Thursday, April 24, 2008

*Special guest post & community discussion, Contact, curated by Zachary Ayotte

I learned about photography the old fashioned way. I don’t mean the real old-fashioned way; I mean the way that is becoming old-fashioned now. I would buy rolls of film, put them in my camera and shoot away. Then a few days later I would take the film to the nearest drug store to be developed. It was a process that I took part in for years, even returning from extended vacations with bags of used film. I often admired the digital process, fascinated by the technology, but like many, I could not afford it.

Last year, with the technology now within my financial reach, I finally purchased a digital camera, thinking that it was necessary for my future in photography. I spent a few months with the camera, attracted to the instantaneity of the process. Eventually, though, I became bored. I began searching the Internet for photographs that inspired me, hoping that they would encourage me to pick up my camera again. What I eventually came a across was a series oh photographs taken with a Holga, a plastic, medium format camera from Japan famous for it light leaks and lens vignettes. I bought one on eBay for about forty dollars and prepared for its arrival by seeking out some medium format film. I headed to Carousel and bought a few rolls but was advised by the woman at the counter that they would only be developing the film until January 1st 2008. I had always heard the threats about the death of film but had never really believed them. More importantly, I had never really considered the implications of what that statement meant. Not until I couldn’t get my film processed anymore. Now the diminishing demand for film and the lack of interest in its process is often on my mind.

Discovering the Holga, for me, was a moment of inspiration. The images it produced created a feeling I had forgotten. It seems ironic that a camera renowned for producing what many would consider ‘flawed photographs’ was what made me appreciate the medium all over again. Those flaws, though, reminded me of some of the things that make photography great, not the least of which is its vulnerability.
Anyone who has had trouble loading film, changing a roll, or processing negatives knows that film is a precious thing. One wrong step and the images could be ruined. Light leaks and negative scratches can change an image in ways that may never be completely undone. These elements, though, remind me of the vulnerability of the medium, of images and often of the subject matter.

Because of its relation to time, photography is often a medium that documents, even when it does not intend to. Photographic images preserve a moment infinitely. They remember things as they were. They destine people to repeat the same action or and over again. The vulnerability of film, though, reminds us that the subjects of photos are no more safe from the persistence of time than we are. A scratch on a negative can make an image look older than it is. It can make the subject of the photo look unreachable, temporally foreign. And it can make the photo itself a victim of time, not just a manipulator of it. Even though photography would seem to be a medium that arrests time, the film used to capture it can remind us that both photographs and the things that we photograph are finite and will eventually cease to exist. Photos can preserve moments but by revealing their flaws, they can also remind us of how unpreservable we are.

My relationship to photography has always been tied to my relationship to art both in what I create and what I am drawn to. As an artist, I have always thought that my work is fed partially by myself and partially by the environment I am in. Great art, to me, is like magic. It is a combination of ingredients coming together in the right proportions at the right time to produce something that is almost inexplicable. I don’t think I can take credit for all of those ingredients. Film reminds me of this. Looking at various Holga images reminded me that there are elements of a photograph that are out of my control and that sometimes those elements are the very thing that draw me to an image.

The digital camera has increased the amount of control a person has. As such, images with negative scratches or improper exposures are not only uncommon, they are also easily deleted. The digital camera has given rise to the seven-second photograph. By this, I mean a photograph that exists long enough to be reviewed, deemed uninteresting or unuseful and then deleted. This practice is not uncommon and it dilutes part of what makes photography so appealing. A photograph allows a person to see something in a moment that may not have been obvious at first glance. When shot with film, photographs exist whether we want them to or not. They are right there on our negatives along with the rest of our images. This isn’t true with digital cameras. Images are often deleted before one has the chance to look more closely. By erasing this opportunity, the digital camera allows us to capture a moment as we want it to be captured. We can take pictures until we have the photograph that says what we want it to say. Of course, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Obviously, many consumers find it attractive. After all, photography now gives us the opportunity to remember the world as we want to. If a photograph doesn’t make people look the way they wish to look, it can be deleted and re-shot.

When I pull out a film camera now, people often recoil in fear knowing that the image will not be so easily erased and that they cannot review it in that moment to confirm what it represents. When a digital photograph is taken, on the other hand, people smile and pose, and then quickly gather around the photographer to see how the camera has remembered them.

But this debate isn’t about digital versus film. In the end it can’t be. I saw the equation that way at first because to me it seemed like one was threatening the existence of the other. Digital cameras are everywhere. Film cameras have become increasingly hard to come by. In an out and out battle, film would lose. But that equation is too simple. It ignores the role that we can play.

About a month and a half ago, I contacted a few Edmonton photographers and asked them to be part of this project. At the time, the goal of the work was to acknowledge the fact that photography has an important history, that film was part of that history and that it is important enough that it should be part of that future. Each photographer was to choose a image from a list of photographs that I thought were historically relevant to the medium in some way. From there they would create a new work with the same title. I saw it as a way of looking back and moving forward. Of course, the irony about that is that, as a result, I missed what I was looking for; the future of film.

I had no trouble getting six photographers to participate in this project. All of them were excited about their work and all were attracted to different historical images. Each imagined the work in their own way and each approached the issues of using film differently. Getting images printed from film is not difficult but it is not as simple as it used to be. Each of them found a way. It made me realize that the future of film was not as I had imagined it. I thought that film was endangered, doomed for eventual extinction. The future of film, though, lies not in death, but in adaptability.

It was claimed that the rise of photography would be the death of painting. It was not. Painting didn't die; it adapted. For a long time painting tried to imitate the world as realistically as possible. When photography came along, people found something that do the job better. Rather than giving up, painters explored new ways to use paint. That same potential exists with film.
I believe film photography and digital photography, though similar at first glance, are actually separate mediums. By recognizing this split, we can free film and digital photography to develop in their own directions, expanding what photography can be rather than reducing it to a battle of one or the other.

*Artist talk on Thursday, April 24, 7 p.m. at Mandolin Books, Edmonton. Moderated by Amy Fung. Contact runs until the end of April.


Heather said...

what a great talk -- i'm sorry i couldn't be there (prior commitment, i.e., having 15 people over for dinner).

the thing that most fascinates me about digital is the moment you describe, the "let me see, let me see" moment. i am really curious about what that means to people.

jk said...

I like your point about not viewing digital and film as some kind of binary -- they're not (or at least don't have to be) in opposition, they're simply different. I particularly like your analogy to painting after the development of the film camera.

One virtue of digital that I'd like to add is that the lack of consequences when a photographer takes a picture he/she isn't happy with possibly frees him/her to take pictures he/she otherwise wouldn't. I certainly know this is the case with me. I'm such a wimp/tightwad that I would never take any pictures on a film camera for fear of screwing them up and having to pay for more film. The oft-mentioned flip side of this is that it forces film photographers to more carefully compose their pictures, but I guess this is just a matter of preference.

Finally, there's a good article in this month's Monocle that talks about a lot of the same things as this post (but, obviously, from the perspective of luxury-goods-purchasing, globetrotting, generally fancy-pantsed European).

Zach said...

Hi Heather and JK,
Heather, I'm afriad 15 people is not an excuse. Had it been 20 it would have been okay but...
In relation to your comment, i find that moment interesting in reference to both the photographed and the photographer. I recently read an interview with Annie Leibovitz in which she was asked if she looked at the back of the camera after every shot to see how it turned out. She said that she did and that she assumed the instinct would eventually go away. It is interesting to see how people respond to being able to see images right away and where it will go.

JK, you bring up a really interesting point. I often fear that i may screw up a photo with film and won't know it in time to take it again. What i've realized, though, is that even with digital, if i screw up an image, I can't retake it. For me, even with digital, a photo can't really be taken again, at least not the way it was intended the first time. This probably isn't true for certain forms of photography but it is often true with my work.

I also read the Monacle article. It's interesting how some people are returning to film on the professional level.

jk said...


Like many amateur types, it seems, I'm generally a landscape kind of guy, so I never really thought about the point you brought up: if you're attempting to photograph something ephemeral, I guess the ability to evaluate the shot immediately is a bit irrelevant.

After I read that I thought a little harder about how I take photos, and I realized that the only time I really review my shots in the viewfinder is before I take my "final" shot, to confirm that I've got everything set up right -- I essentially use the review feature as a proof. After that I'll seldom look at the photos until I get them on my computer. It's funny, it's almost like simply knowing I could delete a shot if I had to -- even if I seldom do -- is enough of an assurance for me to shoot away...

af said...

I feel the need to interject here:

whether to use the viewfinder or not, and the urgency to delete or keep, was discussed as really more a reflection of the photographer than the mode of camera.
after the talk, I feel that in film, there is more of an inherent trust in capability, where digi lets you second guess yourself instantaneous.

tish said...

"One could say that photography was never in competition with painting. What happened was that at some point the quest for visual reality, or for the 'memory present' (as Baudelaire put it), split apart. To maintain connection with reality, to maintain our presentness, painting accepts the recession of the world. Photography maintains the presentness of the world by accepting our absence from it. The reality in a photograph is present to me while I am not present to it; and a world I know, and see, but to which I am nevertheless not present (through no fault of my subjectivity), is a world past."

- Stanley Cavell