The Allure of Film in the Digital Age

January 01, 2015  •  Leave a Comment
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Photo made with a 1954 Rolleiflex Automat K4B, Fujifilm Neopan Acros 100 film, 2 second exposure
 
I became a photographer in the digital age largely because of the convenience of digital cameras.  In recent years, while I have continued to work primarily with digital cameras, I have found myself drawn to work with film from time to time.
 
I'm most drawn to medium format film photography because it requires me to slow down, and slowing down is essential to living well and being creative. The fifty- and sixty-year-old vintage twin lens reflex cameras that I use for film photography are entirely mechanical. They don't even use batteries. They don't have light meters. Every setting to control the aperture, shutter speed, focus, and film advance requires a separate, mechanical action by the photographer. The knobs and dials are small and finicky. And with only twelve exposures on a roll of film, I think twice and often double-check my settings before spending a dollar with each click of the shutter.
 
Slowing down is a catalyst for a new kind of creativity rooted in a new kind of presence in the world, a presence marked by mindfulness, attentiveness, and deep sensuous engagement with things. This kind of engagement opens us to the mystery that saturates the ordinary. Using the medium format film camera occasions a more contemplative, intentional form of seeing. 
 
When manually focusing on the dimly lit ground glass, everything is laterally inverted. Right is left, and left is right. On the ground glass, the world is backwards and dreamy. This disorienting perspective directs my attention away from movement to the more permanent fixtures of the environment, especially to their spatial relationships and the way light plays on them.  
 
Slowing down nurtures a more inquisitive approach to the subject.  I explore it from different angles and distances before daring to press the shutter release. And the square shape of the image requires me to break out of my well-worn habit of rectangular seeing. Square images evoke a sense of balance and stability quite different from rectangular images where there's horizontal breathing room for movement and spontaneity. 
 
And finally, there is the delay in gratification required while waiting for the film to be processed and returned. I often find this delay to be an integral part of this different form of creativity. While waiting, I often think about how I might have photographed differently, how the twelve images might fit into a broader corpus of work, and where I need to focus my creative attention next time.
 
So, while I will never likely work primarily in film, I find it a refreshing pause in the fast-paced age of digital photography.  And therein is a lesson for life that's larger than photography. Slow down and savor it.
 

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