Thursday, February 4, 2010

Shooting Film in a Digital World

     I still shoot, and teach, silver-based photography. A question often posed by my students is, "why do we still do this this way?" (although at the same time they lament the possible loss of our wet darkroom). Well, film and digital really are two different animals. I use the analogy of my microwave oven: convenient, fast, providing instantaneous results. But when I got my microwave,  I didn't throw away my traditional oven. I still use that for what has become known as "slow food", the art of preparing food of quality and taste.  I do use digital photography as a tool when it's called for,  just as I prefer my microwave when I want to heat up a frozen dinner.
     Likewise, when it comes to my art work I choose film, particularly black and white. Part of the reason is that I've been using these materials for nearly 32 years, and there is a consideration of continuity in my work. Film cameras, especially rangefinders, are quick, quiet and direct and don't distract from the picture taking process. They're a pleasure to operate. They also don't become obsolescent in next to no time. I've found digital cameras to be unnecessarily complicated (the new Leica M9 has potential to overcome past design deficits, albeit at a substantial price). And like the warmth and smell of a freshly baked loaf of bread, there is something inherently gratifying in the luster of a silver print that cannot be replicated in ink.
     Then there is that meditative time spent in the darkroom. It gives one time to think, to reflect on the work and on life, and to spend time in my personal equivalent of Superman's Fortress of Solitude. Gone are the myriad distractions and frustrations that come with working on a computer (in fact it's one of the few things I do these days that doesn't require a computer at all).
     Throughout the history of photography, technological changes have influenced the aesthetic (see John Szarkowski's incisive book Photography Until Now).  About a century ago, Eugene Atget used what was then outmoded photographic technology to create some of the medium's most enduring images. As Phil Perkis has observed on the elements of photography, "The shift to digital tools will not eliminate these aspects any more than the shift from film to video has changed the basic concepts of montage and narrative in motion pictures...I feel strongly that the underlying principles of making something that we think of as transcendent remain basically the same...I hope I'll still be able to get film and printing paper." Me too; I'd really miss the timeless hours spent engrossed under the glow of those orange lights.
     Here are two funny and enlightening posts that I enjoyed which continue this debate in greater detail:

Self-Portrait in Darkroom, 1987  ©Robert Forlini

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