why film? part one

Why film?

It's a question that I get asked a lot. And I ask it of myself even more often. It's something I've been thinking hard about, and trying to articulate, for the longest time. The closest thing to an answer I've ever been able to achieve is less an explanation than a feeling. A very strong feeling that I just have no interest in taking up digital photography. An extremely strong feeling that I am just in love with film. But this hasn't satisfied my intense curiosity on the matter.

While buying and testing out my new (film) camera - the most expensive one I've bought yet - the question seemed more relevant than ever. While I don't yet have a single, definitive answer, here I'm going to attempt to explore one of my strongest suspicions as to the reason I continue to stubbornly snub new (digital) forms of photography.

The core of this suspicion is my very general belief that film just seems more real than digital. When I have tried to explain this in the past, I haven't been able to get much further than the logic that film is a physical medium - the image is there on the strip of negative, permanent and concrete. Digital, on the other hand, begins and ends in the virtual realm. It's made up of ones and zeros, and open to a plethora of manipulation and dishonesty within ubiquitous programs like Photoshop. Digital photography has opened the medium up to a world of effects, techniques and methodologies that allow images to be spectacularly manipulated. In many ways, this is a wonderful thing, as artists can create images that simply couldn’t be achieved before. But it also means that our default position when we see a remarkable image is to suspect (at best) or assume (at worst) that it has been digitally manipulated. From famous hoaxes (such as the 9/11 tourist photo, see that and more here) to celebrities that have been airbrushed to within an inch of their lives (there’s a good collection here), the ubiquity of Photoshop in modern media, and photography, means that photographic images can’t really be trusted. Or, as Erik Voons writes in his introduction to the ‘New Realities’ issue of Guide to Unique Photography, ‘while fully embracing digitization and accepting that the plethora of synthesised images will continue to grow, it has nonetheless become difficult (if not impossible) to make a distinction between pictures that are “real” and those that have been altered.’

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, when photography was in its infancy, it was prized for precisely the opposite.

André Bazin was one of the most influential cinema theorists of the twentieth century. He co-founded French cinema journal Cahiers du cinéma in 1951, which would permanently alter the direction of modern film theory (case in point: its much-debated auteur theory is still taught in film schools today). In 'The Ontology of the Photographic Image', Bazin posits that photographic technology changed the face of creative representation by, for the first time, enabling reality to be visually duplicated. While traditional art forms had been representing reality for centuries, the photograph presented a way to '[completely satisfy] our appetite for illusion by a mechanical reproduction in the making of which man plays no part'. While obviously man does play a part in the composition and the act of taking the photograph, Bazin's point is that subjectivity ends there; unlike in, say, painting, the image is a mechanical duplication of life rather than a hand-made interpretation. In his words:

For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent ... The personality of the photographer enters into the proceedings only in his selection of the object to be photographed and by way of the purpose he has in mind. Although the final result may reflect something of his personality, this does not play the same role as is played by the painter.

That's it! I thought. That's the difference between film and digital! That's what I love about film! This logic can surely be applied to the film vs digital debate: the extensive post-production that so often occurs in digital photography is akin to the painting in Bazin’s analogy. Film is truth; digital is a warped version - a subjective interpretation - of that truth.

But the more I thought about it, the surer I became that, unfortunately, it is much more complicated than that.

The problem with this simplistic categorisation is that film photos mostly end up in the same format as digital photos. Every piece of my work you've ever seen has most likely been on a computer. Even if you've seen a framed, physical print of mine, it has been printed from a digital file scanned from the negative. Which means that film photos are just as easily Photoshopped as digital photos.

Furthermore, even before negatives were being scanned and converted into jpegs, photos were being manipulated; photo hoaxes go back to the nineteenth century. Vroons acknowledges that ‘there hasn’t really been a moment in which claiming the recording of the “real” was not problematic’, pointing out that ‘as soon as Hippolyte Bayard photographed a staged scene of himself as a drowned man (Le Noyé, 1840), he introduced his audience to the need for a sceptical eye.’ Indeed, much of my own experimentation revolves around in-camera manipulation. Even Bazin acknowledged the issue of photographic trickery just a year after writing ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, investigating how reality and special effects interact in cinematic form.

So what does it all mean? How can I maintain that film photography is closer to the Real than digital photography when there is so much conflicting evidence? Will Part Two of this blog post answer these questions? (Hopefully the answer to that question is ‘yes’.)


musical bits and pieces

For better or worse, music has been preoccupying my lenses of late. I have some very specific music- and non-music-related projects coming up, but before I get to that stuff, here is a relatively arbitrary collection of images from various music-themed shoots/events.

In my last post, I wrote about the recent shoot I did with a singer/songwriter. It was a wonderfully successful day, and in good time the final images will show up here in all their glory. Until then, I'm choosing to display a few nondescript shots. This one wasn't planned; I was walking down to the backyard to shoot from a low angle and I noticed his hand resting on the railing. I know it's quite a plain image, but there's something about it that I love. I think perhaps it's because the formality of the black-jacket-white-shirt sleeve contrasted with the relaxed state of the hand intrigues me. The gumtrees and the old verandah railing are also very Australian, and that's always nice.

I'd never heard of Immigrant Union before going to see them play, but I always like the challenge of shooting something or someone I'm unfamiliar with. Unlike bands such as Money for Rope, Royal Headache and Saskwatch, all of whom I love and whose songs I am extremely familiar with, shooting an act unknown to me means that I have to make decisions in the moment, with no forethought or preparation. I'd loaded black and white film just before the performance and I immediately regretted it when the smoke machine came out and the colours came alive through the haze. While colour film would definitely have been interesting, though, the smokiness still makes the lighting more dramatic with this black and white film (in the second shot), and I think that the first shot would look less appealing in colour. I still would have preferred colour for the night, but I guess what I'm saying is, there were a few interesting results regardless.

As incredible as the action on the stage can be, the audience can be pretty appealing too. Both of these shots were taken at a small music festival in South Gippsland. There was a very convivial atmosphere throughout the crowd, and the festival in general, and the lighting from the stage was giving all the happy faces such lovely colours. The first shot is slightly out of focus, but the softness is in keeping with the cloud-covered moon. While technically this is significantly flawed, it has a special feeling to it, and I love the deep blue of the night sky against the magenta of the stage-bathed crowd. There's not a whole lot to say about the second shot here - it's just really cute.

There'll be more coherent thoughts and collections from me soon, but I think that taking some time to pick out a few photos that maybe don't fit in with them is a great thing to do. Because they're interesting at least, lovely (or cute) at best, and I don't want them to get lost in the depths of the photo library and be forgotten.



Contrary to the title of this post, I think these images, and the things within them, are anything but. I'm aware that it's potentially a bit redundant to say that there is beauty in the ordinary; it's been said and demonstrated a million times (including a few times on this blog). But I'm also aware that so much of my output lately is of overtly extraordinary content - live shows, newborn babies, weddings - so I felt it would be a good idea to balance that with some everyday visual observations.

This first image, for example, is of perhaps the least ordinary person in the whole world: my mum. But the wooden deck, the cute deckchair cover and the comfy slippers encapsulate her typical Sunday morning, and perhaps speak to many of our typical weekends: comfort, modesty, relaxation. Certainly sitting out on the deck in a dressing gown sums up a lot of the time I spend at my parents' place, so this image is absolutely a representation of the everyday for me, in that context. It's a beautiful image, though, both because of how much I treasure the person and the activity within, and for its aesthetic simplicity. The natural tones, the composition, the lines of the planks, the slight vignetting thanks to my new LC-A+: it all works, and so visually and otherwise this is a wholly successful photo.

I recently did a solo shoot with a singer/songwriter which went for quite a few hours. We were shooting at his house and we were going about it in a pretty leisurely fashion, so much so that he decided to take a break to cook lunch. He was happy for me to shoot during lunch and the kitchen had beautiful natural light, so I got in close for a few aspects of the process. Heating oil in a pan, chopping tomatoes; an old stove, 1970s tiles, Keen's Mustard Powder on the shelf: we all know this. They are pieces of our collective everyday, and as such they simultaneously mean the same to all of us, and evoke a unique set of memories or meanings for each of us. I adore these photos, and especially the tomatoes shot, with its stunning window lighting.

More everyday - this time, an early afternoon in a place that exists on the cusp of urban and suburban, authentic and gentrified. A cafe - and it could be one of hundreds that scatter the suburbs surrounding inner-city Melbourne - with some gorgeous light streaming in; and a decidedly suburban car wash - a blue man against a brilliant blue sky. What is especially fascinating about the second shot is that the sign's 'shadow' makes it appear as though the sky is a fake - a backdrop to some kind of surreal theatre set. The strange markings that have appeared on the negative enhance this odd effect.

These are all photos of ordinary, day-in-the-life objects and occurrences. But there's a reason that images such as these are perennially appealing, and hold a special place in many hearts. Though the subjects are ordinary, they make up the bulk of our experiences. As such, I don't think they can be dismissed or discounted in any way.