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On Photography (Part 1) Film

I am of the old school. Possibly one of the last of those who went through college and learnt photography in the exclusively traditional way.

Now don’t get me wrong, in the majority of schools they still teach film and darkroom and all that. But in a way this seems to me a nod to tradition and, since it is no longer the only way to take photographs, redundant.

With the advent of digital photography film has taken on a kind of aura of nostalgia. It is somehow quaint to take pictures on film and then go through the rigmarole of processing with environmentally unsound chemicals. Then on to the dingy darkroom to print on chemically suspect photographic papers, dipping them into baths of totally unhealthy chemicals again. In the process wasting vast amounts of precious water and polluting the rest of our supply, simply to have a silver (or silver bromide and so on) print, that is then prepared through an archival process, perhaps mounted on expensive paper and card, framed in precious wood, behind glass, only to end up with one single copy of the image.

The arcane methodology, the labour intensive process, the long hours of test stripping and perfecting the tonality, the hugely problematic dilemma of all the kinds of prints you could potentially make with one negative and which, in the end, is really the most perfect for the given image… All this leads one to wonder why not, to quote an old friend of mine, put it in Photoshop and be done with it?

I know what my answer to that is. On the one hand why not indeed! On the other the thorny fact that once you’ve done it in the darkroom, somehow the computer monitor has no chance of quite cutting it for you. Somehow it feels like emulation more than it feels like creating a photograph.

Let me be clear. I am fully abreast of the whole digital package and use it daily. And please keep in mind that in saying all that I am by no means negating the validity of the image itself, whatever means were used to reach it.

The “problem” here is not in the end about whether photographs are better or worse, lowered in value or not by being digital. It is by no stretch of the imagination about one form producing superior images over the other.

The thoughts here are about the process. They are about the route you have to go in order to make the image. Somehow what is missing for oldsters like me is the thunder and lightning of the, in fact, rather quiet process of the chemical way. The uncertainty, the unavailability of previews and in camera pre-checking.

What feels out of whack is the adventure of the process. I catalogued once in my head how many things could wrong in making a photograph. I had listed nearly 900 potential pitfalls before I lost count. And I was only at the stage of loading the camera. Just think of it. The film could have been badly coated, badly stored, damaged in transit from the factory, damaged in the storage, damaged in the shop, in your fridge, accidentally uncoated lengths mixed in with the good batches, wrongly labeled for ASA… on and on the list expanded.

And even with batch testing you had no way of knowing whether half of your batch was in fact from the same one as the other half. And this was no phantom phobia or paranoia. It happened all the time. The manufacturer mislabelled the batch for 400 ASA when in fact the cans were loaded with 25 ASA! or the emulsion was only one layer instead of ten. I bought thin film in a large batch, and it was dull, tonally almost invisible and a bugger to process long enough to get image without reticulation or over long submersion floating the emulsion off.

Or the other batch that was inadvertently exposed to chemicals by the shop or manufacturer and therefore chemically fogged in patches. Or film that was rolled onto the backing paper emulsion facing in rather than out…

The list was endless. Sure you could send it back and they would replace it for you and apologise, maybe even give you some money to appease you. But none of that changed the fact that whole sets of masterpieces were lost to you for life. You were never going to know if those were the best shots you’d ever taken in your life. Or ever would!!

Maybe it was exactly then that your inspiration tank went empty on you. Perhaps you had no more photos in you after that legendary, lost shoot.

This is one of many factors, that makes the use of digital imagery seem so much more comfortable, so much “easier” to us traditionally trained photographers. It seems as if now you simply could not get it wrong since after every shot you can simply flick a switch and see your work in full colour on the back of the camera.


You don’t have to go through the delicious agony of not knowing, of having to wait to get to your lab before you can take the film out the back of the camera, going into the changing bag or changing room, fiddling in the dark to load your tetchy little spools with the fruits of your sweat, ensuring the rolls are safely screwed into the tank before turning on the light and checking and mixing and rechecking your chemicals, getting things up to temperature and then inverting and agitating… one elephant two elephant three elephant. Then fixing, washing timing unrolling the film, shaking hands rolling it out slowly, checking the negs against the light… PHEW! there is image on this roll and no visible problems.

But now the wet film, careful there no fingers, no scratches, is my drying cabinet dust free??? Oh god did I clean the cabinet properly? No twisting with the clips there… So time it wait, don’t open the cabinet yet, you’ll get dust blown all over the negs if you do it too soon.

One elephant two elephant three fucking elephants… Oh christ where was I?

OK OK OK… here it is, time. Check them. Wow it’s done, we have neg.

NO scissor slip please, cut them right. Why do they make the gaps so bloody narrow!!!? Ah OK I have my strips six or four or five frames per strip, the way I like them. Now where did I put the damn gel sleeves? OK all in the bag…

So far so good.

Anyway you get the picture. This kind of suspense simply does not exist with digital photography and no matter how great all the new tools are for dealing with the basic fact of the art, no matter how amazing the results can be, how easily distributable the results in comparison to the old way are, no matter that now you can have a whole portfolio of images half way across the world in a few minutes for the galleries to assess, something has gone out of the process.

And damn it I MISS THE FUCKING GRAIN! digital grain filters just do not cut it. Pixels are square, whatever you may think you see that’s finally what they are. A bunch of tiny squares making up the image, and not the organic, slightly microscopically uneven distribution of silver halides that went to make film look so adorable, so warm so fucking human.

VM, (originally published on Mad As A Bus, 28 August 2010)

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