Detail from a medieval statue photographed at the St. Louis Art Museum a couple of weeks ago.
A single exposure on a roll of black and white film, developed and scanned by myself. Taken with an ancient (by modern standards) Nikon FE and an old manual focus lens.
State of the art? Hardly. This picture could have been taken at any time from 1978 onwards with exactly the same equipment and type of film and would look much the same. That’s almost forty years.
Look forward to today. The pixel peeping camera reviews of the ever evolving technology of digital photography would be able to consign such an image to a specific year, maybe even to a month based on its appearance and digital structure alone (and let’s ignore the fact the image would have been date-stamped in its EXIF data). Photography has never before been so wedded to the moment.
And never has the moment been so fleeting. The peril of buying a digital camera is that the technology becomes obsolete in absolute terms very quickly. It’s a great marketing strategy; a new camera guarantees you finer quality images. Note, finer quality as in features such resolution and noise, not necessarily so in terms of artistry.
Contrast this with film. Only the quality of the lens used is really going to affect the way the image looks. The camera body itself is largely irrelevant, unless you are comparing 35mm to medium or large format. You might argue, for example, that bodies with faster shutters are more advanced – and so they are in strictly technical terms – but with film you rarely move in ISO sensitivities much above 400. Whether your shutter is maxed out at 1/1000 sec (or even only 1/500 in the case of Rolleiflex) or at 1/8000, pretty much the fastest speed available even with today’s digital cameras, is not going to affect almost all of your photographs.
That’s why, when buying a film body, its age and state of technology is largely meaningless beyond lens compatibility. Again, you can argue about things like manual focus versus autofocus or single point autofocus versus multiple point autofocus, or various types of in-camera light metering, but none of these, in the hands of a photographer who knows his or her camera, is going to affect the quality of the resulting negative.
I like this attribute of film photography. You become part of a lengthy continuum, part of history. That may be film’s most important quality for now it’s clear that the images coming from today’s digital cameras completely outclass film images in resolution and light sensitivity. There is no argument to make against that point – it’s indisputable. Digital is better – if better means more absolutely representative. State of the art.
And yet – I enjoy film photography more. I do it more. I get a better feeling from a film photograph than from most – not all – of my digital photographs.
Clearly, this has be psychological in nature. Why a black and white, relatively indistinct image should be more meaningful that a highly resolved color rendition of the same scene remains difficult to define as a consequence. All of the elements of the image, on upwards from the fact that one is tangible artifact, a silver-stained piece of plastic, whereas the other exists only as a decoded collection of bits and bytes on screen or mapped onto a printer, contribute to this sense of qualitative difference.
As such, appreciation remains unique and personal. As it should be. That’s my state of the art. Long may it continue.