Fish, E-Center switch ollie circa 2004. Photo: Swainston
With how quickly today’s acceleration of digital camera technology is growing, it makes it almost a financial impossibility to keep up. In less than ten years, digital cameras have almost completely replaced film. There are still those classic die-hards out there, but digital is a vicious storm furiously blowing over film. I’ve seen nearly all my favorite films vanish off the market. Polaroid is nearly extinct and the local photo lab went from daily 90 minute film processing to twice a week. As far as the industry goes, digital cameras are the best thing invented since the camera obscura. As far as photographers go, it’s the biggest trick thats ever been played on us. I remember when buying a new camera, I had no doubts about its functionality. I never took into consideration how old it was or how many shots it had fired. The cameras were built to last, made of metals not plastics. They could take a hit and keep on shooting. My first medium format camera was introduced in 1957 by Victor Hasselblad and stayed in production until 1970. I still have that camera today and it shoots flawlessly every time. Put it in the right hands and you’ll see a negative that will rival any digital image capture. The Leica M6 is another example. First introduced in 1984, it remained the top-of-the-line 35mm rangefinder for 17 years. Jump to present day. My first digital camera (Canon 1D Mark I) has seen four successors since its original release date in 2001. The current model (1D Mark IV) carries a $5,000 price tag and brings together both photography and HD video with four different frame rates. It’s my guess that in less than ten years, this camera too will be obsolete and my Hasselblad will still be shooting sharp and straight.
With film, there is an everlasting essence that’s carried with it. Every type produces a slightly different color palate or tonal range that influences the emotion of the image. The film choice is a conscious thought in the pre-visualization process. With digital, the camera you choose is the only choice. It captures the same every time. Sadly, I feel this is bringing a generic quality to photography confined by the brand of camera you shoot with. Sure, you can change anything in Photoshop, but it’s not real—nothing tangible exists. We can fake just about anything these days with modern technology. Even my iPod has a Polaroid app.
You have to be far more attentive and focused with shooting film. The latitude for error (error being a very subjective word for what was once seen as an error could later be seen as a success, aka “the happy accident”) is much smaller. At best, you get a Polaroid to check the light once, but after that the photographer must carry a sense of knowing and faith with them. The camera, lights and self all become an extension of the eye, for the next time you visit that moment will be on the light table and there is no going back from there. With digital photography the latitude for error is much larger: two stops overexposed? Fix it in Photoshop. Not sure if you got the shot? Shoot a thousand more. Film forces you to see before seeing because there is no checking after every shot.
I’ve learned to project myself into future moments, recognizing an instant before its instant. This is because of film’s greatest limitation, an absolute end. It’s not possible to carry around infinite rolls of film. So at some point, you will eventually run out of shots. This forces one to practice waiting for the decisive moment, because inevitably, one day it will come down to one shot, like a sniper with a single bullet. Instead of shooting to kill, one shoots to create. Digital never has that last shot, it is that infinite roll of film. Less time is spent looking at the subject and more time is spent wildly firing like a marine with a machine gun. Throw enough lead and eventually you will hit something. Even with the flash card full, I can delete in-camera for more room.
For me, deleting is the cardinal of all photography sins. Tossing out individual digital frames is much easier than cutting from a strip of film. Thus, I find myself trashing images before I ever give them a second thought. Throwing away photography is to throw away history and evolution. To do so is foolish, especially when the choices are made based upon vain opinions towards things like composition, aesthetics, focus and clarity. Those elements of photography are purely subjective and contextual to time and place, not defined by any true set of rule or measure. The only truth that matters is documentation of the moment. It reigns above all else because the moment captured is forever lost in space-time, impossible to revisit except through the photograph. It’s as if the photograph becomes a tangible database for the mind to store memories in while keeping room for new ones at home.
When looking back into my photographic library, I can relive each frame to almost its full original reality. I can feel the sun on my shoulders, hear the shutter click. The moment never changes, it’s ongoing forever and I can revisit it at any time. I too often look back and find new gems that I once thought were just rocks. New ideas spawn from old angles. With digital, there are too many frames to go through and those boring blue folders on my hard drive entitled Skate, Portrait, Event, Travel and so on just aren’t as alluring as those binders on my bookshelf filled with contact sheets and positives. They become books themselves, only the words are written in silver halide crystals and the story is up to the lookers’ interpretation.
So, with all of that said, this is an homage to the past to be revisited in the present. A time of uncertainty, experimentation and throw-aways that weren’t, when not knowing was half the excitement and the once thought mistakes have transformed into wisdom. For leaving behind a tangible moment that will last an eternity short of physical destruction and for those tangible moments, despite all of the possible reproductions, to forever exist as the only original story inscribed in silver halide.