The beginning of a new year is a frequently used opportunity to take stock of things, and why should I be an exception? So I’ll add my own snowflake to the avalanche of similar expressions, in this case concentrating on my photography.
I’ve been using a camera all my life, on or off, becoming only seriously involved over the past decade and a half. This latter period coincided with the digital revolution in image taking and for much of that time I was solely involved with digital.
It’s easy to forget now given the ubiquity of digital photography, be it from cameras or cell phones, the novelty and excitement of the first forays into digital capture. The technology was in its infancy, meaning that it was both expensive and limited compared to today’s standards. But the excitement overrode this. Even though the images were not technically good, indeed for a long time not matching film, the ease of use and the rapidity of seeing results, results that were not limited to 36 on a roll (although, in truth, not a huge amount more on those early low capacity storage media) was glorious. No more trips to local developer and a wait to get your snaps back. Now you had the result instantly, and if, based a quick review of a tiny screen, you weren’t happy with it you could take it again. And again. And again.
When SLRs finally took to digital and the prices fell into the affordable category, it felt like heaven had arrived. I took more pictures during the period between my acquisition of a Canon Rebel XT and a Canon 5D Mark III than at any time before or since. Over one hundred thousand.
Even though I undoubtedly improved as a photographer in many ways, including composition and the technicalities of operating a camera, over that time I did not grow artistically.
If anything I went backwards.
What do I mean by this?
I’m tempted to wave my hands in the air and say it’s just a feeling, but I can articulate some of the qualities. These became apparent to me as I began to catalog and scan my older film photographs. Many of, I might say most, of these were miserable photographs. Inept. Yet a few, more by chance than anything else, possessed a quality of transcendence and deep emotional resonance that surpassed what I’m currently taking with my digital cameras.
Much had to do with context. Some images are wedded to specific moments of high significance in my life. These always a carry an historical weight. Much also to do with rarity. Frequently I would have only one, or at most a handful, of photographs of a particular time or event. Immediately this gave the image scarcity value. A value that could transform an obviously poorly taken photograph into something very meaningful. Compare this a single one of dozens of digital photographs capturing only the slightest variation in some mountain view or glorious sunset. This picture is essentially worthless. Now, if its neighbors suddenly vaporized and it was left as sole representative, it would suddenly become very valuable indeed. But the reality of digital picture taking is that it’s almost impossible to restrict yourself to a single snap of a scene. At least it was for me during that period. Hence the hundred thousand images.
So what, you might say. Just delete the duplicates. In some cases, yes, that seems easy to do. But more often it’s not. You look at one, then another, vacillating between which to keep and which to lose, and eventually just give up. And so they stay, each one a potential gem, but in toto just lost in the pile.
I have no doubt that one of the many reasons I returned to film photography over the past couple of years was to return exclusivity to my photographs. Even if that exclusivity meant being left with an imperfect take of a never-to-be repeated moment. Artistry is much more than simple aesthetics. A well applied rule of thirds for example. Artistry involves imbuing whatever object your art produces with a human resonance, one that speaks directly to the soul as well as to a sense of form. What quality allows for this communication with the soul? Hard to quantify and hard to explain except that it often differs for individuals based on their experience, knowledge, and empathy. What moves one person may leave another cold. One that moves one generation might leave a future one puzzled and yet another moved once again. Art has its fashions too. I might add that I am mostly out of sympathy with the fashions that dominate current popular photography, but that’s just me and I’m well aware of that.
As I said, during my digital heyday, I frequently took duplicates galore. With film, very few. I still photograph digitally. These days, though, I do it with the restrictions of film in the back of my mind. No or very few duplicates. Simply by altering my process, I have raised the value of my digital photography. Nowadays, each picture, be it film or digital, gets a lot more consideration before I press the shutter button. The results reflect that consideration.
Would I have learned this restraint and consideration without taking up film again? I doubt it. There is little motivation to change when things are easy.
The other, somewhat unexpected, consequence of returning to film is the abrogation of my obsession with the latest and greatest photographic technology. No more gear acquisition syndrome. I meet with fellow photographers and wander away when the inevitable considerations of camera or lens specifications begin to dominate the conversation. Sharpness? Who cares. It may or may not enhance an image, but it’s just one small component whose value has been greatly overrated.
It’s surprisingly freeing, removing yourself from the mainstream. I have returned to what is now a photographic niche. I’m the only member of my photography club who makes film a major component of my work. I like that.
That’s what I’ve learned.