Seeking fulfilment in the post-skill world
Why I still choose
film over digital
Large format camera and expired Polaroid 55 film, taken on Aeroekta lens. The mysterious chemical artefacts and unforeseen defects add to the image; within the image is not simply what it is, but how it was taken - and that art, like life, is rarely predictable. The image is 1800 pixels wide and can be dragged to the desktop and used for free in any non commercial way you wish.
I built my first darkroom in the cupboard under the stairs when I was ten. I couldn't afford a safelight so painted a domestic bulb with red paint, and used salt as a fixer. Forty years later I've moved on a small amount, but the magic - and I really mean that, for chemical photography is magic - is still very much with me. Sure, I possess digital cameras, and they are superior in almost every way to my old Nikon F. Convenient, fast, lightweight, and with a host of features that were unimaginable in 1971.
I should be embracing this glorious new technological age, but the reason I am not is far from straightforward since there is essentially one point that makes the ongoing Film versus Digital argument utterly fallacious - the method of capture is immaterial. It's the photographer, not the camera. Some of the finest pictures on the planet were taken with the ropiest film cameras, while some of the worst pictures ever captured were on a top-of-the-line Nikon D800. Yes, sure, you can argue until blue in the face about the feel of film and the look of film, but it's all really about The Capture - the frozen slice of time that exports the unique worldview of the photographer to that of the viewer. And that does not, cannot, hold sway on the type of camera. It's the finger, the framing, the timing.
So why am I not digital, since there is no earthly reason for me to still embrace the old technology? This is why: Digital leaves me utterly cold. I take no real enjoyment using it, and any decent picture I take on digital seems, to my mind, not to count. The attraction of film photography to me is not only that old feel and look nonsense plus a smattering of habit and nostalgia, but this: it's tricky, fiddly, annoying, unforgiving, prone to error, and you have no idea of the results for perhaps a month. It's right first time or no cigar. Dodgy focus? Tough. Wrong exposure? Camera shake? Wrong Film? Forget to take off the lens cap? Bad luck, shit-for-brains, should have been concentrating.
To take a good picture on film requires just that tiny bit more ... skill. An acquired expertise. You have to know what you're doing, and that Placement, Timing and Access - the three amigos of the truly great picture - are not quite enough. And that, for me, is what separates the two with the most yawning of chasms. That something gained with a modicum of skill is worth having so much more, and with that worth, comes a sense of pride, and fulfilment.
I don't think I am alone in this. A film camera repairer I know tells me he's never been busier, and film stock sales, despite yearly tales of doom, are actually increasing. It can't be film's lack of immediacy and certain ropey and granular feel, since that can all be added in Photoshop. No, I think people are wanting something more in what is increasingly becoming a post-skill world, and in this final comment I throw open the argument beyond photography and into any creative pursuit that can now be done by an app, a smartphone or by selecting menu-option-six on a laptop. I think people are finding that the array of skills now available to them without training is while no doubt convenient, less fulfilling. People are increasingly wanting challenges, and through experience and practice, do a difficult thing and make it look easy.
You remember, like we used to.
Jasper Fforde, July 2012