such as yourself for example might not able to imagine these spaces being empty empty. I really wanted to capture and hopefully one day in the future I can look back and say ‘That was what that space was back then’. But also you know for some it might serve as a reminder like ‘Wow remember that crazy time in 2020 where we all had to stay inside and everything would have looked like this’ So it’s really creepy that there is this kind of duality to it.
Time for the big questions, who inspires you in your life?
My family.. Not just my parents, but sisters and grandparents. My whole life journey wouldn’t have been the way it is if it wasn’t for the way I was raised and I wouldn’t be who I am without them. Maybe I wouldn’t have picked up a camera if it wasn’t sitting in my parents’ draw waiting for me to find it. Thanks to them for storing it there ;)
How about for photography?
One of my biggest influences in night and urban and night photography is Greg Girard. His mostly night photos from various cities such as Vancouver or Tokyo in the 70’s, before they became the modern metropolises they are today. I love the colours he achieves in his photos and the way he uses light, which definitely serves an inspiration for me. I think his collections really captures the true beauty of analog photography and clearly shows that photos get even better as they age. A classic photographer I always appreciated is Henri-Cartier Bresson. Although he shot in black and white, I really appreciate his technical style and theories around waiting for the perfect moment to present itself, which inspires me to be more patient in my photography.