Essay: On photography; film, digital, snapshots, art and drivers

One thing I’ve done too much in my life is asking the simple question, “Why?” I’m trying to do a lot less of that these days, especially when I consider the ebb and flow of my multipotentialite-driven passions — some of which end-up being quite ephemeral.

But as I’ve begun to re-embrace film photography, I’ve been asking, “Why?” Not questioning the fact I’m doing it, but more to wonder why and how it appeals to me. I think I’ve unearthed some answers.

Film photographers, I’m finding, are a pretty passionate bunch, and I can understand why. It’s not that I hate digital; I have a digital outfit, and I love taking digital photos. I also love taking photos with my iPhone. We can bemoan the fact that digital photography has decimated the film business, but it’s indisputable that digital photography has also enabled a freedom and immediacy and economy and democratization to the process taking of pictures.

But as I looked back recently at negatives of photos I took in high school photography class decades ago, I noticed something… Some were snapshots, but many were art — and that’s what got me thinking about my motivations, my drivers, in more detail.

Snapshots vs. art photography has nothing to do with medium. You can take both in digital, and you can take both in film. But the economy of digital, the fact you can snap hundreds (or thousands) of images with near-zero incremental cost does tend to foster the taking of snapshots, rather than the composition of art. It’s actually the beauty of digital; you no longer have to consider the cost of an image. Just take the shot, and you can decide later if it’s worth keeping. And as far as smartphones go, it’s a joy to have a decent camera in your pocket pretty much at all times.

Three cameras and me: iPhone XS Plus (taking the shot), Minolta XG 1, Kodak Duaflex II.

But no matter the camera, even when I’ve really worked at it over the years, I seem to manage a really well-composed, effective image perhaps one in every twenty attempts. (It’s far fewer than that if I’m not trying.) If those are my odds (and I do hope I can improve them with more practice), then digital is a great choice, because I don’t have to pay out the ass for that one shot (more or less) per roll. And considering that today, film, processing, scanning and shipping is going to cost me nearly $30 a roll, well, that means my money shots (literally) are going to cost me three Hamiltons a pop. That could be cheap, or really expensive, I suppose, depending on how you look at it. Regardless, it means I won’t be doing it in great volume.

But this does start to speak to the point of why film photography is so appealing to many, including me: I want to slow down. I want to think about my composition. I want to hone my skills. I want to get technical about it. I want to enjoy the process of capturing a truly great photo. I want to create art. (There’s also a part of me that simply wants to vote with my dollars, and help keep an entire genre of art alive.)

You can do all of those things with digital, to be sure. But to an extent, film forces you to do it — for economic reasons, primarily, but also because the medium itself requires a certain level of understanding.

Am I just being nostalgic? Probably.

But, there’s a deeper motive for me: The process of slowing down seems more and more important to me as time goes by. As a middle aged guy, I’m noticing that time seems to go faster the older I get. Days and weeks fly by, and I’m compelled to slow down in general, to try and absorb more of the moment, indeed, to be in the moment, to be present, more of the time. Taking snapshots may not require much slowing down, or paying attention to the world around you, but to be sure, art photography does, and film-based art photography, with its economics, demands it. You have to see the world around you with different eyes. You have to pay attention. You have to see beyond and around what’s in your field of vision to identify whether there’s a story to be told, an emotion to be captured, a thought to be challenged — then you have to figure out how to capture that, not just the image.

Old structure in downtown Castle Rock, Colorado.

Then there’s the entire artistic element that goes beyond composition. What film should I use? Black and white, or color? Which color film should I pick, one with muted colors, or saturated colors? Which lens should I use? What aperture should I select to get the effect I want? We don’t think about these things much in the age of digital; we can apply effects and filters and saturate or desaturate and color-shift and go black and white all after-the-fact, and we can do it all on our smartphones, or worst case in Photoshop. In the process, we can make everything Instagram- and Pinterest-ready, a more perfect version of itself, and free ourselves from having to think about all of it in advance.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that. I love Photoshop, and I love playing with images after they’re shot. There are things you can do with that workflow that were never possible before. But there’s a purity and genuineness to having to think carefully ahead of time, vs. shooting with the attitude that you can merely “fix it in post.”

Kodak 35mm film I recently discovered in a box. Expired 9/2004.

There’s also the adventure, especially here at the start as I re-embrace film, and update my knowledge. How does this black and white film compare to another? How will the colors shift in the pictures I’m taking with color 35mm film that expired in 2004? Do I prefer the color rendering of Lomo 800 over the Portra 400? I took 15 pictures on that roll of 120, I wonder what it’s all going to look like when I get it back from the lab? It’s a process of discovery, and discovery is one of the most amazing things life has to offer.

I don’t remember much from photography class all those years ago, and I’m learning as much about what jazzes me than I ever did in school just by looking at the myriad film photos people take and post online in Flickr, Lomography’s community photo section, Reddit groups, and a million other places. Being able to view photo after photo after photo, stopping only when something captures my eye, and my imagination, then considering what it is about the photo that grabbed me. It’s subject, it’s composition, it’s light, it’s color (to lack thereof), it’s contrast, it’s environment, it’s unvarnished humanity, it’s the utter jaw-dropping beauty of the world we live in.

Film aside, to be honest, I’m just happy to have rediscovered photography as an art form, rather than a medium merely to capture memories and moments. It can be both, of course, but regardless, it feels like meeting-up with an old friend, catching-up on the intervening years — only to wonder why you took so long to make it happen.