Since I am both a teacher of photography and a photographer who is still learning to see, I’ve been thinking about film and digital and how learning to see with each method is so different. Now some people believe that one cannot be taught how to see, that the budding photographer has an eye or not and this is true. But understanding how the eye follows a path to an image, tells the body to frame the image and click the shutter at that decisive moment, teaches awareness of how a lasting image is made. And everyone can improve. The contact sheet, a study in how the eye does this, exists in film but not in digital. Of course one can make a sheet in digital but the image has already been seen on at least two screens. With film, the photographer takes a roll, carries the images around in their imagination where is simmers until it is processed and seen on the sheet. This difference: not seeing the image immediately, ia of course what sets film apart.
If I loved the image when shooting film, it stayed in my head. Sometimes it grew, sometimes diminished. But I could not wait to see the negatives and be surprised; I am not sure that element of surprise exists in digital. Since there is no waiting period, instant gratification leads to instant judgement which hinders seeing. It also leads to a very off hand kind of attitude that everything can be fixed in post processing and the photographer does not have to make a great big effort to get it right in camera. As if post-processing (in both film and digital) is equal to making the image! In the darkroom, one is pretty limited in changing composition. But in digital, post processing can change backgrounds, change all things, and the viewer does not know what was real and what was not. While real has never been an important part of any photograph, I want to understand how I see and I do that better with film and a contact sheet. A great image lasts forever, a good one at least a lifetime. So what if it takes a few weeks to actually see the image.
I am thrilled that film is making a comeback before it (probably) dies completely. Students I know are excited to shoot film. Most never have experienced it. Many ask me how they know the image is going to come out. Of course they can’t know that for sure, but they can help the process along by being very sure of their technical abilities. Having shot a roll of film or two, most students are better digital photographers. Funny how that happens.
The featured image for this post is an image I made recently on film in a pinhole camera. Exposed for four nights in a row, I did not move the camera just opened the shutter at night and closed it in the morning before it got light outside. At some point my old tripod slipped a bit. It rained three out of the four nights but my little plastic bag cover over the camera actually kept the camera dry. The exposure was round 32 hours. Lots of time for happy accidents. I had to send the film to Tucson to be developed. It was about 3 weeks before it arrived back in the US mail. I did not know if this idea would work. It did! And I am thrilled that I have another way to make a film image in today’s digital world. And that I can expose those night photographs long enough in a pinhole camera with an fstop of 512.