I’m a photographer. I usually think I’m an imposter photographer because I’m terrified of taking photos of actual real people in case they hit me or, dare I even think it, say “No” but I nonetheless count myself among the legions of humans (and some primates) that consider themselves to be the operator of a camera at more than just birthdays. What’s that got to do with the price of fish, I hear you ask? Well, it’s all about the digital analogue debate.
I am old enough to legitimately claim to have taken my first photographs (literally a ‘light drawing’ from the Greek – photo:light and graph:drawing, just thought I’d pass that along) on ‘wet’ film i.e. actual rolls of film that had to be taken to a lab for processing. I cannot however claim to have been a working or even semi-serious photographer who used film. And therefore I can’t claim to be ‘going back to film’.
So, what am I banging on about? Digital is convenient, cheap, it gets the job done, you know you’ve got the shot because you can see it on the back of the camera and can have sent it to a global audience before you’ve got a beer in your hand at the end of the day. But. There’s a but. Film is different. It’s the original. It’s the 1960s Porsche. It’s the Marlboro advert with the Marlboro Man. It’s a handwritten letter not an email. It’s what digital wants to be. That’s the but. It’s inconvenient, it’s expensive (although when you consider built-in obsolescence of digital cameras, you can easily spend many thousands of pounds more over a lifetime on cameras than on rolls of film and one decent film camera, but anyway…), it’s slow. But the look!
I still remember my dad’s slideshows in our sitting room when I was young. Far flung places projected on the wall 6 feet across not 6 inches on a smartphone. In the case of slide film, it was that actual piece of film that was actually there at the actual time, and now here I was looking at the reflection of light shone through it, actually. That is as close to magic as I can think of.
That’s all great, the look, the magic etc. but can making images with film make us better people and our photos better photos? I think it might.
It’s the ritual, you see. Do you drink tea or coffee? Do you enjoy the ritual of making it? Maybe it’s just a nuisance but I wouldn’t be surprised if you quite enjoy the two or three minutes it takes to boil the kettle, perhaps grind the beans (maybe I’m getting over sentimental), pour the water on the tea/coffee, stir, add milk etc. Finally you get to sip the delicious brew. Even if you buy your drink of choice from a coffee shop there’s the noise and the steam, the banging of espresso machines, the smell. OK, you haven’t made it but there’s a different kind of ritual. So, if those are film, if they’re the Marlboro Man riding across the prairie, then what is digital? Ever heard of the Nutri-Matic? It’s a fictional machine from the book Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams that makes food and drinks (sounds akin to a vending machine). This is how it makes tea: “He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.” Remember the best cup of tea you’ve ever had? The best coffee date? I’ll bet a pint (of beer) that the beverage in question didn’t come from a Nutri-Matic or an Earth vending machine. That’s digital. It’s disposable; don’t like it? Try another one. It’ll be something like what you imagined but a computer’s interpretation of it.
When I shoot digital, I can easily reel off a few hundred shots, no problem. I hope I’m composing properly but let’s be honest there’s a bit of playing the numbers game. There’s no ritual. When I shoot film, I might shoot a couple of rolls – 72ish shots. OK, often it’ll be a totally different type of shooting – an event versus street photography for example – but it makes me stop, it makes me look, it gives me reverence for the moment, respect for that little piece of film. And when I’m done, that’s interesting too. After a digital shoot, I’ll download my hundreds of images and I’m thinking “Hey, I think I nailed it today, I did a good job” so I look through and I’m picking this shot and that shot as favourites and I’m thinking I’m David Bailey. I’m enjoying instant nostalgia. Everything is great. When I shoot film, I have to wait. It might be a day until I can develop it myself or it could be a week until it comes back from the lab, or it might be months until I send it away. When I get it back, there’s a lot of not great stuff there. The hit rate is a lot lower, or seems to be. Time has passed and now I’m the critic of my own work not the 3 year old giving self-congratulations on a finger painting. It’s healthy. And the only good shots on film are the framers. They really stand out. That’s the shit that sticks.