The Responsibilities Of Film Photography


Me and my Dad, 1970.

Call me a contrarian, but I’ve always seen things in a slightly skewed perspective from the average guy. Having lived on both sides of the cultural divide, first blue-collar, and then the recipient of an extended education, I know puffery and outright bullshit when I see it.   I’m much more proud of my state school diploma than I am of my Ivy league degree, feeling I worked a helluva lot harder to earn the former than the latter, see no reason for a Rolex when I can wear my Seiko 5, and much prefer the indigenous culture of Mississippi to the derivative New York City culture where I was raised. Given a choice, I’ll choose a $12 Rebel Yell bourbon over the $150 bottle of Port Charlotte Islay single malt that sits untouched on my sideboard. A Modernist, I find Joyce and Pynchon unreadable when compared to the profound simplicity of Primo Levi.  In short, I’ve seen both sides of the life, and prefer the simple values of the unpretentious to the vanity and prejudices of the fashionable.

I remain a “film guy”.  Lately, I’ve been giving an inordinate amount of consideration as to why that might be. Part of the reason, certainly, is that I’m getting to that age where I’m thinking about what I’ll leave to the next generation.  For me, photography has always been about documentation, capturing life lived both small and large, recording who I am and what I want life to be, and for this, I want something tangible, something I can put in a box that’ll be found and hopefully passed on to posterity. I don’t trust digital 1’s and 0’s to be there to do that, and I suspect we are being sold a bill of goods in our headlong embrace of the virtual future, not really thinking through its ramifications for the transmission of culture across generations.

But maybe it goes a bit beyond that. I’ve come think that there might be something about the practice of film photography that makes it so important for me as well. It takes patience, and that patience is, in a small way, a commitment to the future as much as it is a connection to the past. The craft of photography. Another word we’ve lost sight of.

My Dad Being a Goofball, 1971.

Photography is and always has been a technologically driven medium. In order to stand out from the pack, photographers seek the unique, and technology usually provides the quickest perceived means to that end. The irony, of course, is that the majority of photographers attempt to differentiate themselves by pursuing the same technological advances, ending up right back where they started — creating work that’s indistinguishable from everybody else attempting to do the same. And so technology cranks the wheel again.

Unfortunately, each new advance in camera technology widens the gap between how a camera operates and how I actually need it to operate. To a modern photographer on the technological treadmill, it seems to me the simplicity of traditional film photography should be liberating: no more straddling the bleeding edge; no more learning and re-learning the latest computer techniques; no more money thrown at the next big trend, only to see it quickly fade into cliché. But it’s a tough sell, usually poo-pooed by digital technocrats as being the death rattles of a dead technology.

For some of us it’s as simple as appreciating the beauty of the mechanical works of art that create our photography. Photographic tools, like the Leica and Nikon RFs of the 50s, can be functional art in themselves.. In them, the tactile aspect is still supreme and there is something to mastering a technology without the neurotic need to constantly upgrade in an elusive search for better results. But of equal or even greater value for many of us is the deliberation required by analogue processes, a deliberation at odds with the requirements of current photographic usage, a mindedness and focus not required, and increasingly becoming lost, in the transition to digital.

Which all helps explain why my shelves are stocked mostly with mid–20th century mechanical film cameras. It’s because no other class of camera has ever satisfied my photographic tendencies, aesthetics and desires nearly as perfectly as the 35mm mechanical rangefinder.

Le Pure Cafe, rue Jean Mace, Paris

One of the benefits of living in Paris is the food. The best of it is found, not in the latest trendy Michelin-starred haunts of status seekers and haute bourgeois or in tired standbys found in guide books, but in the local cafes you’ll find on virtually every corner of the city. Almost invariably, the meals you’ll find there are inexpensive, simply presented, and incredibly good. Unlike an American meal, where we too often equate quantity of choice with quality, somebody has taken the time and effort to prepare and present one or two dishes simply and elegantly, with the means and in a manner that allows you to savor the experience of enjoying it. One of my favorites is Le Pure Cafe, in the 11th on rue Jean Mace, right around the corner from Le Belle Equipe, where medieval-minded lunatics recently slaughtered 20 people for the sin of enjoying life.

What does this have to do with photography, you ask? To paraphrase Elliott Erwitt, photography should be taken seriously and treated as an avocation, and the analogy to cooking comes to mind: Taking photos digitally and editing them on a computer is like cooking a TV diner in a microwave in your flat. Easy, efficient, fast. if so, then the film process is the simple yet elegant meal, cooked with attention to every step in the process, served to you in Le Pure Cafe. Film process  – how pleasant and elegant it is to use as a craft — is its enduring strength, much the way the Parisian cafe meal can never be compared to a “lunch” at McDonalds.


My Brother In Law Being a Goofball, 2013

Film photography is now a niche with no aspirations to popular appeal, aimed squarely at discerning users who savor the craftsmanship required of it, while the convenience of digital has made it the tool of choice for those who desire the shortcuts of quick and easy. The act of film photography is the act of tending to an increasingly moribund craft, tied to a set of values, of practices, a kind of thought process that I believe is worth preserving. For me, A traditional all mechanical camera, be it rangefinder or SLR, loaded with a roll of HP5, a 50 or 35 on it, is the most simple and most enjoyable form of photography. Just look at the light, the shapes, the evolving situations, expressions.

With that comes responsibility. Let’s hope we  film aficionados, the people who occupy that niche, are able through our efforts to keep film alive for future generations. Technological change is too often not cumulative but rather a “Faustian bargain” in which something is sacrificed in order for something new to be gained. Will we sacrifice what is of real value in the photographic experience for the new we’ve gained?


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