Going Against The Grain: Film As Lifestyle Accessory

London, 1986 (Photo: Hamish Reid).

John Morrison’s Why Film Photography Still Has Meaning recently popped into my reading list (for no reason that I can detect). It (obviously) sets out to make the case that film photography still has meaning. But does anyone really deny that film photography has meaning? (And what would it even mean for film photography to not have “meaning”?) Film photography surely still has utility (in the same way that even the most impractical medium has utility for someone), and film photos themselves will always have meaning (to someone, at least), but that’s not what anyone’s really getting at, is it?

I’m a film-age dinosaur, but all my photography has been digital for the last fifteen years or so. I’ve never looked back. My first camera was necessarily a film camera, and I used to poke a 4x5 view camera and a bunch of medium format film gear at everything from desert landscapes to naked bodies to streetscapes to interior architectures for money or fun.

That experience makes me think that film photography’s meaning nowadays is mostly in the statement it makes; the attitude it embodies; and the way it makes adherents feel special. It’s rarely about the end results — the images themselves (although it’s often about Image).

Inevitably, in the age of digital photography, taking up film is all about going against the grain (sorry). Nowadays, its meaning is mostly in that revolt against utility or ubiquity, it’s in an us-against-them tribalist mentality, it’s in promoting process over result. It’s about making a Statement. A statement about your lifestyle, or the tribe you belong to, or about how you value process over results, or about how you’re sticking it to Big Digital.

A typical quote:

The film photographer, unlike the digital one is forced into a forward-looking mentality with intention and curiosity. When I am taking photos I become keenly aware of the elements of restriction film imposes.

This fetishises film in the most cliched way. Every medium has its restrictions — that’s a given — and a good photographer will transcend those restrictions. Scattershot image incontinence isn’t a digital thing, it’s a Bad Craft Thing (plenty of film users took way too many shots back then, too, from personal experience). Good photographers are going to be disciplined and thoughtful regardless of the medium — you don’t need film to teach you that.

And I didn’t learn to pre-imagine shots because of the limits of film, I learned it because of the limits of photography. (And, conversely, if being able to take an awful lot of photos all at once means getting The Shot when you might not have got it otherwise, I’m all for it).

It’s too easy to make digital an excuse for bad photography; and it’s too easy to make film stand in for good process and working methods you should be using regardless of the medium. Do I plan less and imagine less because I use digital? I still imagine shots before I do them, I still think them over in my mind, I still wonder what it’s going to take technically, logistically, psychologically, socially to get a shot — and anyone who doesn’t do that, or can’t do that in the digital world, well, maybe you shouldn’t be a photographer. It’s called self-discipline :-).

In the end, what matters most is the final image. To a first approximation, who really cares how it was done (unless you’re a fine art collector or — same thing, really — investor)? What matters is that image — and its relationships with the rest of the world (of other images and real people and things). And if film is the only way to get that image, then I’m all for it. But it rarely is.

You might even see the lack of difficulty in digital as being one of the limitations or problems you have to transcend to get a good photo digitally. I think if I were giving a beginner’s class in photography I’d let everyone loose with a digital camera and then let them learn the painful way just what lack of planning or pre-imagining can lead to. Those who get it, well, they’ll get it regardless of the exact medium; those who don’t? Let a billion images bloom.

In my experience, most people who think that film is essential to the results they’re getting are either so good that the exact details of the medium don’t matter, or their results are usually mediocre enough that the medium and process also just don’t matter in a rather different sense (except, vitally, to them, as things in themselves — and who can complain about that?!). An acquaintance of mine keeps pushing me to go back to film, and shows me his results as proof of what you can do with film. And those results are wonderful. But he has an excellent eye for images anyway, and he could use a pinhole smeared with grease and still make wonderful pix, if you ask me, despite his constant promotion of film. I suspect he gets his results in spite of using film — and it’s that challenge that motivates him.

In other words, process over results.

(And don’t get me started about people who go on about film’s magical aura … :-)).

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