“Photography makes the ordinary…extraordinary”
Meet Phil Watt. Phil loves imagery. Images that move and those that stand still. He also adores rolling around on a wooden plank on wheels. When Phil turned 15, he was given a Ricoh 35mm point and shoot to capture his pals skateboarding. As he explains the early going was frustrating, “I loved the camera but it wasn’t great for action shots as there was a delay with the shutter, meaning you had to fire it before the skaters had even popped their tail”. Fast forward till later in high school and Phil discovered a dark room. It was here he became hooked.
You’d have to skip a generation to find the next keen shooter. Phil’s grandfather on his mothers side, adored his Rollei TLR, a passion Phil was never able to share with him as he passed when Phil was just four years old. “Mum tells me he also had a dark room and she remembers prints magically appearing in the developer. I now also have a Rolleicord and a dark room…not sure if that’s coincidence or something else going on there”. A cool link regardless.
For Phil, it’s the adventure that fascinates him most about photography. “Exploring the unknown” he calls it. A regular stroll with a camera in hand, becomes so much more. Shooting film adds another layer of mystery. “I’ll forget what I’ve shot and it’s always a surprise when I develop a roll. That feeling never wavers.” Interestingly, Phil relates this back to something primal, something instinctual.
“It’s the thrill of the chase perhaps…maybe it’s a hunter-gatherer thing”.
Running with this theme of instinctiveness, it’s no surprise to discover the vast majority of Phil’s work is unplanned. With a 35mm forever burning a hole in his pocket (of which he has many), he chases beautiful light and finds out what it’s shining on. His two favourites in this department, are his trusty Olympus Mju ii and a Yashica T4 he picked up for a steal in Sweden. Pre-COVID, the streets of Melbourne were his stomping ground, however, when lockdown struck he ended up moving out to his Mum’s in rural Victoria. A decision that opened up a new realm of photography for him. “Out there, I shot eerie rural scenes with no people and really enjoyed it”. Since then, he’s found it hard to get back into his street shooting ways.
If Phil’s behind the wheel, his medium format (120mm) cameras come out to play. His crown jewel being the Rolleicord. “It’s just super fun to use. Just looking down into the ground glass gets me excited to shoot. I’ll usually load that up with some Ektar or Portra 400. Occasionally Tri X or Tmax 400 if I’m feeling the BW vibes”. In the last year or so, he’s got back into developing black and white frames at home, a process he gets a real kick out of.
To his followers online, Phil goes by @philmbot. A peek at his Instagram reveals gorgeous analog stills. Although he also shoots digital, his heart lies in the world of grain. “Film keeps you in the moment, it narrows down your options, I’m often paralyzed by the multitude of settings with digi. If I go for a walk with 36 exposures and a 50mm lens I feel content working with what I have. Liberation through limitation a wise man once said”.
When asked about what most attracts his eye, he’s not so sure how to answer. “It’s all so subjective, what’s visually appealing to me might not be to the next person that strolls by with a camera”. One thing he does bring up though is his fascination with mundane scenes, those that’d normally go unnoticed. “I get the most satisfaction, making something out of nothing”. Phil will often take different routes back to his house, hoping to stumble across a special moment on any given day. “A boring car park can be transformed into a dreamscape at golden hour…I think when to shoot is just as important as where to shoot”.
Phil’s catalogue attests to this belief. From vacant skate ramps to people watching the world go by or blokes building a sandcastle, Phil has an uncanny knack for making everyday life look goddamn beautiful. For his mind, he has the phenomenons of light and colour to thank for a lot of it. “If the light and colours aren’t interesting, I’ll normally save my film and return to that spot at another stage”. With the flow of time, an unremarkable location can be transformed into a perfect frame within a few short hours. The light will shift and different characters will make themselves known in the viewfinder. Patience is key.
When I ask about his most favoured frame, Phil tells me the search continues. “That’s what keeps me going. Knowing my favourite shot is still out there and I need to go find it”. Again, the thrill of the chase. That said, there was a time on a pier with an old codger, that Phil is stoked he was able to document. “This old man was gazing through a set of public binoculars, you know…the ones you have to pay $2 for. I took one shot of him peering through them out to sea and then another just as he moved away. He just had this superbly cool swagger about him”. A brief beautiful moment. Having shot on an ancient Zeiss Ikon 6×6 folding camera, Phil had to estimate focus and framing. When he got the scans back, he was shocked to find they were on point.
Before I’ve had time to ask another question, Phil is quick to give me the low down on a recent frame he’ll never, ever forget. “I shot this old boathouse on the bank of a lake out where mum lives. It’s a spooky shot to begin with but it gets even spookier. It had been there for 70 odd years, mum even remembers seeing it when she was a kid. It completely disappeared just days after I took the shot. No trace left…super strange…”.
Whilst there, Phil also shot a superbly cute short film, appropriately titled ‘Covid Boy’. A project he claims perfectly summed up his experience during lockdown. “Plenty of room to move but no friends to share it with”. Graded in black and white, the tale follows a lonely dude in a strange land, with only tre flips and nose manuals to keep him company. A clip that meshes his passions in life just perfectly.
As we closed out proceedings, I thought it only right to try and squeeze some photographic wisdom out of the Melbournian. “My advice to passionate photographers is to keep an open mind, let your eye guide you. Kinda cheesy but I think it works. Don’t get too caught up in the gear. Train your eye. Experiment. Go get lost and let the shots find you”. Phil is also crystal balling a zine and exhibition for some stage this year, but until then sink into ‘Covid Boy’ and his Instagram below:
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