Knox in his Darkroom wearing our Blanket Shirt and Paz Pant.
When Knox Bertie was a kid he found a Miranda F camera in his grandmother’s basement. For years he kept it on his bedside table, often bringing it to his eye to compose shots and to play with the manual focus. But he never loaded it with film.
Knox grew up in the middle-class town of Kitchener, just outside of Toronto. After graduating with a teaching degree from University of Windsor in 2003, he moved to London, where he lived for three years. Then he kicked on to the Middle East for two years, then Malaysia for a year, then Sydney, where he was lived since 2009, and where he works as a chemistry teacher.
It was during his stint in the Middle East that he started taking pictures. Film and processing were cheap, there was lots to shoot. His camera became like an appendage. “You could sort of sense it was all going to change,” said Knox. “13 hotels were planned to be built in the town, but everyone was still living the way they had in the past. I really wanted to document it, more for myself than anything else, and on something more substantial and permanent than the digitals that were available at that time. I still flip through those photos.”
Knox, 39, lives in the present, but his approach to photography is from a bygone era. He shoots almost exclusively film, and processes and prints himself, sometimes making the chemicals himself. “I’m a chemist, so I know that you can make Rodinal with sodium hydroxide and Tylenol,” he told me. He has done plenty of professional work, but he prefers to work on personal projects, without outside influence. His photographic inspiration comes from Ralph Gibson, Ray Metzker, Bruce Davidson, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, and Trent Parke. He writes every morning, and meditates most days. Here is some of Knox’s work, along with highlights from our conversation.
“I shoot mostly medium-format film, a Pentax 6x7, so you get 10 shots with it. What I tend to do is just wander around, and Sydney is an amazing city for light. You walk around and see these bars of light! Sometimes I’ll be out for hours and I won’t take a shot ‘cause it just doesn’t line up, and then all of a sudden you’ll be in a place and the light lines up and I’ll take 10 shots within a minute. Sometimes I’ll go out everyday for a week and just barely get through the 10 shots. I’m really, really slow in the way that I shoot. I’m not a guy that just goes out and snap, snap, snap sort of thing.”
“I’ve stuck to film for the look more than anything. I’ve tried, but I just can’t get that look from digital. Similarly, with auto-focus cameras I’ve found that they miss the focus a lot. I zone focus a lot. It’s strange to say, but I find it much faster to shoot with a lens that doesn’t auto focus. I probably shoot more like a landscape photographer than a street photographer. I frame different scenes and wait for the moment to happen in the scene. It’s a lot of waiting. Nine times out of 10 it doesn’t line up, but when it does it’s magic.”
“I love playing with chemicals. I teach Chemistry at school. The first time I walked into a darkroom I was just instantly in love with it. You can’t turn on the lights; you can’t bring your phone in ‘cause the light will wreck the photo. It’s full concentration, full silence. In my darkroom I work with these big negatives, and you can really develop your own style in the way you develop. I try to get as much black out of everything.”
“I’ve been teaching for a long time but for me it was never about teaching. Teaching was the vehicle to travel around the world. I learned a lot from living in the Middle East. You learn a lot from living in a place where you’re the minority group, and you have racism directed towards you rather than being on the other side of it.”
“These photos are about the alienation and the disconnect in the big city. When I first moved to Sydney I was here by myself so I probably felt very disconnected by being on the other side of the world, and disconnected to the space and the big city. A lot of the photos I take are about the disconnect, and to some extent I’m always searching for that disconnected look in people.”
“I’m really into meditation, and just being slow. For me, photography and walking around is a meditation. It’s way of focusing your mind on everything that’s in the physical world at that time. You just kind of relax and let everything slow down. You find these spots where everything’s got to line up at that time and you’ve got to be ready for it, but because you’re relaxed, you are. When I shoot I’m hyper-aware but also very slow at the same time, if that makes sense.”
“I’ve been walking around with a camera now for almost 15 years. It really wasn’t until a year and half ago that I said, ‘You know, I’m going to actually put this stuff out there.’ It kind of coincided with my meditation practice where I reached a stage of my life where I’m into putting this stuff out there and seeing what happens.”
Jamie Brisick is a writer, photographer, and director. He surfed on the ASP world tour from 1986 to 1991. He has since documented surf culture extensively. His books include Becoming Westerly: Surf Champion Peter Drouyn’s Transformation into Westerly Windina, Roman & Williams: Things We Made, We Approach Our Martinis With Such High Expectations, Have Board, Will Travel: The Definitive History of Surf, Skate, and Snow, and The Eighties at Echo Beach. His writings and photographs have appeared in The Surfer’s Journal, The New York Times, and The Guardian. He was the editor of Surfing magazine from 1998-2000, and is presently the global editor of Huck. In 2008 he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship. He lives in Los Angeles. For more of his work check out jamiebrisick.com & @jamiebrisick