Australian photographer Jesse Graham has been a longtime fan of the Petzval lens. After years of wanting one, he finally got his hands on it and now uses his lens as a go-to for his portrait work. He also brought it on his recent trip to New York City.
We had the opportunity to sit down and hear about Jesse's love for the Petzval lens as well as what he did on his recent trip!
Hi Jesse, welcome to Lomography Magazine! Could you please tell us about yourself and your work?
Hey, Lomography Magazine folks! I'm Jesse, a portrait and wedding photographer from Melbourne, Australia.
My background is in journalism. I picked up a camera as a teenager, but started really learning photography while working at my local paper in the Yarra Valley. I very quickly fell in love with taking portraits and photographers like Steve McCurry, Annie Leibovitz and Mark Seliger (along with local Melbourne photographers like Rob Carew, Suzanne Phoenix, Kim Landy and even my old schoolmate, the incredible photographer Sean Paris.) To try and learn a bit more about portraits, and become a better photographer, I started a project in 2016 to photograph 1000 people, which I actually finished this October while here in New York!
What initially brought you to New York?
So I actually came to New York in December 2015 through January 2016. It was a birthday trip, and my first to the United States. I had just started taking photos on film (thanks to my friends Grace and Andrew) and while I was here, I bought my first rolls of Kodak Portra and a Nikon FE from the used camera counter at B&H photo. Both of those things have come with me through learning photography and starting to work more professionally on weddings and in my 9-5 in Media and Communications (I even got a roll of Portra tattooed on my arm a few years after I got back.)
I planned to return in 2020 for a bit of a nostalgic visit to a city I loved and a chance to take photos in NYC now that I knew a bit more about photography and film. That didn't quite happen, for the obvious reason, so I postponed it and organized a two-month photo trip for October-November this year! Just hopped on a plane with a bag of film and have been trying to experience as much of the city as I can during this time.
What made you decide to pick up a Petzval lens?
I held one of the first Lomo Petzval lenses while at the old Lomography Store in Manhattan back in 2015. The idea of the swappable aperture plates was fascinating and I loved the swirly effect on the edges of the images. I didn't plan my travel budget to include cool new lenses, so I had to leave that beauty behind.
Last year my partner, Carly, asked me if there's anything in the world I wanted for my birthday, and the first thing that came to mind was the Petzval MKII. She ordered one over to Australia for me (with a roll or two of the LomoChrome Purple XR film) and I fell in love with the new version so quickly. The lens has a lot of sentimental value. It's a lovely little reminder of home and a tool I've been using to have a lot more fun with the portraits I take.
What is your favorite feature of the lens?
The swirly bokeh when the lens is opened up is so stunning - it gives a gorgeous, unreal effect to portraits, which I love. But I really can't look past the swappable aperture plates, the love heart plate is a go-to for me. It's eye-catching and cheesy but in a really nice way. I can't get over it.
How have you been finding the Petzval lens works for portraits?
The Petzval lens seems like it was made for portraits, and it's so easy to use. My film cameras have split-prism focusing, which makes focusing on f/1.9 pretty easy. I've been using a mirrorless Nikon camera for my digital work, and focus peaking makes it so easy and fun to use. I love good bokeh and lights in the background of my photos, so I always end up reaching for the Petzval when I've got a fun outdoor shoot in the city. Now wedding season is starting up again back home, so I'll be bringing it along for some creative portraits through the days and especially the evenings.
Do you have a favorite photo with the lens? Is there a story about it?
My favorite photo with the Petzval lens would have to be from a photoshoot with my good friend Emily-Rose, a wonderful stylist back in Australia. When one of us has an idea for a photoshoot, we zip into the city or out to the mountains and make it happen.
For this shoot, we went to Melbourne for a French Noir/Wes Anderson-ish kind of shoot. After walking around the city, we saw that the front of the Regent Theatre was illuminated for the Moulin Rouge performances coming up that evening. Using the Petzval lens, we took some photos to make the most of the swirly bokeh and then swapped to the heart-aperture plate to turn all of the yellow and red overhead lights into hearts.
Though we took some photos on my digital camera, I started a roll of CineStill 800T and the first photo is of Emily-Rose, mid-frame, running her hand through her hair. The entire left side of the photo is burned with light from the leader of the roll, and the lights to the right hand side bend around the frame with that recognizable Petzval effect. I'm not sure if I quite nailed our original brief, but I really love the photo. It's a reminder of the slightly unpredictable and very tangible nature of film, and it's one of my favorite portraits from the last few years.
Do you have any tips or tricks for those who want to try out the lens themselves?
Sometimes the split-prism in my film camera isn't a fan of the shaped aperture blades, especially in low light. I found that a handy trick around this is focusing with the plain aperture plate in, then swapping the plates right before you take the photo (making sure you light meter for the difference, of course!) makes things easier.
Also be mindful that if you're out under fairy or festoon lighting, the light flicker can mean you don't always catch the lighting at its brightest in a photo - so if you really want to make sure you get the most out of those fun bokeh shapes, take a couple extra shots just in case and you'll usually get a winner.
If you could shoot anything with the Petzval lens, what would it be?
Every year, Vanity Fair organizes a portrait studio as part of the Oscars awards ceremony, with a photographer documenting the lovely and lavishly-dressed folks attending and winning awards. The studio is built-for-purpose each year, which opens up so many wonderful possibilities for photos. My dream would be to be a photographer at an event like that, and have a studio made up with a wall of lights (or sequins with good lighting will do in a pinch,) and take some portraits using the Petzval lens using the fun aperture plates. Maybe even have some custom plates made up for the lens to get really silly with it. Anyway, if VF is reading this: I'm just a plane ride away, pals.
Do you have any upcoming projects or work that you can share?
I've always been really interested in the things we carry with us that hold sentimental value: jewelry from family members, souvenirs from travel, books with notes in the margins, cameras passed down, etc. Stories in engravings or verbally told and re-told as an item travels through our lives. What I'll be doing is inviting people for a photoshoot and a recorded interview, where they can share the story about a sentimental thing they own - something they could never part with, something that means the world to them.
Anything else you'd like to share?
While I'm in NYC, I'm posting all of my film rolls from this trip, mostly street photos and some portraits over on my website and on Instagram. I'm in the city until the end of November if anyone wants a coffee or a quick Petzval street portrait!