iPhones take great pictures. They just do, there’s no disputing that. A kick ass camera comes free with your phone. You can then store lots of pictures on it and scroll thru them and show them to your friends. There’s no need to buy film. No need to then pay for processing that film and then pay some more to print pictures from that film. It’s convenient and the quality is good. So why use mechanical cameras? Why bother with the expense? Why bother with the heartache of realizing that you just shot that whole awesome dance party with your lens cap on and that was your last roll of film? Or that there’s something wrong with your flash, maybe it’s the battery? Or that the shutter just froze on that new-to-you but actually 50-year-old Zeiss Ikon from eBay? Why bother?
Well somehow to me, the pictures that I do get mean more to me than the countless photos on my phone.
I love the whole process. I’m obsessed. I love interacting with these old cameras and I love the different qualities of the different film. I get my cameras and my film for cheap. I use the internet and my travels to Europe for purchasing . I use expired film that friends give me or that I buy in antique stores. I have a wonderful SLR I bought at a Goodwill in Canada for $2. Nothing is wrong with it. It’s a pleasure to use. It gives great results. I came across an immaculate 120mm folder at an antique store for $20 that gives really sharp shots. I bought the famous workhorse Nikon of Vietnam photojournalism fame for $35.
These gorgeous machines are no longer valued. People don’t believe that film is still being manufactured. So many of dad’s cameras or cameras from that one photo class in high school are sitting and mouldering in basements. And I’m so obsessive that I want to try them all. I want to see which ones speak to me, fit nicely in my hand and say, “you and I could do great things together.” I want to get into a relationship with these gorgeous old machines with their satisfying shutter clicks and their learning curves and their fiddly or reliable ways. I’ve been in a monogamous relationship for over 20 years. I’m very happy with it, but yes, I do need to keep on falling in love anew. So every thrift store and antique mall beckons with the promise that within lies an extremely affordable and wonderful camera in good shape that is looking for love. And I’m just the girl to love it.
About a year after I quit drinking I gave myself permission to get obsessive about film photography. I tell myself that in the end, I’m not spending more annually on photography than I would have on drinks. I tell myself that it’s healthier to channel my obsessive nature into reading online forums regarding the relative merits of the Olympus Trip vs the Canonet QL17 Giii than it is for me to be reading online forums about the wet cement mouthfeel of a trendy new gin. And I do actually believe that it’s healthier. Plus, I am going to have a really handsome and tangible archive of my queer scene, travels, domestic life, and of course, my cats by the time I leave this planet.
Being alone in the darkroom with the images of people I love is an active way of loving them. I select a negative that I want to print and then I spend a lot of time trying to get the photo right. It requires me to guess on time and exposure in order to make a test strip and then spend two minutes with that strip in the developer, 30 more seconds in the stop bath and then at least another 90 seconds in fix before I can look clearly at the image with a regular light on. So for every single piece of photo paper there’s the exposure time under the enlarger + 4 minutes. That is a time consuming. It adds up. But during that time, I’m communing with my friends. I’m looking at their sweet faces. I’m remembering where we were when I took this photo. It feels like a privilege to lovingly render these portraits of my former lovers, and maybe even my own chubby brown -haired pimple face. It helps me remember in a very palpable way that former time. I fear that I would not have access to these shots in 33 years if they were all on my iPhone.
I can make nice prints from negatives of sleeping young girlfriends from 1982. And because it’s a negative, it’s still here. The file didn’t get corrupted. The software didn’t change and I’ve lost access to the image. The negative’s material existence ensures its ongoing existence. It doesn’t live in something as unstable-sounding as a “cloud”. It lives on a shelf in my room where it’s pretty darn stable.
But the negatives do take up space on my shelf. There’s that part about the material. It takes up precious space. But some of us have sacrificed in order to have tons of storage space our whole lives. We haven’t moved. Or we’ve gotten good at just boxing stuff up. I don’t resent the space that my negatives and my prints and my as-yet unprinted photo paper take up. I don’t resent the shelf of cameras, either.
Film photography is an investment. It’s an investment in the tools, the film, the learning curve, the time and the storage. It’s delayed gratification. You can’t just check that last shot to make sure you have your settings ok. It’s an investment in faith. You have to rely on the machine, your knowledge, a forgiving film and on pure luck. And for that investment you can receive many happy returns. It’s possible to attain surprising results that can be quite pleasing once you let go of the expectation that you can control the results. I personally love the risk of the random and the collaboration with a gorgeous old machine, expired film, and my limited knowledge. The whole process of processing is pleasurable to me. I find it creative and exciting and engaging. And if I really need to get that shot, I can always pull out my iPhone (which has an excellent light meter app on it) and just capture it. In an iPhone way. Which isn’t the same as a film way. It’s not worse, just different. The investment of film photography is like a long courtship with lots of foreplay. It takes quite awhile to get to the tangible results, the literal “money shot.” But I don’t mind. In fact, I like doing it that way, I always have. It’s the same part of me that loves to mill wood from a local tree. I love the whole lengthy process of the unveiling of the grain. It’s super sexy to me, like when you finally get to see the one you’ve been pursuing naked. I no longer need to have everything instantly. To me, some things are worth the wait, the unveiling, and the process.