I took up film photography again in May of this year. As for why, you can read in this earlier post. As for how long, that’s an open question. Frankly, I expected this to be a transitory pleasure, one I would enjoy for a brief spell before returning to the manifest convenience of digital photography.
This expected fading of interest has not happened. I’m not sure if it will ever happen now. Although I carry a digital camera with me at all time, tucked away in the tackle bag I use for lunch at work and other odds and ends and which fits neatly on the back rack of my bicycle, I find myself reaching, as a matter of habit, for a film camera whenever a scene or view strikes me as interesting.
Despite the fact that I usually carry only black and white film with me and will have to wait a while before I actually get to see that black and white image. Why have I found myself discarding color and convenience in (not to mention adding some slight expense to) my photography?
Some of the reasons I have detailed beforehand. Anticipation, for example. But there’s something more at work. I now realise that the most popular photographic styles of this particular moment do not appeal to me at all. I spent six months this year occasionally working in a studio and learning how to light models and objects to produce images that match those seen in magazines and advertisements. I found I could produce exactly those types of photographs. But did I come away with a sense of accomplishment? Only in the barest technical sense. Artistically, it meant nothing.
Mimicry, that’s what I was learning. Valuable only in terms of giving me tools to learn a living from photography. But I don’t. Nor do I wish to.
For three years, I’ve also been attending regular photography club critique sessions. I know how to make an image that is popular, that conforms to the various rules of photographic technique in terms of placement within the image, generating an attention focus, balancing foreground and background, using the geometry of shapes to create internal structure. All of these techniques are useful – yet, why do I see so many images that adhere to these guidelines that leave me stony cold?
I turned to books. Histories of photography. Pictorialists and modernists. The great landscape photographers. Street photographers. The older and fresher in terms of what was being created around them these pictures looked, the better they looked to me. But it didn’t take long to realise that those pioneers of photography had to a large extent said it all. Decades ago. Today, people devote themselves to recreating, mostly digitally rather than on film, much the same type of image. All the old favorites, mountains, sand dunes, aged members of ethnic minorities, seascapes, buildings. I see the work of fifty, of a hundred, of a hundred and fifty, years ago rewritten in those photographs that rise to the top of popularity lists and win competitions.
No wonder then that when I stumbled on the one modern school of photography that shook free of these decades of accumulated style, I felt an immediate affinity. The deliberate rejection of the extraordinary for the ordinary, of conventional photographic aesthetics, of the exotic or the spectacular subject by the photographers of the Dusseldorf School struck a deep resonance. I felt it in the St. Louis Art Museum as I looked at the photographs of Frank Breuer – shipping containers, gas stations. Typical and common industrial artifacts, photographed in flat light and with little regard for the common rules of subject placement. Dramatically empty, yet, to my eyes, endlessly more attractive and powerful than the spectacle of any of today’s vibrantly assertive landscapes.
All I had told myself or had been told, in the studio, in the critiques, in the hundreds of guides to photography, printed or online, was negated by these images. And I liked them.
This was something of an awakening moment for me. I began to realise that fashion, that adhering to normal expectations, of appearing technically proficient was swamping artistic creativity. Not only that of myself, but most other photographers. Almost all other photographers.
But cast away those moorings, and where are you? Floating rudderless and paralyzed? Or free to drift into a more creative mode?
I believe in the latter. I won’t claim that I’ve found it. I still myself trapped, compelled to judge my own work by contemporary standards and sometimes moved to emulate it. But I’m freer than I was. Film has carried me offshore.