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.