The way is dark and tangled…
Why I shoot film: A reflection on photography (part 5).
So this here is the final instalment of my exploration of why I might choose to forego megapixels and the convenience of a versatile, capable, extremely fast and efficient digital camera and instead trek down the dusty, winding, half-overgrown path that is film photography in the 21st century. The cameras are old; the process takes a long time; it’s expensive to develop and scan; it’s limiting and the results have been surpassed long ago. These things are probably true; at least one of my Polaroid cameras has developed a rather nasty (and expensive) intermittent habit of spitting out frames so slowly that the developer paste doesn’t cover even half of the frame, and another spent several weeks producing at least three shots from every pack that were overexposed to the point of extreme frustration. So why would I do this to myself? Well, the fourth reason, and really the one that underpins most others, is simple – it’s because shooting film makes me more creative. Let me try to explain…
To my mind, the hardest creative challenge to work with would be if the instruction was simply “create something”. Where does one start with such a brief? No, far preferable for me is the brief that says “use only these 36 frames, and a monochromatic palette, to tell the story of the city as you experienced it that day”. There, I have plenty to work with. I know my limitations, I know the constraints within which I can create. And that’s where the resolution comes from – chipping away at those constraints. For me, complete freedom of creative expression is paralysing.
And if like me, you find yourself most able to create when that’s within a bounded system, film photography offers just so many delicious constraints. There are constraints in the choice of film. When one has 36 frames, one tends to make each one count. Yes, it’s possible to exercise this kind of discipline with digital as well (in fact I did exactly that some time ago on this very blog), but you don’t have to – and that’s the point. Maybe it’s my background in a small part of a small state in a small part of the world, but I find it easiest to find a creative response when there’s no other option but to solve the problem. When one has a low ISO film loaded from that sunny day last weekend and 10 frames still to shoot, one tends to find opportunities to exploit that.
There are also constraints in the choice of camera. Using a rangefinder opens up new ways of seeing, but it also means I can’t use my old ways of seeing – no through the lens focusing for me. Having to manually wind on from each shot slows down the process of taking and means fast-paced action shots are pretty much out of the question.
Then there are constraints around when I actually get to see the results. A roll of film will generally always last me longer than a day (although one amazing foggy morning this week meant I accelerated my usual pace), and then the turnaround time for processing varies from an hour (which almost feels like cheating), through to a week or more. I like the result to be somewhere in the middle; a day or so from dropping off the film to seeing the results is ideal. This gives me just that little bit of distance from the experience of taking the image, and allows just a small degree of objectivity in the selection process. However, it’s not so long after taking the image that I’ve lost the excitement of the roll, and I think that’s important too.
I relish these constraints. Yes, all could be done with digital cameras. But that almost seems like using that tool in the wrong way; like spending lots of money on a fancy new shovel, and then using it to bang nails into a fence. Yes, it can be done, but it would be easier and more effective to just get a hammer! Plus, if I’m honest, I suspect I lack the discipline to enable those artificial constraints to be effective for long enough for it to actually influence my creative process.
So, in a roundabout way, my point here is that film photography can be inflexible, time-consuming, slow, and nowhere near as sophisticated as digital. And that’s exactly why I like it.
Why I shoot film: A reflection on photography (part 4).
My third reason for shooting film is something of a surprise to me, but when I started thinking about my sequence of points here, there was no doubt I needed to include it. The third reason is community.
My reintroduction to the world of film photography came one weekend afternoon, when Sharon and I were out photographing in the city. Sharon was taking photos of strangers (with their permission I hasten to add!) outside the State Library, and I was milling about taking moody photos of pigeons or something. Then an enthusiastic guy (his name was Gary, he was quick to tell me) came over and asked if I would mind taking a photo of his group of photographers. They all shot film, and were out on a photo walk together. I took the shot (in fact several shots, on film cameras of various vintage), handed Gary his camera, and started to go on my way. In thanking me, Gary told me he ran a cafe and film camera store, and that I should drop in some time for a coffee.
The idea, much like the coffee, spent some time percolating. Realising that it was actually still possible to buy film, and film cameras, got me to thinking. A couple of weeks later I did drop by for that coffee. I left with a Polaroid SX70 Alpha 1, and the rest is history (or at least a series of packfilm and 35mm frames). The thing that surprised me about Gary’s shop was the fact that it didn’t really feel like a shop at all – it was more like a place where people would spend some time drinking coffee and discussing photography. It wasn’t pretentious at all; nor was it populated by snobby artists who would turn their nose up at me in my usual business work attire. It was a group of genuinely nice people instead. Imagine my surprise.
Some time after that, Sharon and I went on one of the monthly photo walks that Gary organises. It was a lovely warm afternoon, and as we wandered through the Botanic Gardens we chatted with a couple of lovely warm people. Since then I’ve been on three or four other walks, and this same atmosphere has existed at every one. Maybe they were a nice group of people before they started shooting film, or maybe shooting film made them nice people – in either case, I’ve greatly enjoyed spending an afternoon each month exploring the city and taking photos. It gives me a reason to shoot, and it also gives me subject matter; many of the shots I’ve shared of people here and on Instagram have come from these photo walks (including today’s image). Oddly, I feel a similar community (albeit considerably larger) exists online amongst film photographers – The Polavoid, for instance, is dedicated to sharing wonderfully evocative Polaroid shots, and the Film Shooters Collective is a vibrant and engaged community sharing film images of all kinds.
So, being part of a community of like-minded photographers (both in person and online) has been a surprising, and suprisingly important, aspect of my film journey.