Sisterly Spotlight: Vilan Le
Through film, Vilan Le is not only capturing memories of her life in the outdoors, but she's creating a sense of nostalgia while also giving tribute to the people and places who have helped shape her art.
Vilan's relationship with photography began at a young age in her family home. Her father and sister were both avid photographers in her youth, sparking her curiosity. After taking her first film photography class in high school, she fell in love with the slow and curious process of developing film in a darkroom. All of these wistful experiences have shaped the photos she creates today. I mean look at this:
What struck me was the livelihood and yet sharp sense of reality felt throughout her photographs. I was particularly interested in her work from her photography book called "Our Field Notes." Most of these shots are peculiar because she is able to bring depth and meaning to an otherwise empty space.
Vilan started this project spontaneously after college. She and her college boyfriend, Kinsey, were graduating in the winter of 2016. Their housing plans fell through and they impulsively decided to travel for a few months along the western coast to visit family. To live simple and rent free, they lived out of their car and camped throughout California's varying cities, documenting spaces that sparked their imaginations. Along with their savings, they started a Kickstarter fundraiser to help pay for materials. With time, guts, and a little help from their friends, "Our Field Notes" became a (published) reality. Hearing Vilan speak of this period exuded the sense of nostalgia and gratitude that she continues to carry in her work.
You can find her art at vilanphoto.com and follow her on instagram @vilanle
Q & A
How/ when did you discover your love of photography?
Vilan: I've always been interested in photography from a young age because of my father. He would photograph and document all of our family and scouting trips and proudly display them all over the house. My sister was also interested in photography and naturally, looking up to her, I would try and do what she did. She would let me borrow her cameras and we both posted them online together on websites like Flickr or Myspace. But I think I started looking at photography as a passion when I took my first photography class in high school. It was a class focused primarily on film photography first then expanded into digital photography. Our teacher taught it this way because he believed that we needed to really understand the main functions of the camera as well as appreciate the history and process of film photography to truly learn and understand using the camera. Using film forced us to learn slowly, instead of picking up a more advanced camera that had all the functions automatic for you. I discovered that I loved being in the darkroom and I loved that slow process. I continued on from high school but kept that love for photographing into my life now.
Do you think about possibly doing photography full time?
Vilan: I've thought about it before, naturally, as anyone would trying to figure their life out in college. But, I also enjoyed Computer Science and using the right side of my brain. I definitely need that balance in my life. I think one of the reasons I didn't do it full time was because I always viewed photography as this really fun side project that I would put extra money and time into, and I could create things and go travel to capture images without the pressure of needing someone to like it enough to buy and use. I didn't want that extra element of pressure that money could add to it. I always wanted it to be my escape from that pressure.
Are there certain themes that you look for? Spaces that you're attracted to?
Vilan: I focus mainly on outdoors photography. Because I have a strong history growing up in the outdoors, I still go outside camping, hiking, climbing, and backpacking today. With that, I bring my camera along. Another theme that I combine with the outdoors is the idea of nostalgia. I use film photography and the process that comes with using film to convey these themes. I've used expired film from the 70s and taken it outdoors, knowing that the images weren't going to come out perfect and grain-free. I've used slide film (film meant to be placed in a slide projector) on a roadtrip through the desert to try and recreate the images of families going on vacation on Route 66. I've destroyed film by taking photographs, keeping it in the car to heat up, dipping it in concoctions of kitchen soap and water, and exposed purposeful light leaks to show the destruction that could come from taking such a delicate medium through travel, especially outdoors. Spaces I'm especially attached to is the desert. Anything in the desert. I fell in love with Joshua Tree, fell in love with driving through the Grand Canyon, and fell in love with the orange rock and the varying landscapes the desert provides. I also think I love it so much and capturing it so much because it fits so well with my love for nostalgia (Route 66, the American Dream, old Westerns).
How did you come up with the idea of a photography book "Our Field Notes"? Was it spontaneous or intentional?
Vilan: It was completely spontaneous. My boyfriend at the time and I were graduating in the Winter of 2016 and were supposed to move up to LA to start the job hunt with two other friends. But, our two other friends, last minute, were unable to follow through with moving until the following Spring. So we thought to ourselves, well, what's the rush? Maybe we can travel for a few months and visit family. But then we thought, oh man, traveling is expensive... and rent is expensive. So, we thought, why not live out and camp out? It's pretty much free rent. Then we thought, well, we still want to travel and visit family (our family being in the Bay Area and Arcata, CA). Well, those places are all beautiful, why don't we do a roadtrip? Then we thought, shit. That sounds awesome, let's bring our cameras along and document it somehow. When in our life will we have this opportunity to live without responsibility and just create for a few months? Then, we thought of the idea for the book, and started a kickstarter to help pay for materials, used our savings, and did it. It's a constant reminder that yes - don't worry if things don't go to plan, it'll all work out in the end somehow. I always look back on that time so fondly. And I never regret it.
Can you tell me more about working with film, is this how you started in photography?
Vilan: Film photography is any photography not using a digital camera. So it could range from 35mm, medium format, or large format film or polaroids (that's definitely not all of them, but those are the ones I use). After taking the photo, you get it developed using different chemicals by a darkroom lab or by yourself. Then, you can scan the film or you can print it straight to paper in a printing darkroom using an enlarger. I usually send it to a lab to get developed and scanned, because that is the most accessible for me now. But, I started out photographing, developing, and printing all myself in a darkroom. I'm starting to work in darkroom again for printing though, and one day want to set up my own darkroom.
Working with film is a delicate process. When working with 35mm film for example, you get to choose what film stock you want, which means choosing what kind of color grading, grain, and overall look you want in a photo. There are so many different film stocks and also ways to experiment with them. I enjoy it because it kind of is like Christmas... each time you develop you have an idea of what the image will look like to the best of your ability, but it's always a surprise and could be really rewarding that way.
Do you find that there is a sense of community among fellow photographers?
Vilan: For myself, my community of photographers is online. I share my photographs on Instagram mainly and network through Instagram. Since I don't do it for money, I haven't seen that competitive nature myself. I think also being in the outdoors photography world, people are a little more open and kinder to you. People photographing outdoors all love the capturing adventure and nature, and they don't own that nature, they just want to share it, if that makes sense? I've also connected with groups that gear toward creative minorities in the outdoors. Personally, I've found openness and collaboration in this online community. Maybe it's different in the marketing photography community, or the modeling photography community.
I know you work a full time job in tech, and have a pretty demanding life outdoors among many of your other hobbies. How do you find time for it all? How does photography fit into the equation?
Vilan: If you love something, and have fun doing it, you just make time for it. You add it into your routine. I spend my weekday evenings climbing or working on cultivating my other interests. I make time for trips outdoors on the weekends, or bigger trips in the future. I put money away for my photography fund, money for film, developing, and camera gear. I try to find that balance around my work and my side projects. When I have that balance between work and my creative projects, I don't view either as too demanding or too time consuming. If you have that balance, you don't get burnt from either. Which is the best feeling.