Contrary to popular opinion of a decade or so ago, film did not die, not completely, nor did film cameras. This was and is relief to some of us that schooled in it, grew so fond of it and still use it regularly. I did worry these objects would be rendered pretty, useless ornaments by now, but it would appear, #formernotlatter.
I have many a friend that finds it impossible to walk past a second hand camera shop and I’m no different. It was always like that. There is something in those shelves or cabinets or piles of upright lenses and metal and leatherette and hand written brown card price labels that I can’t avoid. I don’t want to.
If I’m in a hurry I dance my eyes across the more familiar, checking prices and rarity as I go. if I have time, I indulge myself, maybe take in the ornate or the peculiar, the beautiful hand made wooden tripods or the towers of screwed together glass filters. Rifle through piles of victorian glass plates of incredible depth and sharpness wrapped in oiled paper or discover old prints in higgledy piggledy sizes bundled together like dusty refugees from simple places and different times seeking a home in a chaotic present. I immerse my thoughts back through lenses past to familiar places, wonder where a person is now or what that part of town looks like these days, perhaps regret passing on one model or realise another is valued by others too. They are familiar and special these magic lanterns, so often equal in mechanical ability and prettiness alike. They stand as reminder of times that made discovery and recording really something after all. Really something. Something new and rare and special and exclusive. Not an in your pocket commodity. Really something.
The best of these rooms of discovery have dimly light warm atmospheres, they will be full of brass and wood and leather and smell ever so slightly of old but not bad tobacco and stuffy victorian display cabinets. Walking into one should feel like turning a Conan Doyle page. Calm, focused, particular, intriguing. They are rarer and rarer but paradoxically it seems business is good again.
Cameras have come and gone through my life, some over and over again, others have remained throughout, all have been valued. When I look at one I can immediately remember what it felt like using it, where and what it saw and the same is true of images. Sometimes I find a bundle of negatives or transparencies or prints that have been patiently waiting their turn in a carrier bag for archiving properly at some point. I might flick through and find a particular moment that stops me in my tracks and takes me somewhere immediately whether I like it or not. I always loved the fact that a photograph is just a moment frozen, that it can convey so much through such a minute particular slice of time. I am always in wonder of what it must have felt like to record history visually back at the beginning. Imagine the impact of that on people. It must have felt like magic and I consider it no different now, I have never been able to take it for granted. I can see a two and a quarter inch transparency and immediately be transported back into the space behind that viewpoint and remember which camera I stole that little square of history with, what the weather was like perhaps, who I was with, what it was to be there at that very moment.
I can remember vividly where this began. My memory is of leaning over the rear bench seat of a Citroen Ami Super in the late 1970s bumbling along some southern French autoroute en route to looming ever larger alps and focusing and selectively pressing the shutter of my father’s Pentax Spotmatic at the cars I liked and not the ones I didn’t. No film of course, but the metallic, decisive but somehow gentle sound of that sprung shutter stays with me, the annoying wide strap wrapped round my narrow wrist, the smooth weighted barrel of the Asahi 50mm lens with it’s notched slightly worn aperture ring quietly slipping over a bevel into it’s next number ineffectively for an empty film plane, all conjure such feeling of place. It’s as evocative as a smell for me, more clear and placed perhaps and easier to interpret as a memory, it seems my kind of language.
This has been the same ever since and always. I can find an image of a trip to the Canary islands and immediately I remember my Bronica S2, the faux Hasselblad that didn’t work very well. Flicking through the carrier bags of my life I recently found the series from which maybe my favourite yet photograph was taken, the rear of a parked trailer with an alpine scene covering it’s entirety. I can vividly remember framing it carefully whilst in a car park in Lyon in the mid nineties. I remember the battery in the meter had died and the already awkward task of compensating for the then redundant 1.2v’s replacement 1.5v with exposure alone was left up to complete guess work. That was a Yashicamat 124G TLR and I miss it. Sold on a whim for some piece of then new, now redundant tech. I would buy another tomorrow, maybe I will. I recall lugging two Nikon F3s around Paris fashion week in 1992 and discovering weeks later the best image by far having been recorded the night I went to a party with just a little Olympus XA and a single roll of Tri-X.
These objects are just that, objects, but they have been like travelling companions in some ways. There through my life in and out of different scenes, days have rarely been without one to hand and probably tens of thousands of negatives later they are in a way little signifiers of memories for me. They’ve been complicit, responsible even, for so many particular fragments of my life. They are just tools to do a job but they mean something more somehow. They have been the passenger for the road movie of my life so far. Every one doing something differently, it’s idiosynchrasies determining how to see or what went on twenty years ago. Playing a trick on the memory and cutting the edges off or accidentally sandwiching two moments together, they’ve always been part of it all.
Bored of the current arms race in photography, the war waged with an arsenal of numbers and technology on just looking…seeing, all the while aiming to create perfection and wow-ness with every burst of shutters, these days I am ever more drawn back into the simple life of just being and viewing and pressing once and hoping and wondering and rarely being disappointed.
I have been much asked over the years and thought and tried to know what it is about film that makes it so special. And I can not. Maybe it will dawn on me one day in a lightbulb moment but until then, if ever, I am left comfortable in saying it is indescribably different to anything that came before it or has come since. And so when it comes to packing up my gear for an adventure nowadays there’s always room left for one or two old pals in the corner and a handful of film. Always.
If I stand amid one of these ever more rare emporiums of photographica there comes a stillness in me. Time and schedule slow and imagination and wonder take over at what these silent partners have witnessed to their keepers. It’s imagination and reality in one. Secrets and lies and laughs and cries no doubt, their work is done and yet will never be fully done. They will carry on to witness and record the history they are shown. These places feel like home to me in a way. For me there’s a peace in their presence.
© Augustus Farmer
Originally published in Peloton Magazine