Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Film Fun

There have been various online kerfuffles recently, where some film users have felt their feathers to have been too roughly ruffled.  For what it's worth, here are my thoughts on the matter of film photography, and its self-styled Defenders of the Faith.

I'm not talking about devotees of the view camera, bless 'em. They are playing a different game in a different league to the rest of us.  As an instinctive contrarian and closet elitist, I've often contemplated joining them, to be honest.  What could be more gratifying to a member of the Awkward Squad than wielding one of those hefty mahogany and brass contraptions, with its tilts, swings and rises, upside-down and wrong-way-round ground glass image, two-shot sheet-film holders, and mandatory rock-solid tripod?  Well, lots of things, and I'm far too lazy and impatient to work at such a glacial pace, even given the stellar gains in image quality.  Besides, a view camera is potentially OCD on stilts, and I have enough trouble remembering to check what aperture I'm using, or whether I've forgotten to reset the exposure compensation dial.  But, hats off to the wearers of the dark cloth!

I'm not even talking about any remaining hold-out medium-format users out there.  I loved rollfilm: my Mamiya C330f and my Fuji GS645S were probably my favourite cameras.  The former is now sold, but I may ask to have the latter placed on my funeral pyre.  Done right, medium-format images have a tonal range and luminosity that is simply beautiful and only matched by, well, pretty much every serious digital camera currently available.  Will you tell them, or will I?

No, I'm talking about the guys who insist on using 35mm film, and behave as if it were the ne plus ultra of photographic quality.  It is inexplicable to me.  A lot of these people don't even process or print their own stuff.  I spent a decade or more processing and printing my own 35mm and medium-format film, and the day I discovered digital was Liberation Day.  Need I refer you to my venerable post, Tears In the Stop Bath?

There seem to be three main 35mm camps.  First, there are the "Lomographers", fashion-conscious types who pursue a lo-fi aesthetic for its own sake.  At its worst this is a cooler-than-thou analogue version of Instagram; at its best it's a celebration of the quirky, the accidental, and the fun.  This makes perfect sense.  It simultaneously makes a virtue of the essential imperfections of 35mm film and cocks a snook at gearheads.  Anyone looking to 35mm film for anything better than snapshot quality is looking in the wrong place, and treating it as a fun format seems right to me.

Which brings me to the second main camp, the Leica Mystics.  These people look so persistently in the wrong place for the wrong things that, once again, I'm put in mind of the parable of Mullah Nasruddin looking for his lost keys under a convenient streetlamp.  Now, I have to admit, I have never so much as picked up a Leica, so I may be missing the point entirely.  But, as far as I know, a Leica is simply a very well-made 35mm rangefinder camera, with a limited but superb range of interchangeable lenses (or "glass", as Leica Mystics tend to call lenses).  It has no advantage, technically, over any other functioning 35mm camera -- including a cardboard throwaway pre-loaded with film -- other than the quality of its components and assembly.

Those who know about such things talk about a "Leica glow".  This has nothing to do with the sense of well-being induced by having that much money to spend on a camera, but is an alleged mysterious property of Leica lenses.  Well, maybe so.  Other mysterious lenses are available.  But the Leica legend was really built on two things:  first, unobtrusiveness, and second, indestructability.  In the kind of situations associated with Leica users of legend -- primarily war and conflict reportage, and so-called "street" photography -- these were clearly good properties to possess.  "Quality" was never the issue: any photograph at all taken under fire is a remarkable achievement, and an excellent photograph is some kind of miracle.  To attribute such miraculousness to a particular brand of camera is, well, to be looking in the wrong place.  Hardly any serious photojournalists use film in 2015, and if anything standards have gone up, not down.

The third group are the most mystifying.  Photographers who simply believe that film has an esssentially distinctive "look" which is, in some indefinable, possibly moral way, superior to digital imaging, but whose own primary activity seems not to be making actual photographs but popping up on blogs and forums to make witless cracks about the indefinable, possibly moral superiority of film.  Let's call them Film Trolls (Trolls of Film? Heh...).  What can you say to such people?  Other than, "Please shut up now, guys, you're just making yourselves look ridiculous!  Why not go out and shoot a few rolls, while you still can?"

[NOTE:  I am away from home until 18th April.  If you comment, please be patient!]


Gerry said...

See also vinyl junkies

seany said...

I think you've put the matter to bed Mike,at least for me you have.

Now if I could just stop visiting those rangefinder forums I might be saved.


Kent Wiley said...

What is the fascination with 35mm photography? It's certainly been taken seriously by many, but I couldn't agree more about it's "snap-shot" nature. So it makes me scratch my head all that much harder with the reverence that is given to motion pictures captured on film. As we can see from this diagram, they're working with nearly a third the surface area that still photographers are. But there is no group who are more serious about their gear and their medium than "cinematographers" and their assistant cameramen. There surely is no group more studley looking than they. In case you haven't drunk the Kool Aide, look at these photos. And these dudes aren't even using film cameras.

Carsten Schultz said...

I do not disagree with any of this, but I would like to point out that there are also people who have always enjoyed using their 35mm cameras, still do so and therefore continue using them. A friend of mine is in that category, and I like what he makes. He also uses a 35mm digital camera instead of a film camera when he feels like it.

Andrew Lamb said...

I agree wholeheartedly about the rewards of shooting on 120. Pity it's not cheap.

However, I'm not so sure about the origins of the Leica myth. Surely, it begins and ends with Cartier-Bresson? As his reputation grew in the '50s and '60s so did Leica's. No?

A final comment on shooting with 35mm. It's decidedly inferior to most digital cameras these days but there is a distinct pleasure in shooting with an all mechanical camera. Sometimes, that's enough.

Mike C. said...

Chris- sorry, managed to delete rather than publish your comment (using phone while away...). Please resubmit if you can!

Chrisb said...

We need snapshots, the shoebox under the bed full of soft, out of focus images of Auntie Mary are a treasure trove which the digital delete button will render as redundant as film.
While we are spending a brief moment discussing "gear" I do like the simple design and conventional controls of the Leica. I have never owned one, only the pretender X100 which does a pretty good job for a fraction of the cost. The plastic jelly mould SLR is a technical wonder but to me has no spirit as an object.
The Leica myth grew out of photographers needing to be able to see outside the edges of the picture frame when composing, the rangefinder Leica provided this function.

Zouk Delors said...

Drinking the Kool Aid

I didn't understand this phrase, and thought initially that it was some puzzling reference to the Kool Aid Acid Tests, and hence a reference to LSD, but didn't look into it further.

Then I heard the phrase on this weekend's satirical radio comedy Dead Ringers,and realized it must be one of those elements of American political jargon imported wholesale into our own pre-election debates (hell, yes!).

I found the (rather tasteless) explanation at Wikipedia, where I also learned that: In February 2012, "Drinking the Kool-Aid" won first place in an online poll by Forbes Magazine as "the single most annoying example of business jargon".

I had less success trying to understand "studley-looking", though. Is that a typo?

Kent Wiley said...

No doubt a manufactured word, not sure if "studley" is a typo. How would you spell the adverbial version of "stud"?