“Charm City” and beyond: Q&A with Isaiah Williams

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We caught up with photographer Isaiah Williams to chat about his exploration of Baltimore for his “Charm City” series, the photos he captures and an passion sparked by a simple Polaroid portrait.

The Darkroom: Tell us about yourself. What do you do? Where are you from? What’s your background?

Isaiah Williams: I am a member of the US Air Force, currently stationed here in Maryland. I joined up after I finished my Bachelor’s at Salisbury University and ended up getting stationed right back here. I grew up in Germantown, Maryland and attended Damascus High School. Since I grew up pretty close to here, Baltimore has always been a very important city to me. I would come for museums, the harbor, and sports games.

DR: How did you get started in photography?

Williams: I got started in photography when I was young, my mother was a musician and I remember I was about 5 years old when she introduced me to a photographer at her record label. We sat down and he used his Polaroid to take a portrait of us, and the instant I saw that picture develop right before my eyes I was hooked. I spent most of my childhood carrying around whatever disposable or cheap camera I could get my hands on and always kept a photo album. It lapsed a bit when I went to college, but after I could afford the gear I wanted to it started back up. I have been addicted to photography ever since; it is my passion.

DR: In one sentence, describe your photography.

Williams: My photography is all about telling stories, I want you to look at my images and feel like you are experiencing those moments with me.

DR: Do you have a goal with your work? Something you hope to accomplish with it, or is it simply a passion?

Williams: Photography is a huge passion of mine, and in the end I just want to take photographs that make people think. I want to travel and document all types of people and places, I got my college degree in Sociology so I try to bring that into my work any way that I can. For Baltimore specifically, I want people to see the different neighborhoods and places this great city has to offer. There is a lot more out there than most know, and I want to show them.

DR: What captivates you to shoot the scenes you do, particularly in your Charm City series?

Williams: Expanding on that last answer. The Charm City series was something that I wanted to do for a very long time. I feel like sometimes people who know don’t know Baltimore very well only focus on negative things they have heard about the city. I wanted to start a project that showed all the interesting places and people Baltimore has to offer, I started Winter of 2013 and have been slowly adding more images as the year progressed. Once I feel like I have spent enough time trying to get different areas of the city I want to put together a book or something to showcase “Charm City.”

DR: Do you go out looking for photos or do you stumble across scenes to capture?

Williams: When I first started it was kind of hard to get a feel for what I was really looking for. So I would set a day or two and go out looking for things to take photos of, but in time I realized that sometimes you have to just have your camera with you and scenes will unfold right before you. There are a few images that I have taken of people in particular that are posed, but for the most part most of the Charm City series is done candidly. I want to capture people and environments as they really are, so people get a feel for what it’s like to live in the city.

DR: For our gearheads: What’s your setup? Lens, camera, lights, Canon vs. Nikon? iPhone? What do you use most?

Williams: For the gearheads! When I started Charm City I was working on a Nikon D7100 and D600 with a 35mm 1.8 and a 50mm 1.8, I soon realized though that if you want candid photos you may need to be a little more discreet than pointing a huge DSLR in someone’s face. So I made the transition over to Sony’s line of Mirrorless cameras (NEX 6, A6000, A7) which are much smaller and lighter; I love everything they offer in terms of image quality, white balance, color reproduction and auto-focus speeds. Most of the Charm City series now is shot with a 14mm, 30mm, 50mm and an occasionally an 85mm. I don’t use flash unless it is absolutely necessary, I think it’s an amazing tool but I love working with natural light sources. I have an iPhone 6 Plus which has an amazing little camera on it, so if I am somewhere where I don’t have my camera I feel more than comfortable using it. Regardless of gear, anyone can go out and take amazing photos and I would encourage them to do so.

Isaiah Williams’ work can be seen on his website at isaiahrw.com or in Instagram, @isaiahrw.