I made a recent observation the other day, almost an epiphany. It changed the way I saw photography as a craft, and not just a medium. For the past several years, I’ve found myself in a creative rut. I tried shooting new subjects, new cameras, even tried different art forms like drawing and painting. Nothing pulled me out of this rut. I did shoot some film during this period, but only developed the rolls, and only turned some of the image into digital files for editing. I then realized what I was missing, the actual craft involved in photography.
I am “classically” trained in photography, with a BFA in photography. I went to college when film was still the defacto standard, and digital was not something to be taken seriously. Oddly, at the time, I suggested that as artists, we should embrace the digital format. I was the only one to hand in projects completely done in a digital workflow. But I also spent hundreds of hours in a darkroom, developing film, and using enlargers to create prints. It was this process, that I equated to the physical craft of photography. And I realize today, it is what is missing in my art.
I don’t believe it is nostalgia, as I continue to return to film every year or so. The look and feeling of film is unmatched. The physicality of holding a fibre print, with deep blacks that are not based on inkjet technology, is wonderful. The entire flow with a 35mm or medium format camera is slowed down and seems more deliberate. The process of loading film, shooting manually, envisioning the image in your head before pressing the shutter, even the decision to push or pull the film, choice of emulsion or developer, all add variables to an image you would not see, till after the final wash. It was this physical, hands-on approach to photography, that made me feel as if I was creating art.
With digital, it all seems too simple. Not to say there is no room for digital photography in fine art, there absolutely is. For better or worse, digital makes photography accessible to everybody. Anybody can press a button and have a nice digital image. The problem for me, artistically speaking, is that it requires less hands-on time. Shooting, and composing is the same between the two, but there is no developing, or in the case of actual darkroom prints, the manipulation of light. Modern photographers push pixels, and have instantaneous results. To me, to be a photographer, you have to play with light. Know how to manipulate it, anticipate it, and read it. Plus, a film-based workflow leaves you with a physical negative, something that is good for at least 100 years. There is something very satisfying about that; a permanence in a physical object, which can be seen generations from now. Unfortunately, digital has not reached a point where it is truly archival.
It is in these little negatives that I think the magic of art is created. The emulsion captures a specific time and place, the light changing the physical form and shape of the emulsion, to give us an image. A negative truly is an actual record of an event, touched by the light itself. Whereas digital is a machine’s interpretation of light, removing us further from the creation process.
For myself, I need to feel physically connected to my work, to make both cognitive and subconscious decisions throughout the creation process, before I can say a piece is truly unique and personal. Digital will continue to dominate what I do, but film will be there, to allow me to practice the craft I learned, and the true art medium I work in.