Friday, 24 April 2009

The Tao of Film And its Delectable Hold on Me

I’m a digital man- converted from the world of living in the bush with no electricity, never mind a telephone connection. My friends and family couldn’t believe just how fast I changed from that wild, neanderthalic bush creature who hated anything to do with technology to the person who they all now turn to to fix their computers. Perhaps it’s a result of managing your own business, but I’m now connected 24/7, wireless is an afterthought, I write mails on the road, and am on international phone calls 80km from the nearest town, and I love it.

Jumping into the digital world of photography also made me get on top of the technology game. In the old days it was film, camera, lens.
Now its camera, lens, memory cards, Mac books, iMacs, portable hard drives, drobos, time machines, mobile me and a hoard of editing software to keep the images sanely in touch with reality. Managing all that makes one quite adept at working with technology and making it work for you. And when it works, well life is great- digital photography has made the world faster, more accessible and hell of a lot more demanding. Its common practise for me to do a shoot on one morning and have the delivered product in the clients hands the next day. Yes this is the digital world, and man it is fast…

Then.
After 7 months of fieldwork on the insect book, Easter weekend was one that demanded relaxation. We stayed in Jo’burg with good friends Hercu and Esther, two creative and inspirational minds who share many of the same ideas on life and more importantly, photography…-)
All of us have cameras, and so on Sunday morning we headed out in Hercu’s mint condition Mercedes 1964 220se fin tail. This beautifully restored car is probably the best way to cruise the Jo’burg streets. It has oodles of space to spread four people inside, speed bumps are a treat- you can take them at 50km/h and it feels like driving over a pillow… and it looks so beautiful through a FM2 with a 50mm lens.

Yes that’s right, while the others were using the latest digital SLR cameras, I pulled out my Nikon FM2 with a 50mm f1.4 lens. I thought I had to match the vintage vehicle with my 1982 model fully manual, legend of a camera. From the back of the fridge somewhere, I dug out a roll of velvia 50 film and whacked it into the open back of the camera. Just that feeling alone was enough to get me excited!
So there I was walking through the streets of Jozi with this camera thinking how not to waste film in each image I took. Initially, all I could do was just focus, meter, compose, focus, compose, focus, compose. I didn’t want to release that shutter until all was correct in the frame.

The mind shift had already started- I was concentrating harder, thinking more, working different angles, changing my depth of field; and hardly taking a shot.
I had stripped photography back down to the bare parts; enjoying the precision of the mechanical shutter, the security of the wind on button and the simplicity of the metering dial inside the viewfinder.
Everything was simpler, slower and more detailed. I can recall every exposure setting of every frame on that spool, as I can remember the exposure of many of my good images from the film days. Therein lies the beauty, the tao of film.
It slows the whole process, makes you consider more of what you are doing when you make that image. With digital we treat the cameras as glorified point and shoots. Are there better photographs now that digital has arrived? Ill certainly argue against it. Has the advent of digital made Cartier-Bresson and Karsh and McCullum’s images less impressive? Definitely not at all- if anything, I still go back to their works and read more of how much time they spent studying the arts and discussing the philosophy of photography with its many subtle leitmotivs. Images that are still revered today- 30 years on.

So am I going back to film, am I regressing? Well, the digital world is just so convenient and fast and instantaneously self-gratifying, it would be a very difficult move. You learn fast, you work fast and you deliver fast. But working with film again made me ask myself some questions. That’s what I learnt this last weekend. Film made me explore more, think more and challenge myself more to get the best image right the first time round. With digital, a sharp, in-focus image with a decent background is a good shot- but could there have been more in it?

With film you slow it down, relax, think, concentrate as if this was your only chance at this image- with 50-speed film it normally is, and make damn sure you have everything correct to make the most of your one chance. So yes, I will be shooting more film this year. I have even dusted off the old F100 and I have a stock of 100 Provia that I won in some competitions a few years ago to go through, so perhaps there is still more to come yet.

With digital it’s often an easy fix for a good photograph. The playing field is levelled with all the same cameras making the same easy everything type of image. With film, the playing field is skewed (sometimes skewered) towards failure due to the high demands of film and just how unforgiving it is. This creates a super awareness in you that you have to get it right, and get it right now. And that is where it all starts and where it all ends, right there in the camera, through the lens, with that exact composition in that light- right now.
The tao of film is being there in the moment; just ask Cartier-Bresson, McCullum and Karsh.

Images? Well they will come soon enough; the lab is still processing the film. Welcome to the world of film- it still beautiful slow.
For now, a couple of images taken with the digital camera. Thought I was a convert, didn’t you?

Oh and this is what happens when you have too much coffee in the morning…!

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