When I was in Stockholm end of last year, I interviewed Ola Billmont— a very likable and talented street photographer. He is one of the co-founders of CUP (Contemporary Urban Photography) in Stockholm, and also shared some of his work at my workshop there. He frequents LA quite often for shooting– and he specializes in shooting with a flash in multiple formats (35mm, medium-format, large-format) in both black and white and color. I put together this video interview at a bar, apologies if it is a bit loud in here!
Read more to see the full transcript and his images from the interview.
So I’m here with Ola Billmont in Stockholm. So Ola, why don’t you introduce yourself to the camera?
Hi I’m Ola Billmont and I’m shooting film.
Can you tell us about yourself—how you got interested in street photography? You said you celebrated your 2-year anniversary of shooting.
It was due to a certain camera I started carrying around—my whole life I had bulky cameras, and then I started carrying a small Olympus ep-3, and for the first time I felt I could carry it with me. That’s how I got started pretty much.
Is street photography something you discovered or fell into?
Actually I don’t know, it feels so natural. I’ve always been a guy who wanted to sit outside having a beer and looking at people, so capturing that with my camera is what I’m interested in. its people I’m interested in—shooting people.
What about people?
Weird people? No not weird people—maybe funny, awkward situations. There’s lots of characters out there, and if you can memorize that on film its great.
You mention how you never had an art background, and I think in a short time you’ve been able to build a pretty strong body of work. I’m especially a big fan of your color medium-format flash work. Can you tell us about how the passion or drive you had to get to where you are?
I think its trial and error—I’m experimenting a lot. I shoot with flash around 80-90% of my photos. Sometimes I think I want to take photos without flash, and I try—and its really hard. When the flash comes back on, I feel back on track.
So why flash?
Well show them, its dark (outside in Stockholm). To some sense that’s true, 6-7 months in the year its dark after you get off work. And I have a normal job, so once I get off work its dark. So I cant shoot in the daytime unless its weekends. And if your shooting film, there’s limitations in terms of ISO. So part of it is out of necessity.
Part of it is a technical reason.
And I think so—when I’m shooting in LA, during the day—full sunlight. I love the flash as a fill flash, it’s amazing.
You have experimented a lot, digital—film, 35mm, medium format, and large format. How do these formats affect you?
It doesn’t really—it’s a mood thing. I’m a big guy, big hands, so the size of the camera doesn’t really matter. I love to experiment, and I use Portra 160 or Ilford FP4. So I’ve changed cameras, but now I’m pretty much fixed with 28mm with all cameras. That’s my focal length.
So can you tell us a little about what you’re shooting with right now?
This is the standard go out camera, a Nikon with a 28mm 2.8 lens. And I have a small Contax flash, which is neat—because you can choose to have a spot flash. And its full power all the time, so you have to adjust the power of the flash with your aperture.
So what are the settings you use on your flash?
I shoot close, so I need a high aperture. So usually I’m at f/11, f/16, with 1/125th of a shutter speed, with ISO 125 film. And the flash is at full power. There is a lot of cheap china stuff, which aren’t as reliable.
Why Nikon, as you used to shoot with a rangefinder?
Well, lets have a look here– .2 meters! Close, very close. Now I’m doing portraits of strangers at maximum .3 meters! Getting in their face with a flash. So Leica and Voightlander lenses are .7 meters, which is a limitation. So that is how I got started with the Nikon and this lens.
Tell us about your lens.
The 28mm is fantastic, its super sharp. I have a Ricoh point and shoot 28mm as well. It was in service in Ricoh Germany, they fixed the screen for 110 euros. So if you have a broken LCD screen thing, you can fix it there.
So you like to shoot color and black and white, and you have two Flickr streams (one for black and white and other for color).
Someone told me that: don’t mix black and white and color, and that’s how I went there. I’m not even posting all kinds of photos on Flickr because I wanted to feel as solid as possible. I don’t like the Flickr stream, because it bundles up images too much.
It’s kinda good to edit your stream, because you have an easy overview of how you shoot. So if you have any outstanding images, so to speak, take them out.
When you’re shooting in color vs. black and white, do you look for different things? Does your shooting style change?
If you have found a style of shooting—eventually you assemble images. I found I have a lot of photos with weird hair pointing up. So that has become a series, sort of—because I have a few of those.
Either you can invent stuff, but that’s hard I think. Its better if it comes organically from your own shooting. If you can find a thread in your body of work.
At this point, can you tell us about your inspirations as well as maybe how you describe your style now? Or the thread you see in your work?
I want there to be a face, that’s not always true. I shoot backs and the back of heads. But I like to shoot portraits, so to speak.
I don’t know, that’s really hard. That’s very hard- I can’t really answer that right now.
Well, color vs. black and white—when its dark I shoot black and white, but in LA I shoot color film. So it depends, I mix it up. 35mm, 120, color, black and white—I’m starting a project in LA now, shooting Christmas in California. I find a few photos I liked which were quirky. So I want to hunt down weird people and places. The thing about palm trees and Christmas. They tend to overdo Christmas in LA.
Can you also tell us about your inspirations? Any street photographers whose work you admire?
Mark Cohen I would say is it for me. When I got the book: “Grim Street” it was pretty amazing. I love everything bout it. The cut off heads, the details, the soft dirtiness sometimes—not that I aim for that. And I saw a quite a few photos, which I’ve already kinda shot in a certain sense. I like his stuff a lot.
But then I like those like Gregory Crewdson, which is totally different—arranged photos. But dramatic, melancholy style. Totally different genre. Nevertheless it inspires me. But there are so many.
Among our friends, there are so many talented photographers. Its silly naming all of them.
Can you tell us about the local photography scene here in Sweden? I know you, Brian Sparks, and Mattias Mattias Leppäniemi started CUP (Contemporary Urban Photography). Can you tell us how that started, and the somewhat recent in-public show and workshop you held?
There’s a constant struggle when it comes to street photography—when it comes to definitions and such. There is a street photography group in Sweden where there’s a contest now and I’m trying to interact in that group, but it’s totally impossible. People put up partially colored photos and don’t get it. It’s hard. So we decided we decided to name our event and organization “CUP”—urban, instead of street photography—because we don’t want that discussion. If we have a photographer who is borderline street or urban photography, we didn’t want it to be an issue. So that’s the name of it.
And there was a need for it. Fotografiska is an amazing museum, but they are the big guys. There is tons of talent out there, so that is why we did it.
Can you tell us with CUP—the in-public exhibition and your guys showing your work, and the workshop? How did it go?
It was pretty amazing—I hunted down a guy at the biggest daily newspaper and they interviewed the in-public guys at the workshop, about what street photography is about. Because the whole thing is part of the CUP existing—is to educate people about street photography. Even some photographers don’t know how it is defined. But nobody knows [laughs]. It’s a strategy to step by step—show people how fun and exciting street photography can be.
So this is a tough question to ask—how would you define street photography, personally?
I mean, lets put it this way: some people have a studio to shoot in—and most people don’t. I don’t. So if I can see a photo and in a certain location, and which I think ill be amazing—if I can make that happen with super small links by asking—I will do that. I wont miss that opportunity to take that photo. So that isn’t street photography.
But what I’m saying, you can find those chances or possibilities when you’re out there. But street photography is just capturing that specific thing happening right now in front of you, mostly.
The hardest part is that it has to be candid. When I shoot with flash, I sometimes I ask for peoples attention to look into the camera, not posing. But before I used to snap. I used to say, hey, to have them look into the camera before shooting.
It’s so different. Its like I don’t know how many styles you could define within it. I don’t know, is that good enough?
Haha yeah. Some local photographers here in Sweden are putting together a book—can you tell us about it?
My colleague calls it “Paper” – which will be a soft book. It will be black and white, 6 photographers doing it. It will be named “Out of necessity”—we are releasing it hopefully in February. There are some really good photographers here. So there will be 300 copies.
Why is it called ‘out of necessity?’
Out of necessity to shoot. We all have the need or the necessity to shoot. We need it as part of our lives.
So why do you need to shoot?
I consider myself a curious person, and with all the experimenting I’ve been doing all my life—and taking photos of the things I see. I mean sure you can film, but no—it’s amazing, to take photos—its so much fun. The thrill of shooting film and not knowing if you got it enhances the whole experience for me.
Maybe shooting film versus digital—it’s a tired talk, but what do you think?
Its not a money thing for me, it costs a bit more. I develop all my film myself, color and black and white. And I do darkroom prints of the black and whites. So I think its just fun. Dodging and burning in the darkroom is so much fun. The next copy might be different. Its mind blowing.
I use Lightroom as well obviously with color stuff—but it’s a whole different feeling. It feels more like ‘art’ so to speak. Its fun.
To wrap this up, for anyone else starting off in street photography and others who are curious—what tips or advice might you give them?
Of course I shoot very close with a flash. The most common question is ‘how dare you’? A lot of people need help to feel secure with a camera amongst people. I think that’s the biggest threshold with people starting.
Then you can make a goal to stand in a crowded area with a camera in your face—nobody will care.
Then you can move into less crowded areas—and you will see the same.
It will grow on you. Very rarely do people get mad. But its worth it—get close and take photos of people. That’s my tip.
Any last words or shout-outs?
When you shoot, lean on someone you like—and try to do something. It’s always good to copy in the beginning, honestly I think before you can find your own style. Do that. Find someone you like, try to do what they do—and eventually your whole style will evolve from there.