A talented photographic contemporary and dear friend of mine once said to me, “All cameras are just boxes with holes in the front really, it’s what you look at through them that matters.” And that stuck with me over the years. Through the Pegamixel arms race of the big two, then the mirror wars of the others and the perennial ‘new thing’ skirmish that flares up every couple of years, I always paraphrase my reply when asked about cameras or lenses, ‘it’s just what you look at and how, that matters really’.
I realise though that which box with a hole in the front I take out to see the world does to an extent, shape how I see. For example, if it is a 6×6 roll film camera I’ll likely be using black and white negative film and what I look at will be cropped square in my mind and pictured monotone before looking into a viewfinder and pressing any buttons. A panoramic 35mm film camera will likely be colour negative film and therefore have a wider approach to pre-composition based on colours and textures as much as shapes.
Much is made of the differences between photographing with film and using a digital camera to record moments. I’ve been using the former for four decades and the latter from their popular introduction twenty years ago and I can say there is a difference, but I find it indescribable. There’s no denying the convenience digital photography provides image making. From speed to safety nets, there is no real argument against it for most uses in a similar way to the application of the disc brake on a bicycle, but purist sentiment aside there is a mindfulness or (pardon the pun) focus in the simplicity of having a set, small number of windows of opportunity for capturing a moment on a roll of film, that you will then not see for at best, hours and more likely days, weeks or months. We’ve got used to a spray and pray approach of taking too many photographs of something to guarantee a desired outcome rather than allowing chance or cloud or seagull photobomb to change the recorded outcome and desired memory. But that is to also make the memory unreal in a way by robbing it of truth. It’s a bit purist yes, to think truth is paramount but its in a way even simpler than that to me and perhaps more organic. Seeing what could have been eclipsed by ten almost identical frames on a digital image recorder does do away with the if only retrospective pang but it also devalues the reality of a given moment by carpet bombing it with pixels and presenting a memory as a series of identical snippets to invariably manipulate, store or delete.
In looking back at moments recorded on film frames, post digital age I choose not to see what could have been, instead looking at what actually was that doesn’t need Photoshop to help improve reality. Wonky horizons or slightly out of focus subjects are a shame in a natural perfection target but at the same time they warm with a real-life honesty of how things actually are not lived through Instagram projection.
I have to admit too, that I like seeing the edge of a negative frame. It’s become somewhat trendy again as that goes in cycles, but there’s something authentic or honest about seeing the very edge of a photograph’s frame even if that means there’s a seagull you’d rather not have a cameo role in your memory. Another contemporary always believed in the full frame no cropping truth is everything rule of the reportage masters of old and I generally found that just a bit restrictive professionally. But personally, the wonder of a digital frame being able to be pretty much what you want shape, composition and content wise has become a subtext of dishonesty in a way. And a dishonest memory, while more aesthetic is somehow denial or perhaps cheating yourself of reality. A negative edge also simply seems to frame a photograph as a moment or memory in it’s own stand alone identity.
There are environmental concerns I have over the process of producing and developing of films for the sake of having pretty pictures, but as ever there is context in the flip side of ever newer manufacture of environmentally preferable digital technology. Similar in a way to my likely misguided environmental argument for our Land Rover Defender, in that as polluting as it’s exhaust clearly was, it was built with local materials to last and be repaired rather than the sub 10year obsolescence of a brand new green EV shipped across the world.
And so we look at building a darkroom into our house total renovation here in southern France and my film cameras are not yet retired as I assumed they would have been by now. As long as it remains popular I imagine film will still be made and as long as that continues, many of my moments on earth will continue to become cherished imperfect memories.