Some of my favourite photos hold a special place in my heart, not only because I like them as images but also because they remind me of what it took to get the shot. This is the first post in a new experimental series - story behind the shot - where I share, well, the story behind a shot!
Here's the photo:
I made this photo at Hong Kong University. It was a Sunday, and with the day off, I was wandering around the university with a roll of Kentmere 400 black and white film loaded in my Leica M6. My goal that day was not so much to shoot as to test the film, pushing it to ISO 1600 for the first time to see how it would perform. So, I was wandering around the university looking for interesting subjects, shooting pretty randomly.
Towards the end of the roll, I saw a girl climbing up the outside of a building. Intrigued, I followed her, and watched as she climbed up to a hidden spot and sat on a curved overhang. The only way I could get a closer look would be to climb up with her, which would be weird since the space was so small. Then I realized that she was sitting on a windowsill. Maybe I could see her from the other side of the window inside!
I sprinted inside.
She was two floors above the entrance, so I made my way up the stairs. As I reached her floor, I saw her sat on the windowsill either reading a book or on her phone. If I could see her, she could see me, so I would have to be discreet.
Window light on a cloudy day, a dim interior - the lighting conditions were tough and I needed to meter without her noticing. I turned to another window and took two meter readings - one from an inside wall, one pointing out the window - and set my exposure.
I turned towards her.
Her legs were lined up perfectly with the metal bars on the window. It was a captivating image. I framed, focused, and quickly snapped an image and advanced the film. But before I could line up the next shot, she saw me.
She turned and stared straight at me and my camera...before waving with a huge grin on her face!
I waved back. It was a lovely moment, but I also realized that the candid moment was lost forever. I couldn't line up another shot because every time I did she would look towards the camera, so I waved, gave her a thumbs up, and left.
As I made my way home that day, I was excited but also worried. Did I get the exposure right? Did I miss focus? Did I hold the camera steady enough or would there be camera shake? Would Kentmere 400 hold up when pushed to ISO 1600? Such are the perils of shooting film, but also part of the fun.
When I got home, I couldn't wait to develop the film in my makeshift darkroom (i.e. my bathroom).
Load. Measure. Mix. Develop. Stop. Fix. Wash.
When I was done and had hung up the negatives to dry, the first thing I did was look for this frame. It looked good. Phew. After scanning the negatives, I was so excited when I saw this image on screen.
It was perfect. The shot was exactly what I had visualized in my head at that moment.
Not only did it look great (Kentmere 400 is good stuff pushed to 1600 in HC 110 developer), but I will also never forget the rollercoaster of emotions I felt getting this shot. The exhilaration of realizing the photographic possibility as I watched her climb, the focus in getting ready for the shot, the relief in seeing her wave after noticing me, and the anticipation before developing and scanning the shot - these are the moments that make me love street photography and love shooting film.
This photo remains one of my favourites of all time. It's printed big and hanging on my wall.