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’.)

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