The Film Effect.
I love taking photographs, it’s addictive, and over the past few years I’ve become rather snap happy. Without a reasonable smartphone camera I decided to carry round my trusty compact digital and, while learning more through this, I found the common side effects of the curse and convenience of such handy photography still applied. As other digital camera or phone uses may identify, you can find yourself wanting to take pictures of almost everything as you look for the photographic possibly in each view; seeing the aesthetics of a reflected image in a shop window rather than looking in, feeling something’s missing when a camera is not weighing down your pocket and the anxious sense that something amazing will happen just when you’ve forgotten your camera. I didn’t realise how liberally I’d been snapping, and how little I valued each near identical image, until I was introduced to a film camera – a Roliflex.
Film captures moments when you press the shutter by recording the light in the camera’s field of view as it then causes a chemical change in the photographic film within the camera, the film can then be developed to produce a hard copy. To get to that stage you have to flip out the viewfinder set the film sensitivity, turn dials, take light readings to set shutter speed and aperture – this process was new to me, either previously automatically set or easily adjusted on the screen of a digital camera. I found preparing for a shot was definitely easier said than done, especially after waving a light meter round in a flurry of excitement and tangled camera bags. Then the opposite has to happen. Stop. Relax. Trying to cradle the camera steady at its base only makes you more conscious of the effort to minimise shaking. Waiting and waiting, aligning and focusing before breathing out as you hold the shutter down and ‘clunk’, it pounces – the satisfyingly solid sound produced by a truly beautiful instrument.
However the first thing I learnt to appreciate, from discovering the work of Vivian Maier particularly, was that a film camera’s home is the streets. Yes, it takes in sea, trees and cliffs but captures people too well to spend time in the countryside. In her work, expressions, textures and life all harmoniously fold into one square image that, once processed, you feel can be almost stepped into to relive every aspect of that immortalised second in the sharpest detail. Maier used a Roliflex in New York and Chicago in the 1980s while working as a nanny, hiding her talent in boxes from the family she worked for. She died in 2009, leaving behind decades of her work on undeveloped rolls of film, some of which had already been auctioned when she could sadly no longer afford to keep paying the rent on a storage locker. More bittersweet still the man, John Maloof, who bought the rolls of film had them developed and ironically his passion for her work became his living as he curated the images and now, after her death, she is hailed as a master of street photography. You can see her work on the website www.vivianmaier.com where, like many of the masters, her ability to capture human life so effortlessly juxtaposes with her own tragic history of estrangement, poverty and isolation that shaped her to become a sometimes unpleasant but certainly talented woman.
Even today it pays to be economical with film as the stuff itself and developing is both expensive and sometimes difficult. There’s no slot in memory card and a few minutes wait for the camera contents to download, but the choice of either learning how to use chemicals in a darkroom or finding one of the few shops to develop the film for you. Compared to using a digital it’s exhausting, far more time consuming and generally less practical – to the extent I’ve been sitting on this article for weeks as I’m still waiting to get my roll of film processed. Perhaps an article on film photography with no original shots in itself confirms film to be outdated for amateur use. Yet I have to argue others work, like Maier’s, is a sensational inspiration so I’m not going to give up just yet. Furthermore, the process of taking a shot is not only satisfying but leads you to really consider the composition of each image due to the value added by the time it takes to set up and the limited amount of film. However, it’s not a skill that fits exclusively in the category of film photography as I’ve found it extending to the results of my digital memory card so, though I end up with fewer images, I’m happier with a greater number of them.
I can’t conclude that either digital or film is superior as they both have their place depending on time, situation and access to processing. It’s unlikely that I’ll start lugging a Roliflex round in place of my trusty compact digital, but I’m sure I’ll now think twice before leaving it behind on a day out in a busy city. Besides, I’m already happy that the thoughtful evaluation process behind the film camera has transferred to have a positive impact on the photos I’ve taken with my digital camera. I’m sure I will update my blog or Instagram with the Roliflex shots – the true analog behind the popular ‘film effect’ filter of the digital photo sharing world! Until then the outcome remains a mystery as there’s no preview screen or ‘do another 10 shots for good measure’, only the option to wind-on the film. So move on quickly and choose wisely as now there are only 11 shots left. Quite refreshing.
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