Why Film Matters

A note to the reader: I wrote this article in 2010 while I was running my film-photography blog The Photon Fantastic. Since then, I have softened my stance on digital photography considerably. In short, my position now is: show me great work. I don't care how it's made. That being said, I still believe many of the points I make here and feel that the article should be preserved in its original form, mostly as a reference for myself, but also as a conversation-starter for people interested in transitioning to film photography. – NDJ (2014) 

Part 1

Shortly after the odious Government of Zimbabwe printed the world’s first one trillion dollar note, the economy collapsed utterly and the people rejected the currency. Then there were no banks, no credit, no ATMs: the country reverted strictly to cash – crumpled, tattered US dollars, passed reluctantly from hand to hand, from pocket to pocket, as the deeply wounded society shuffled and scrambled to survive. But long before our sub-Saharan paradise was devastated by avarice, incompetence, thuggery, racism, mendacity and hyperinflation, my father founded a printing and publishing company in the capital, Harare. It was called "The Pangolin Press" after the scaly ant-eater, which is indigenous to the area and revered by local people for its mystical powers. One of the company's first purchases was a used Nikon EM and three prime lenses for six hundred Zimbabwean dollars – worth, when the last Zimbabwean dollar was printed, less than one percent of one percent of one percent of a US cent.

As the smallest and cheapest single lens reflex camera ever made by Nikon, the EM represented a strategic diversification of the company's product line away from the saturated professional market where competition between the major Japanese manufacturers was intense during the mid-seventies and eighties. Released in 1979, the EM was to embody a sense of style, convenience, ease of use, and low cost – all wrapped up in the Nikon mystique and prestige. It proudly sported the crowning pentaprism embossed with the Nikon logo, and was targeted to female photo enthusiasts just then entering SLR buyers' market.

The Nikon EM is a basic camera with a feature set that sacrifices versatility for ease of use. Nippon Kogaku certainly did not intend it to be used in the field by professional photographers, but managers and engineers in Japan naturally had no concept of the difficulties facing journalists in former British colonies in southern Africa. In Zimbabwe in the 1980s, the lowly EM was a serious camera. Over the course of 20 years, my father published magazines, trade newspapers, and corporate annual reports. He wrote press releases and print advertising copy. And during all of this time he depended solely upon the faithful EM and two primes (one was lost) for each and every picture.

For our tiny company, every dollar counted, and my mother meticulously counted them all. To save a few, my father imported 35 mm film in 50 foot rolls from South Africa, which at that time was the only place from which exotic items like camera equipment and toothpaste could be sourced. The film came in large, light tight, stainless steel canisters that he stored in the family refrigerator. Whenever necessary, Dad took these into the windowless corridor that ran through the centre of the house. This was our improvised dark room. Before opening the canisters, he wedged towels under the doors to keep out stray light, and then, by feel alone (we didn't have a bulk loader), he painstakingly wound approximate 36 exposure lengths onto waiting bobbins that he assembled into reels ready for the EM. Before coming out into the light, he carefully resealed the canisters with several layers of heavy black electrical tape. This was my early relationship to film: sitting on the parquet floor in the darkness with my father, scissors in hand, waiting patiently to cut on his command.

My father's eventual transition from analog to digital was inevitable, like those of every other craftsman in the words and pictures business. But he did not go willingly. Even into the mid-90s, he was still noisily pounding out two-fingered copy on a Remington Rand typewriter that dated approximately to the forties and taking interview notes in shorthand. But after long and trouble-free service, the EM's light meter finally died, and a year or two later, the rewind crank was broken in a fall. The camera needed to be replaced. And other changes were gradually and inevitably coming to the wider industry, even in Zimbabwe which throughout my childhood seemed to me a backwater and impervious to development. In our tiny local publishing industry, typesetters were abandoning light tables, fine-tipped pens, rulers, scalpels and glue for desktop publishing systems. And so it was that my father eventually graduated from the Remington to the Notepad application that came bundled with Windows 95, and several years later from the EM to an Olympus digital SLR. For years, I chided him for his recalcitrant attachment to the old technologies, and now he is a little bemused by my return to them.

But I am not being nostalgic. I am not longing after an idyllic past, which does not exist despite the fervent and persistent fantasies of the Rhodesian diaspora. (The "when wes" in my mother's parlance – "When we were in Rhodesia …") Nor am I preoccupied by technical comparisons of film to digital. Fanatical ravings about resolution, colour gamut, dynamic range, etc., are a distracting sideshow that threatens to hide the obvious truth, which is that digital technology has irrevocably altered the photographer's relationship to her craft, and society's relationship to photographs, photography, and photographers.

And, in many respects, this change has been a grievous injury to everyone.

Part 2

At the beginning of 2009, I shelved my well-loved Nikon D80 and bought a used Nikon FM2n that as best as I can determine dates to the mid-late 1980s. (Note to Nikon: serial serial numbers would be great!)

I gave up a killer 11-point autofocus, accurate aperture- and shutter-priority exposure, near-infallible matrix metering, through-the-lens flash, Nikon’s famed creative lighting system, auto-ISO, and a charming, if cliched, portrait mode. I gave up all of these things in favour of a purely mechanical camera that merely opens and closes the shutter when I tell it to, nothing more. I burdened myself with the need to set aperture and shutter speed manually by physically turning dedicated dials and to wind the film between each exposure.

I surrendered the speed, cost-effectiveness and convenience of a capture-to-print pure digital workflow. I assumed the expenses of purchasing film, developing and printing.

I withdrew from Flickr.

I gave up the confidence I had built in the camera — the confidence that it simply wasn't possible to fumble my daughter's 2nd birthday — and transferred the responsibility for technically competent shots from the near infallible machine to the very fallible me.

Why did I do these things?

Forget all the technical arguments. I did it because "the medium is the message."

This aphorism of McLuhan's is by now so well known that it is taken for granted. But like most things that are taken for granted, it is largely unexamined.

The photographer who picks up a digital camera and blithely starts shooting is deluding himself when he thinks that he is doing essentially the same thing as he did with film, only more efficiently.

The digital photographer ignores McLuhan at his peril.

The essential nature of the digital image is that it is easy to make, ephemeral and disposable. Rational people generally regard things that have these qualities as having no value.

The medium is the message. And the message of the digital image is that it is not worth anything. This is not a good starting point for anyone venturing seriously into photography.

Think that this doesn't apply to you? Then ask yourself these questions: How many images have you deleted directly from your camera before even transferring them to your computer? Are all of your digital images backed-up? How much are you willing to pay for this back-up on a per images basis, or to transfer your digital images to print? Does the capacity of everyone everywhere to make limitless perfect copies of any one of your images raise or lower their value? Does your own capacity to make thousands of images essentially without cost make you a more or less careful photographer?

When I consider my own responses to these questions, and any like them you may care to pose, I am not filled with optimism about the medium.

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