When the Night Falls by the Water

Not too much to say here. A series of images taken at Cologne’s Rheinauhafen at the end of summer.

There Is No Versus

They took our Kodachrome away but we soldiered on. That we, film photographers, has had to see their medium of choice sink from a given of modern life to a specialist niche in no time flat. Where I live, I’m lucky to be in close walking distance of two drugstores that sell and process film, and two specialized photo shops that do the same. But most of us aren’t that lucky. It’s hard to shoot film in a digital world, at least when it comes to selection and availability.

Digital picture of analog camera. Two worlds collide.
Digital picture of analog camera. Two worlds collide.

A recent article on the photography website PetaPixel reminded me of the glee with which sometimes this “victory” of digital photography is lorded over the dying breed of picture makers who rely on arcane chemical processes instead of CMOS sensors. That article, ably penned by Randall Armor (ably except for a paragraph in which he tries to refute an argument by not responding to it on account of how ridiculous it supposedly is – that just rubs my academic self the wrong way) makes salient points here, gets ranty there, and ends, perhaps surprisingly, on a conciliatory note. Armor did not start the argument, to be fair. Neither did Sam Cornwell, arguing in favor of film photography, who came up with the list of reasons that Armor sets himself the task to refute point by point.

But by following the list format of pros and cons that seems to be the only way now people are told to make sense of the world, I think they both utterly miss the point. This is not a “fight” anymore that one format or the other wins by being inherently better at something objectively measurable. The medium, in some aspects, really is the message here. The fact that technology has enabled us to do certain things, and that for various reasons people seem to like those things, leads to an expectation that they will be provided.

Excuse my crypticness. What I mean, and let’s use the example of news photography here because it’s one of the starkest contrasts between the two “ages” of photography, is that technology has enabled us to take many more pictures for less money and then spread them more easily faster. In-focus, split-second, high-megapixel pictures or it didn’t happen. Sure, you could buy a Nikon F5 – twenty years ago the dream of many a freelancer, certainly – today and try to compete with the people who take digital pictures on their digital big guns with high ISO values, but you’d be at a clear disadvantage. You get 36 images to a roll and have to develop them. They get thousands to an SD card and can beam each one wirelessly to their newsrooms with no extra effort. And that newsroom expects more pictures than it used to. To put in their online slideshows, to select that one perfect moment in a series of twenty shots that look almost the same. To provide content for a content-hungry world. That game has clearly changed, and so have many others.

But does that matter one bit to the people in those bubbles where film is a viable option? The aspiring artist, the working portrait photographer who lovingly fondles their Hasselblad, or the newly minted Holga shooter? There is no versus here. No one goes home with a trophy after winning the film vs. digital debate. Armor’s article tries to defeat film photography by dragging it into a competition where the attributes that digital excels at dominate. If the question then is “is it better?,” the answer has to be “no.” But why is that even the right question to ask? What makes a technology “better” at being the thing you happen to like?

The only answer ever necessary on either side of the debate is precisely “because I like it.” The pursuit of happiness isn’t conditional. It is not something that can only be enjoyed by those who have convincing answers to questions that some panel of expert judges deems important to pose. So you’re into photography. Great. Artistic expression in any medium doesn’t need justification. It’s not like you’re doing anyone a disservice by performing brain surgery with IKEA cutlery here. No lives are lost when you choose one method or the other. There are certain things film is not good at, but then don’t use it for those things. Or maybe use it exactly for those things to challenge yourself. To have fun. To make art. To earn a living. To express yourself as a person. Stop making lists and make more pictures instead. Stop dividing the world in two. Just chill.

An Analogue Mode of Seeing

Digital
Digital…

I’ve been thinking a lot about the decade (or by now, decades, I guess) old debate of analogue vs. digital when it comes to photography.

There’s much to be said for each side. And I agree with both of them. One is faster, more economical. The other more permanent and deliberative. And whoever wants to discount one or the other as a whole is arguing from personal incredulity, from a limited horizon, an inability to see what uses a world population numbering in the billions could find for literally any technology ever developed.

Analogue
…or analogue. In the end, it’s all about actually getting the shot.

I love the analogue world, and I love the digital world. I grew up during what is now recognized as the digital revolution. But for a while the old and the new way of doing things existed side by side. Pictures of me as a child were, by necessity, all on film. The first digital picture of me was taken at a trade fair in my home town of Ulm, Germany sometime during the late 1980s. I have long forgotten which forward-thinking company had set up a booth with their then high tech instruments to take pictures of willing attendees. But I remember that my parents sat, one after the other, both me and my brother on the little chair the photographers had set up, and had our pictures taken.

Today these pictures exist only as a faded black and white needle prints of low resolution, hanging on the wall of a staircase at our parents’ house. In what presages a huge problem of today’s digital world, long time archiving of images and documents, the only reason the images still exist is because they were printed out. No one in the 1980s would have thought to offer digital media of raw image data as the end product of a photo session.

Digital
Digital…

My first cameras were 35mm point and shoots. Most of the slides and negatives I took with them during the ’90s still exist in boxes somewhere. Ready to be rediscovered. Analogue has an edge on digital here. In a hundred years, barring flood or fire, they will still be there. But while archiving is always on my mind (I’m a historian, it comes with the territory), the main thing I’ve been thinking about lately, is the problem of scarcity in photography. It’s way of approaching the taking of pictures, and it’s a different but related issue to the archival one.

Analogue
…or analogue. More a matter of taste than anything else.

With film, the number of pictures one can take at a time is limited. 1 for sheet film. Typically between 9 and 36 with various types of roll film. I’d wager the most you can get out of a regular 35mm film cartridge and still achieve acceptable picture quality is around 75 half frame shots. But half frame is not a typical format. For most people the magic number is between 12 and 36 frames before you need to pause and reload. That’s between 12 and 36 pictures before you need to decide to spend time, money, and effort reloading your camera and taking additional pictures. Compare that to a 32GB SD card, an average size these days, which depending on resolution and quality will easily hold up to a couple of thousand pictures. It’s no contest.

Yet, I don’t come away with more keepers when I go out with my digital camera, compared to an analogue one. Digital is like commercial fishing with a net. Analogue is standing in a creek with a fishing rod. Analogue teaches you to get it right, and to move on with your life if you didn’t. Much like pen on paper, what’s written cannot easily be erased. Like most things in the world, that can be a good thing, but also a limitation.

Garry Winogrand, who used to take hundreds of shots in one outing, constantly reloading his Leica with yet another roll of 36 exposure film, has been called the “first digital photographer.” That’s not wrong, when you look at his approach, which used to be atypical, and now has become commonplace because of digital technology, the great enabler. His standing allowed him a way of working inaccessible to those who did not have the name, or the money.

I recently read an article about a photographer who revealed the process behind a stunning portrait he had taken. He had set his camera to take the maximum of consecutive shots per second, picked it up, pointed it at his subject, and let fly. He ended up with more than a hundred similar pictures, and one that was worth keeping. He took it, and cropped and post-processed it to his liking. I was dumbfounded. That was not what I had come to regard as photography. That was shooting some video and then choosing and cropping out a freeze frame.

But I caught myself. I should not discount the image because of the way it was created. Instead, I should acknowledge that someone had found a way of working that let them produce stunning imagery. Why should I care how they did it? As with every technology or technique, as the field matures you need to do something different to distinguish yourself. That might include getting better at whatever that field defines as craftsmanship. Or it might mean redefining what is needed in order to be where you want to be.

We can bemoan that working photographers today do not even know the basics anymore. But it certainly doesn’t help that many of these complaints have an air of ageism – towards young people, in this case – and sexism: an old guard of very technically well versed male photographers needing to reassure themselves that young people, and young women especially, can’t be good photographers just because they produce good images, as long as they don’t understand the arcana of the techno-priesthood. Because reasons. But who gets do define what the basics are 175 years after photography first came into the world? Who after all, are we to judge today’s farmers for not being able to plough a field with a team of oxen anymore?

Myself, I’ve made peace with the inadequacies of each approach, digital or film. I don’t raise my eyebrows anymore when pros and amateurs alike clock in at 500+ photos per day. I’m no purist when it comes to using filters before an image goes into Photoshop, getting exposures right in camera, or getting shots spirit level straight. Turns out, you can fix things in post. Whether you choose to or not is nobody’s business but your own. But when it comes to my way of seeing, I’m still much more of an analogue photographer. I remember the first time I finished a film, the 12 exposure roll that came with a red Konica Pop Super I was given for my ninth birthday, and was shocked to realize that I’d blown the opportunity to take any more photos. I remember how carefully I then planned how many shots I had for any given period of time, be it a trip, vacation, or other event. I also recall that, when I first entered the digital age, I would shoot with no abandon, capturing dozens of frames of the same thing, and somehow never being quite inspired while doing it. Whereas, when I picked up a film camera again two years or so ago, it became part of who I was, and of how I saw things. When shooting digital pictures, I now usually leave the huge memory cards at home. Instead, I’ll go out with two or three 1GB cards. At the highest picture quality setting, that’s 27 exposures in my Fuji X100s.

After that, it’s time for a roll change.

Spiritual Home Camera

Gear Acquisition Syndrome – “GAS” or “gas” – is one of the most insidious things about photography. Admit it, you *know* you don’t need more than one camera. But if you’re like me (and if you came here by googling “GAS,” while I can’t speak for any other similarities, at least when it comes to buying cameras, we seem to be in the ballpark), you still can’t resist acquiring several. And then several more. Because they were cheap. Because they looked cute, or cool, or interesting. Because they have emotional or historical cachet. It’s why I still am longing for a full set of A. Schacht lenses: they were made in Ulm, Germany, the city I was born in, and where I spent my childhood and teenage years. It’s why I’m only barely controling my trigger finger when it hovers over a “Buy It Now” for a Leica M6 in good condition.

SR-T 100x during a lunch break on
SR-T 100x. Spiritual home camera contender. And food.

There’s inspiration to be had by the greats, no doubt. Who, if they’re into photography, hasn’t wanted to duplicate the wanderings of Henri Cartier Bresson or Garry Winogrand with their iconic rangefinder cameras, or wished for a Crown Speed Graphic because Weegee used one? Who could resist the temptation of a large format field camera or a medium format Hasselblad? After all, those were the preferred tools of quasi-god of landscape imagery, Ansel Adams?

I confess, when I read that William Eugene Smith’s famous Miramata documentary series was shot on black Minolta SR-T 101’s, I went straight to eBay to look if I could score one. Despite the fact that I already own a silver colored SR-T 100x, a close cousin. And after seeing, hidden in the back of Luigi Ghirri’s book “Kodachrome,” that he had used a Canon AT1, I googled that model immediately.

Is there something wrong with me? I am very much aware of the fact that more gear frequently only means more things that can break, or get lost. It doesn’t usually mean better pictures. Sure, if you’re a professional, you might really need an 800mm telephoto lens, or a fisheye, or a zoom that’s image stabilized and goes to f2.8 throughout the range. You might live or die by fast autofocus and high ISOs. But then again, “professional” is one hell of a sliding scale of a term, as evidenced by so many opinions out there in the wilds of the web of what constitutes a pro, and what the things are that professionals need or don’t need. Who are we counting? People shooting iPhone pictures to accompany blog posts for which they’re getting paid, if only a pittance? In the strictest sense of the word, we should. Do we count visual artists? Even those who purposely use “vintage” equipment? Small town newspaper shooters, just starting out, provided that species still exists? Wedding photographers who have shot exactly one wedding, or three hundred, or anything in between?

When it comes to the definition of what a professional photographer is, people usually have an idea in their mind that they then present to others, and they make claims based on that idea. They spent years being a sports photographer, and thus proclaim that no professional would ever buy anything but an SLR because of course, we need crazy reliable autofocus and still image frame rates that would but a Super 8 motion picture to shame. And of course, if that image that’ll show up as a maximum 6×4 cm rectangle on a newspaper page or at 150dpi online via the AP isn’t sharp corner to corner, you’re never going to work in this town again. Or they insist that shooting film for weddings is passé, and impossible in this day and age, because you need to be able to give your clients turnaround times that rival that of Smart car. Because, else.

The simple truth is, whether you’re professional, amateur, or somewhere in between, your needs will not be the same as anyone else’s. Sure fashion photographers all work exclusively on medium format. Except those who don’t. Sure, you need at least two reflectors and three speedlight flashes with you at any given time. Unless that’s not your style, and you’ve never even owned a flash.

After getting serious about photography again a year or so ago, it took me about a week to buy my first analog camera, and about six months to decide that what I needed for my style of shooting was a digital Fuji X100s, because all over the internet people loved it for its compactness, image quality, and style. But if I’m honest, this camera – the one I spent by far the most money on – only left me wanting for the thing that it pretends to be but isn’t, a 35mm film Leica.

Maybe if I get that Leica, I’ll finally be content, and will only spend money on film and more of their exorbitantly expensive lenses. But it’s also possible that I’ll soon set it aside and reach for one of my much cheaper SLRs again. Because the camera that’s “you,” much like your personal style, your way of speaking, walking and what you like to eat and watch on TV, is something that happens to you, something that’s not a result but a process. My girlfriend has none of my problems. I gave her a Minolta X300s last year, bought used with a 50mm f1.7 lens from a small camera store in town. When we go out on a photo walk, I stand before my shelf of candidates like a deer in the headlights and eventually decide on something that will likely make me wish I’d brought something else instead later in the day. She grabs her Minolta. She grabs her camera. Because that’s what it is. There’s no contender.

Fed 2 camera
Another camera I didn’t need. Bought because it was… green.

Unlike her, I haven’t found my spiritual home camera yet. (I also credit her with coining that term, by the way). The closest I can come is probably my aforementioned SR-T 100x. The first SLR I ever bought in my life, in the summer of 2013 at a thrift store/antique shop near Munich’s Rotkreuplatz. The money I paid for it was less than what it cost to have it CLA’d, and less also than the leather strap I bought to carry it. The list of things it doesn’t do is longer than the list of things it does. But there’s something right about it. Maybe I keep recalling the words of the seasoned camera repairman that I brought it to for adjustment not long after acquiring it: “Good camera. Very reliable. Good lens. Very sharp.” And really, is there anything else you ever need to know about your camera?

Then again, if there’s ever a black 101 in reach…