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Film: a diatribe

in Film , Monday, May 22, 2017

I’m going to need to preface this rant with the reminder that none of what I write, or, usually, write about is of the slightest importance in the grand scheme of things. It’s not exactly North Korea.

Recently, trying to make my endless commutes more interesting, I’ve been consuming quite a lot of writing about film photography, and a smaller amount of actual film photography. Most of this has come to me through Twitter, by following @EmulsiveFILM and all the myriad avenues that this leads me down. Sadly, with a few exceptions, I’m finding it all ends up rather un-engaging.

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Film don’t live here anymore

Let’s be clear, I’m starting with the premise that the objective of photography is some form of self-expression. Some may call it art, and for some, it is. There is an alternative objective, which is to engage in the craft of taking photographs - and this all too often morphs into obsessing over photographic tools.

A strong thread underlying this (supposed) revival in film photography is that somehow it makes you more creative. Well, if that’s the case, why are 95% of writings on film photography blogs about cameras, film types and other technical stuff?  And why is 90% of the photography made up of shots of nothing, frequently drowned in “bokeh”? Mostly it’s photos of cameras, or complete crap supposedly interesting because it’s shot on Wonderblast 125-TripleX developed in LSD-soaked quetzal droppings or whatever. What’s the difference here, between any techie digital photography site and this stuff? Fundamentally, nothing at all. It’s all gear, and gear acquisition, with the excuse that somehow because it is old gear it’s different.

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Film’s off

Then we get the other argument, the one that really makes my hackles rise: that film is better because “slows you down, makes you more contemplative”. That is absolute, unadulterated, 100% proof, self-deceiving bollocks. The photographer is responsible for the photography, not the camera. I’ve never heard of a digital camera grabbing it’s owner by the throat screaming SHOOT FASTER DAMMIT! Sure, some cameras - and not only film cameras - absolute do not lend themselves to rapid fire shooting. Anything made by Sigma, for example. But on the other hand, some film cameras won’t get in your way. A Canon EOS-1v will shoot at 10FPS, and has a 36 shot full-frame buffer! Anyway, if you need to rely on a camera being unable to shoot quickly to, er, not shoot quickly, then in my opinion there is a more fundamental issue to resolve here than gear choices.

It seems that the hardcore #FilmsNotDead crew are not only rejecting digital, but state of the art film too. The last mainstream emulsions to be brought to market, like Portra 400, Provia 400X, Ektar 100 and so are incredibly sophisticated products of chemical and manufacturing industry. So why do aberrations like Rollei CR 200, or all of Lomography’s product line even exist ? Well, clearly, because there’s a market for them. People actually want to shoot on crap film, in the mistaken view that it’s artistic.

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Agfa? Sorry mate, no call for that these days

The gear acquisition rabbit hole on the analog side of the fence is just as deep, if not deeper than on the digital side, but with the added addiction of the chase after rare, highly sought after objects, or the lure of the fantastic bargain. If film photography is supposed to be a simple, pure remedy to the terrors of digital, why then do film photographers accumulate ridiculous numbers of cameras, most if which don’t work properly, and some of which actually never did ? Yes, it’s interesting, fun even. I completely get that. But creative ? I don’t think so.

What I have found very little of is any evidence that using film specifically makes for interesting photography or photographers. There are certainly some extremely interesting photographers out there shooting partially or exclusively on film, but they don’t make a big deal about it. In fact often they don’t even mention it.

The tail is wagging the dog, here. In my opinion, there are few other reasons to use film than being driven to it by an artistic or creative need. For example, if your intent requires a view camera, you’re going to need to use film. If it requires Medium Format aesthetics, and you’re not a millionaire, ditto. If it requires a Technorama 617, same again. You can also make an argument for the look of certain film stocks, for example Cinefilm, although I’m less convinced of that. But when it is switched around to being driven by wanting to track down and play with old cameras then no, sorry, that’s just gear lust talking. One important proviso here - I’d make a very big exception for black & white. In my opinion, if you want to shoot B&W seriously, then there is no other option than film.

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Automatic for the People

So essentially this whole “film’s not dead” thing is just another, relatively bargain basement, strain of Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Leaving aside cost, which is subjective anyway, GAS is deadly for photography, for at least 2 reasons. First, the distraction of wasting endless reading about, talking about, and dreaming about gear. Next, the paralysing effect of having way too much gear (because after all it was so cheap!), and the pressure to use it all - and then to blog and twitter about it to impress the rest of the #FilmsNotDead hipsters. Sure, it’s a hobby, perhaps it’s even fun, but it isn’t photography, and if you got into film to somehow rescue your creativity, it’s also a bit tragic.

Of course I’m not immune to this. I’ve been banging on about Cinefilm 50 in the last few posts, so I’m well aware that I’m keeping my hypocrisy level up to normal. But here’s the thing: I bought two rolls of Cinefilm 50. One, I put in my XPan, and I burned through it in under 1 hour, thoroughly enjoying it. That would be because I’m very in tune with the view of the world that camera gives me. The other, I put in my OM-4, and after two weeks, I had only managed to get to frame 30. While the OM-4 is a lovely piece of retro technology, and the view through the finder is stunning, it really doesn’t make that much sense to use it over my digital E-M1.  Cinefilm’s look is interesting, but it isn’t unobtainable from a digital file.

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All fixes catered for. Well, they used to be.

But I still use film. In fact for the last month or so I’ve more or less only shot film - all 2 rolls of it. I actually prefer the look of slide film over colour digital, with the major proviso that conditions need to be right. The operating envelope of slide film is very narrow. There is zero scope for highlight or shadow recovery, and really only soft lighting works well. But when all ducks are correctly lined up, there is some quality of colour graduation which I just don’t see in digital, any digital, even Foveon. I’m still going add a proviso though - sometimes my whole perspective just flips, I think “what am I doing wasting my time with this stuff”, and I pick up the digital camera.  Actually, if it’s logistically feasible and I’m going somewhere I care about, I really need to have both digital and film with me.

I’m not quite so sure about negative film. Certainly it has a certain look, and has the huge advantage of vast exposure latitude. Highlight rolloff is probably the killer feature for negative film: for one subject I shoot a lot of, a kind of urban landscape, negative film does have a significant advantage both in dealing with harsh lighting and teasing out subtle transitions in texture. But then again, as a photographer, or indeed, a Fine Artiste, I have come to understand that I am very drawn to specific colour characteristics in deciding what to photograph. And actually getting any kind of objective colour fidelity out of negative film is pretty Quixotic. Sure, it can look very nice, but actually getting it to look right is quite another matter, and that can sometimes be very frustrating.

Anyway, my personal experience is that for negative film you can get close enough to make no difference using film simulations, or rolling your own in Photoshop. But I’ve never found a convincing slide film simulation.

There is another argument for using film though, which I kind of referred to above, and revolves around the cameras.  I think a very strong argument can be made that older cameras are often better designed, better built, far more straightforward, and offer a far more satisfying, direct user experience than digital cameras.  My Olympus E-M1 is a nice camera, but my OM-4 just gets out of the way (although actually my old Canon T90 implemented multi-spot metering far better than the OM-4. The T90 was a fabulous film camera). Such cameras can certainly have a big creative effect, as they insulate you from a lot of the distractions than come with shooting digital (yeah I know, “distractions” like being able to change ISO on the fly, but still…). But it’s still not that simple - if you decide to get into film scanning, well say goodbye to 20% of your life, a large amount of money, and at least half of your sanity (or 75% of it you use Vuescan). And Heavens help you if your eyes start drifting towards all those weird and wonderful “alternative” film types you MUST use to be a Real Artist.  No, my recommendation is if you want the full, classic, analog film camera experience, then buy one or two good cameras, a good supply of film, and TURN OFF THE INTERNET. Order your film through magazines, like Popular Photography. Oh, wait…

Of course, this is all just me. On the one hand, I can’t deny that I both share and understand the fascination of film. And my perspective, of one who started in photography pre-digital, will be quite different to some young whippersnapper who’s just discovered Agfa Vista. But to me the downside is that it brings yet another huge set of displacement activities which serve only to take me further away from concentrating on what I think it is I want to do - make satisfying photographs.

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I’ll get my coat

By the way, some of the photos here were taken on film.  Some were not.

 

 

Posted in category "Film" on Monday, May 22, 2017 at 02:26 PM

Do you shoot film ?

in General Rants , Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Emuslive.org is a website I've been frequenting recently. It provides a nexus for everything related to film photography today, and it's pretty good. However...

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...however, there's one aspect that nags at me. There is an extensive set of template interviews with various photographers, entitled "I am and this is why I shoot film". Being a cantankerous old git, I'm really tempted to reply "really, who cares?". This, of course, is extremely uncharitable of me, to put it mildly, but the underlying point, which I don't think is totally trivial, is why should it matter if you shoot film? I can think of a few strong cases where it does matter, one being where archival is a primary concern, or others where it is imposed, for example being in a situation where you have to use a mechanical camera. Or, indeed, you want to use a format only available in film cameras.

But otherwise, the vast bulk of "reasons why I shoot film", apart from the geriatric "it slows you down" (really, ever tried an EOS-1v ?), seem to be associated with culture and fashion, and, inevitably, gear. The aesthetic stuff, sure, ok, but the idea by association that digital somehow has no aesthetic qualities is absurd. Anyway, developing an aesthetic surely means first working out for yourself the look you want. If that look happens to be best achieved using a particular film stock shot in a given way, fine, but I suspect in 99% of cases the process is reversed.

There's no need to turn it all into a cult.

There are some very clear exceptions, but the majority of film photography I see these days really takes the film "look" and lays in on extra thick with a blunt trowel. I find this really bizarre - back in The Good Old Days, when there was no choice, almost all today's film photos would have been consigned to the trash, at least by "serious" photographers. All the identifiers, excessive grain, weird colours, blocked shadows, dead highlights, were things that people went to huge lengths to circumvent. Film technology too was driven to eliminate these defects, as late-generation emulsions such as Portra, E100G, Ektar 100, Provia and so on clearly show. Digital just took it a step further.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - I shoot film because several cameras I want to use require it. That's it. And I manipulate the film, generally, to make it as clean as possible.

Still, Emulsive is a great web site, and all these interviews are well worth reading, but not because of all the film mumbo-jumbo (which some, to be fair, avoid), but rather because there are some really interesting photographers getting promoted. But are they interesting because they shoot film ? No, well, not to me anyway.

Postscript: Actually, if you read Hamish Gill's interview on Emulsive, and scroll down to "WHAT DO YOU THINK IS PEOPLE’S GREATEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT FILM PHOTOGRAPHY AND HOW WOULD YOU SET IT STRAIGHT?", you find he presents this whole argument way, way more eloquently than I ever could....which is reassuring.
Posted in category "General Rants" on Wednesday, April 12, 2017 at 04:16 PM

Archive Harvest Time

in Photography in Ticino , Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Been a bit quiet around here recently.  I have done a few tweaks to the website, and I’m slowly working towards a gallery refresh, but I haven’t felt much like writing long ranting posts that nobody will read anyway. Also, having moved on to using Adobe Lightroom, I’m back to the nightmare scenario that is the dark side of these “non-destructive, all-in-one” applications.  Basically, if you switch, or are constrained to do so thanks to a bunch of brainless iTrash peddling fuckwits in Cupertino, you’ve got to start from scratch (oops, I’m ranting).

The only upside to that is you might stumble across some hidden gems in your back catalogue. Like this one, for example, taken near the Motterascio hut in Ticino, in 2011.

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The ironic thing is that the one article I am sort of working on is a sort of statement about how I’m not much interested in landscape photos devoid of any human content.  Well, I guess you could say these alpine pastures are heavily shaped by man. Or cow. And it will be a cold day in Hell when I’m anything approaching consistent.

 

Posted in category "Photography in Ticino" on Wednesday, October 28, 2015 at 08:37 PM

Shouting at lamposts

in General Rants , Thursday, September 24, 2015

A week or so back, I came across “Photos and Stuff”, a blog written by Andrew Molitor about, well, photos. And stuff. His writing is probably not for everybody. It’s incisive, very opinionated, frequently sarcastic, just as frequently funny, and also very well written. He doesn’t beat about the bush, much, and has no hesitation in going for the jugular. A favourite target is the hapless Ming Thein, and I have to admit that he neatly sums up pretty much all of the comments I’ve mentally written myself while reading Mr Thein’s blog. It definitely has something of a cult about it. Another is the Luminous Landscape, Kevin Raber in particular, and again, I’m ashamed to pretty much agree. I’m sure Kevin is a wonderful chap, but, frankly, he’s no Michael Reichmann, first as a photographer (to which Andrew Molitor would doubtless retort is not saying much), but also lacking Reichmann’s dry wit.

The blog has a generous helping of totally wild-eyed, off the rails, unhinged rants.  It is frequently highly entertaining, if a touch uncomfortable at times. Mr Molitor is clear no idiot himself, seems pretty widely read, and backs up his rants with some strong arguments. Possibly he’s just a little too awestruck by Sarah Moon.

But one post he wrote back in August really cuts to the bone. He argues that the vast majority of photography presented these days exists in a bubble. This bubble is inhabited by photographers, who take photographs to impress other photographers. So, for example, an arty shot of a rusted shed, which is of no interest at all beyond the amazing textures and detail captured in “the image”, showing fantastic “IQ” and resolution. To which anybody not into cameras would just shrug and say “nice shed - why did you photograph it ? And why is most of it out of focus?”. And indeed anybody into cameras would mutter about noise in the shadows, burnt highlights, and how his (always “his”) Sony Rocketblaster XZY9999X Mark 5 would do much better.  True, and funny. But, er, isn’t that me we’re talking about here ?

Of course there are plenty of bubbles, mostly repelling one another. A recently formed one is inhabited entirely by photographers with stern, aesthetic web sites, who believe that any photo is good provided it is made using Kodak Portra 400 over-exposed by at least 2 stops, preferably with 70% hazy sky, and preferably taken at midday. And scanned by some lab in Los Angeles, which really, really gets their artistic intent, like. And their credit cards.

I should hasten to add that if I understand him correctly, he’s not denigrating people who take photos for the fun of it, or even because they enjoy playing with expensive cameras. I think it’s more he gets irritated when such people start trying to pass off what they are doing as having some deeper meaning, or being “art”.

Which makes me feel even more exposed…

So, I started to think about whether I could actually describe what it is I’m trying to do with my photography. Of course, I could also go down the road of saying it’s entirely my own business and I don’t need to justify it to anyone. But I do put stuff on this web site, and on Flickr, so to some extent that’s not an honest position. Actually, I’ve got a cute rejoinder to the question of “why do I have a web site”, or rather “why do I show photos”, which is, to paraphrase Garry Winogrand, I put photos on the web to see how they look when they’re shown on the web. And it’s true enough - the posts I publish which are basically mini-portfolios are those I take the most time over. The sequencing, the harmony (or not) and the juxtaposition of set of photos brings the component photos alive to me. And presenting them in a space and format I manage is important too.  But that’s the presentation part. It still doesn’t address the question of why I’m photographing in the first place.

Probably much like everybody, I have different modes of photography. Sometimes I photograph to pass the time. Sometimes, just to record moments. Rarely, to test something or try out techniques - I can’t be bothered with that stuff anymore. But sometimes, quite often actually, a scene grabs me which I just need to distill down to something I can take away. I’ve dabbled with all sorts of genres, classic landscape, wildlife, street (sort of), urban landscape, and these have often been mixed in with travel. A large number of the resultant photos are trivial, although not necessarily bad. But there is a core set, which is actually quite large, where a very specific theme emerges. It wasn’t and still isn’t fully conscious, but it has become clear enough to me.  It’s probably totally invisible to anybody else, but that’s not a problem.  However, I have noticed that any photos I make which do provoke a stronger reaction tend to come from this set.

So, what is this theme ? Well, I’ve kind of touched on it before, but it’s essentially an exploration of absence and loss. Cheerful, huh? It’s nothing very direct: I approach things in a very oblique way, and I’m very wary of disclosing much information. It’s also not something I have any external ambition for. If anything, I suppose it’s a form of therapy. It’s not that I don’t care of nobody else gets it, it’s more that it really doesn’t matter, it’s irrelevant. Although probably I would get some feeling of validation if some stranger were to pick up on it.

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Antarctica starts here

It certainly wasn’t intentional, but over time I’ve begun to understand that I am attracted to which are at the same time empty of life, but which hint at past glories, small or large. They then become spaces into which I can insert imaginary histories and narratives, all in my head, and not necessarily, indeed rarely explicit and fully formed. It’s about the ambience that a place radiates. This is probably why I am so attracted to Venice, or more specifically, Venice behind the facade. Added to the fact that it’s a set of complex, interlocking islands, and it just fits in with my psyche. Similarly, in landscape photography, while I’m as likely as the next photographer to just snap away at nice scenery, I’m much more engaged if there is some human element which grabs my attention. Generally these are elements which the “fine art” landscape photographer will ignore like the plague. However, I find myself much more drawn towards the style of a Frank Gohlke or Stuart Klipper these days, even if I’m light years away from them in terms of results.  I’m more likely to seek out a power pylon than to edit it out in Photoshop these days.

So yes, I do think I know where I’m going with my photography, and I’m also perfectly comfortable, or better, ambivalent, about having an audience. I don’t need one. I’m engaged with the work I’m producing, and, dropping for once the self derogation, I actually think I’m pretty good at it. Which probably just all boils down to me being in a very small bubble with room for one.

Anyway, all this rambling was kicked off by discovering a blog that actually made me think. Give it a try, it’s certainly more rewarding than hanging around on gear sites.

Posted in category "General Rants" on Thursday, September 24, 2015 at 08:50 PM

Time Fades Away

in Photography in Ticino , Monday, April 13, 2015

For over 15 years, the southern Swiss-Italian city of Lugano, and it’s immediate surroundings, has been my home. Lugano is a strange place. It benefits from an absolutely world class location, on a lake front flanked by two “sugar loaf”-like mountains. Historically and it is part of Lombardy and has passed under the control of Milano and Como before being grabbed by the Swiss Confederation in the 16th Century. Eventually as an aftermath of Napoleonic machinations it became part of the Canton of Ticino, a fully fledged federal state of Switzerland, but even now Ticino retains the joint title of Republic. Lugano was a favourite Belle Epoque destination, leading to the building of many classic villas and hotels. Historians and archeologists data Lugano back through Roman times, to the Etruscans, and Stone Age settlement. So one would expect a rich architectural tapestry similar to towns just over the Italian border. And one would be sorely disappointed. Lugano is, on the whole, a boring, sanitised wasteland where countless historic buildings, quarters, streets and landmarks have been, and continue to be, demolished to make way for more of the grim (but so gorgeously expensive) concrete cubes which the Swiss apparently cannot get enough of.  And of course the ranks of steel and glass atrocities without which no self-respecting Bank can be seen. And there is no shortage of banks in Lugano.

I really do wonder what the tourists who descend on Lugano from Easter to autumn make of it all. It doesn’t stand up very well in comparison to Como, a few kilometres away, or even squeaky clean Luzern further north, if you’re into that kind of thing. Sure, the landscape is spectacular, and there are countless forest and mountain trails, but as a city, well, I guess it’s ok as an overnight stop.

It could have been so different. And there are plenty of Lugano natives who are pretty angry about what has been done, but the level of petty corruption and short term greed, in an area with a pretty small population, where everybody knows everybody else, has steamrollered in the property developers. Ironically, investing in reviving and repurposing structures given character by the passage of time has led to fortunes being made in many other cities.  Here, instead, heritage has ben flogged off for the chance to buy the latest Porsche or Ferrari.

If you look carefully, you can catch glimpses of what might have been out of the corner of your eye. A few years back, photographer Barbara Dell’Acqua published a very nice book on exactly this theme, which for some reason I never got around to reviewing. Many of the scenes in “una citta dentro la citta” (a city behind the city) have already vanished.

Actually, this was supposed to just be a post with a few “clutching at straws” shots I took in Lugano over the weekend. Instead in turned into a rant. I guess I qualify as an outsider, but still, Lugano is home to me, and it really makes me sad to see what a mess money and politics has made of it.

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Posted in category "Photography in Ticino" on Monday, April 13, 2015 at 09:49 PM

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