The Act of Cleaning

Cleaning is how we take ownership of things.

I noticed this when I received a beaten up Nikon F801 camera, won on eBay (or “that auction site” as it is so often referred to when people want to avoid brands; making clear that our internet auction needs are pretty much monotheistic) for €11,05 plus shipping. This worked out, all in all to €15,45 and even though the camera’s condition was untested and it was dusty and grimy, I considered it a good deal. The F801 was a semi professional camera when released in 1988, and probably cost more than I’d ever consider spending on a digital SLR these days. The camera was packaged with an extra back, the MF-21 multi function control back, to enable you to print dates and aperture and shutter speed on film, to time photos at intervals, or to “trigger trap” wildlife walking into focus. This seemed to me like a less sophisticated version of a police speed camera. Who knows how many cool wildlife shots that we commend the intrepid photographer for were taken with methods like this, on a tripod abandoned in the woods, just waiting for something, anything to walk into frame.

NikonF801_2
All Clean…

But I digress. The act of cleaning is the act of making one’s own. After unpacking and unwrapping the camera body, I first rubbed it off with a paper towel, getting most of the obvious dust. Then I put a cup of water, a cup of benzene, a small air dust blower, a used old soft tooth brush and q-tips on the table. The table was layered with more paper towels. I took of the camera strap. I rubbed the camera with paper towels and some water until it already looked much better. Its battle scars from a long life of use and a long life of neglect in a cupboard or closet somewhere became more visible than they had been. Little screws holding the machine together had small flecks of rust on their heads. I used q-tips dipped in water to clean these, and to clean the crevices and hard to reach places that the paper towel had not cleaned. I rubbed it off once again with a paper towel. Next, I dipped a q-tip in benzene and took to cleaning the less sensitive parts of the camera. The lens mount’s metal became shiny again, and the autofocusing screw appeared to be turning quicker and more freely after the operation. I blew out the mirror box with the dust blower, and unhooked the little latch that held the view screen to blow dust and dirt off it as well. This worked better than initially expected (I had half feared I would need to uninstall and rinse the whole thing), and only a few tiny flecks remained. The tooth brush was dipped in water, too, to get into even tinier crevices, into the rim around the control wheel. Then I dipped it in benzene as well and cleaned what had not responded to the water.I unscrewed the battery compartment and rubbed the contacts with another naphta-dipped q-tip. They did not look dirty to me, but there was no harm in giving them some extra cleaning. Maybe there was corrosion on them that I simply could not see. I put new batteries in the camera, and it started right up, though it remained wonky: the first shot after not using it for a few hours wouldn’t complete its cycle and the mirror would stay up until I pressed the shutter button again. I replaced the batteries with rechargeables and hoped this would fix it, but it did not. At this point, I do not know what will fix this, if anything will that isn’t prohibitively expensive for such a cheap camera. I added new batteries – 2 lithium CR2025s – to the data back, and it came to life also. Thankfully, it had been designed with foresight, and setting 2015 on the almost thirty year old piece of kit was not a problem. I cleaned the strap with some water and the toothbrush, and then disinfected it. I reattached it to the camera body, added a period 35–70 kit zoom lens, and pointed the camera at the window.

NikonF801_2
…From Top to Bottom

It did fire, at least it did the second, third, fourth, and fifth times. I put in a test film. How will I deal with the shutter problem? This morning I used up all the exposures on the test roll, took it out and proceeded to fire the shutter on high, 3 or so frames per second, for something between 5 and 10 minutes. Maybe this will fix it. Maybe it won’t. Then I will try something else.

Because the act of cleaning had made this my camera now, mine to own, to shoot, but also to maintain and fix. The act of buying it did not make it so, especially not since there was a long interval between clicking “bid” and being informed I’d won the auction and receiving the actual item and unpacking it and looking at it and holding it in my hand. It felt good in my hand. All it needed was a good cleaning.

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.