Film Photography and the Revival of the Imperfect

89Artists use the tools that serve their purposes, and those tools evolve with evolving technology, and as the technology changes, often the artist’s purpose subtly changes as well. The history of painting, as an example, is in part a history of the changing chemical composition of paint allowing new and different painting styles. Artistic innovations that have a technological component take nothing away from the genius of those that use new technologies for creative ends. But new abilities made possible by technologies can distort creativity by making the creative end subservient to the means by which it is produced. They can become, in Thoreau’s words, “improved means to an unimproved end.”

If you are a painter, you can paint with oil paint, acrylics or watercolor. It’s essentially the same process using different materials, the end results varying to the extent that different paint mediums allow more easily for different modes of painterly expression. For most of photographic history, by contrast, photographs were only made from photographic film strips that ran through a camera, were chemically processed and made into prints that were published, hung on or projected onto walls, or pasted into scrapbooks. Over the past decade the transformation to digital processes has changed how photos are produced, distributed and consumed, and has given rise to the common idea that film is now “dead,” with no further application to the visual arts than as a quaint antique throwback.

Given the ubiquity of digital photography and the standard photographic tropes that have come to predominate in its wake, its easy to forget that photography using film is still available as a viable option and still works as it always has. Film isn’t dead. There is nothing inevitable or necessary about the end of film, no matter how seductive the digital technologies and gadgets that have transformed photography.  There’s a false determinism that shapes discussions about traditional film photography and obscures the fact that film photography has been eclipsed not because digital is inherently “better,” but because it’s easier. Some of us prefer the slow road, and we need not apologize or defend in the face of the ignorance of the digital masses.

There’s another factor at work in this transformation, one that I find the most insidious from a cultural perspective: it is the quixotic desire of digital users for a false perfection, the need to idealize photographic representations and distort what we experience as the real. It is a compulsion for the perfect view, clinically produced, with the imperfections of the real surmounted and dissolved. Everything turned to the aesthetic of the commercial and the false reality of advertisement. It’s partly in the nature of digital mediums – easy, quick and immediate manipulations- but is also the result of a cultural shift brought about by a contrived reality drummed into us on billboards, in our printed materials, and on television by consumer capitalism, where everything has a sales value and everything for sale must be perfect.

I find the use of film to be a welcome antidote to this cultural airbrushing of reality. What I love about film photography are its imperfections – the formalism of black and white, the serendipity of the grain, the inexactitude of vintage optics, the contrast and blur of HP5 pushed to 1600 iso and handheld at 1/8th of a second. Choosing to use film, subjecting oneself to the confines of its imperfections, is a reaffirmation of traditional photography’s unevenness, an embrace of its variability and an acknowledgement that, if we are to approach perfection, we may only do so via the imperfect.  “The grandeur of the Old Masters,” as Delacroix put it, “does not consist in the absence of faults.”  Seduced by the exactitude of digital photography, current photographic tastes threaten to banish clumsiness, serendipity, human flaws and necessary imperfections forever, falsely idealizing the quotidian and threatening a schizophrenic disjunction between what really is and how we represent it to others. Our response should be a return to the imperfect, rediscovering the blemishes and waywardness of life, and the real perfection that lies therein.untitled