As I have explained here in an earlier column, I almost became a photographer in the late 1970s before spending my life as a conductor and organist. Some five years ago, I returned to serious photography and made the conscious decision – via my teenage children – to concentrate exclusively on analog film photography. My connection to the digital world remains in the use of my iPhone for visual notetaking and documenting daily life and the use of a scanner and Apple Photos – and occasionally Lightroom – for scanning negatives and prints and editing and posting them on websites and social media.
In a moment of writer’s block, I reached out to fellow members of the FRAMES Photography Circle with the question of what their relationship was to film photography. The responses were revealing. I heard from members who had recently bought film cameras with the “brooding idea of trying to emulate the likes of Weston and/or Mapplethorpe;” members who personally do about 70% with film, reserving the 30% digital for “mission-critical work”; members in the commercial/fashion realm who are working hard to increase their percentage of film work.
But I also heard from members who diligently – and digitally – try to replicate the look of Kodachrome film or of old lenses; who use the Straight Out Of Camera technique with their digital cameras (SOOC = no post-processing); who limit their shootings to 36 exposures; who long to retrieve the skills and disciplines of film photography; who regret the loss of the same with their digital work.
The most recent edition of FRAMES Magazine includes a striking feature by the photographer Malin Ellisdotter. She uses an iPhone 11 for all the photographs but makes them look like highly-pushed, contrasty film shots, complete with dust, filaments, scratches, and light leaks. FRAMES editor-in-chief Tomasz Trzebiatowski has been recently posting beautiful, square format, sepia-toned photographs, complete with stains and uneven toning – all shot with an iPhone using the Hipstamatic app to make them look like they came from vintage cameras. A brilliant and celebrated portrait photographer from the UK makes his unique portraiture – both in color and black and white – look like film taken with large format cameras, complete with grain and extremely shallow depth of field.
This all makes me wonder if many of us are not openly or subliminally mourning the loss of real skill and craftsmanship in photography. It also makes me wonder, if so many photographers are trying to emulate film, why they aren’t just using film? Of course, I know the answer to that one from my own experience: attaining the level of image quality we have all come to expect is exponentially more difficult and time-consuming with film.
I must admit that this is simultaneously my conflict and my fascination with digital photography: I find it immensely appealing because it is technically SO easy. And I find it distasteful for my own ambitions because it is technically SO easy.
My father-in-law is 88 years old and an artist, a painter, still working daily in his atelier. He has been practicing and perfecting his art for more than half a century. A visit to his atelier on any day finds him framing canvases, preparing surfaces, mixing pigments, experimenting with application techniques, caring for tools and brushes, planning foundation coats, spending weeks working on some paintings, planning drying times, etc.
This past October, he accompanied my wife and me on a trip to southern France and French Switzerland. This gave us good reason to visit five art museums within two weeks in Arles, Geneva, Lausanne, Martigny, and Zurich. The more time I spent in the museum galleries, the more I realized just how much technical skill and handicraft artists have had to master for centuries. Every painting, watercolor, print, tapestry, sculpture, or installation, whether from the 16th century or from 2023, was, apart from any esthetic and artistic worth it might or might not have had, a wonder, simply in its use of tangible materials and the technical prowess used to form and employ them.
This stood in stark contrast to the impoverished creation and existence of many of the photographs we now view every day – taken with cameras that make master photographers out of anyone who can press the shutter, culled from hundreds, thousands of exposures shot in machine-gun style, processed and over-perfected by pushing sliders in image processing apps more or less randomly or by applying artificial intelligence filters. In other words, not working with physical materials but adjusting bytes.
And then, if not transformed into the happy, rare exception of photo books, they are displayed on electronic screens from websites, Instagram, Facebook, and photo apps. The over-saturated, unnatural colors, the hyper-resolution, the unrelenting perfection in every aspect of exposure and graduation so often beggar belief that the image was even made by human hands.
Does this sound like a rant?
I suppose it is. Maybe it’s because I have experienced similar things in my career as a classical music conductor. In that role, I have made many CDs. All the mistakes and inconsistencies of the conductor or his musicians during the recording – the performance – can be corrected. Tempo not steady? Straighten it out. Pitch too low? Push it up. Car horn from outside audible? Replace that 1/10th of a second with 1/10th of a second of quiet. Singer uses the wrong text? Replace it with the right word. In the end, you have a spectacularly perfect recording of a less-than-perfect but heart-felt performance. It soured me to the recording business and made me mistrustful of all professional CDs.
And you’ve seen the videos where our colleagues demonstrate their post-processing techniques with Lightroom and Photoshop? It’s the same thing. Instead of encouraging enhancing the intrinsic qualities of a photograph, they often tend to demonstrate how they can correct the basic mistakes that were made during the shot: bad lighting, unbalanced composition, extraneous objects, imprecise focusing, poor exposure. All correctable, as even Lightroom’s tutorial section wants to assure you.
But as a musician, I didn’t want the world to know how and how much was cheated to make the CD perfect – even if everybody did it.
I find the greater damage in both cases to be in the expectations that are created by the vicious circle of artificially perfecting the recording or image, which makes listeners and viewers want it, which makes creators obligated to produce it, which requires artificially perfecting it.
End of rant.
Luckily, art photography doesn’t demand perfection. So why have we relinquished our long sought-after place of respect among artists and artisans? If photography was always fighting for recognition as a true art form, has digitalization lost the battle for us?
No, of course not. At least not on the highest levels of photographic art. Take the example of Julia Fullerton-Batten and many others like her. Their artistic vision transcends the medium. And in the particular case of Fullerton-Batten, she wrings the most out of the advantages of digital photography for the cause of her art.
One of the grand experiences in my museum tour was the “Diane Arbus: Constellation” exhibition at LUMA in Arles, France. There are 454 of her photographs, skillfully taken with her twin-lens Mamiyaflex 6×6 and her Pentax 6×7 cameras, very often with the aid of flash, both indoors and outdoors. After Diane Arbus’s death by suicide in 1971, Neil Selkirk (born 1947) — a student of hers and an advisor to her on certain technical issues, as well as an assistant to Richard Avedon — began printing for the Arbus Estate and is the only person, since the artist’s death, authorized to make prints from her negatives. At the request of the Estate, Selkirk did all the printing in Arbus’ own darkroom in New York’s West Village. Over the course of more than thirty years working on her archive, Selkirk retained a single printer’s proof of those images. In 2011 LUMA acquired Selkirk’s set of printer’s proofs. As LUMA writes: “This collection is in itself a monument to the history of photography.”
How humbling and inspiring it was to wander through her oeuvre with these large, beautiful silver gelatin prints, each one, the result of hours, even days, of painstaking handicraft by Selkirk, trying to replicate Arbus’ own towering artisanship as a printer.
It made me realize why I am happy to have returned to film photography. It keeps me honest, it keeps me in the line of dozens of hundreds of photographers who I idolize, and it gives me goals to strive for that are difficult to attain and demand discipline and perseverance.
I will keep trudging forward.
In the next column, I will relate a conversation I had with an extremely successful documentary and art photographer who also decided to stay with film.
Do you have any thoughts or questions about the ever-expanding world of film photography – technical, esthetic, or philosophical? I would love to hear from you!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephen Smith is a professional choral and orchestral conductor and an amateur photographer and linguist. His photographic interests are in analog medium and large formats. Born and raised in the USA, he has lived as a dual-national in Switzerland for 40 years.
Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation. Learn more >>>