Cleaning out my old camera closet (much diminished already, but still some surprises), a wave of nostalgia hit me. This is not the regret laden “wish time would stand still” or even go in reverse thinking that I and many others have felt in the past, but rather a sense that a way of feeling about photography has passed.
The young seem to be in tune with the romance of the past, but I am not sure they are connecting to the same sense of anticipation ad achievement I know I felt or even the sense of belonging to a group of people who knew how to do something that was not always easy, cheap or sometimes even much fun. The challenges of photography were more immediate but also more gratifying.
The good signs to me are the adoption of film cameras* (older the better) rather than the fake film simulations available through post. The other lure of this is of course the retro chick cool factor that comes with them. Don’t get me started on the polaroid resurgence.
*This is mainly restricted to the mass consumer colour negative/print process as it is easy and well supported. Gone are the days of dark rooms and colour transparency printing.
Like the car industry, the camera industry has reached a level of manufacturing near perfection. It is no longer a matter of the reliable brand or the one that does that “one unique thing” that the others cannot* (Japanese marking strategy still drives this as a design necessity), but rather a loyalty to a fraternity, a memory of past identity. Why one brand over another when the differences are becoming more and more irrelevant? The camera industry at the moment is offering up so much variety of form and function, it is impossible to say any brand is best, even good at most things, but what they all have in common is a sameness of quality.
*It amazes me that Canon and Nikon have allowed there to be such an obvious point of difference between them and the rest of the industry in such short order.
To stand out, the main manufacturers have fallen back almost completely on bigger/faster/sharper, but I feel the industry as a whole is on the cusp of change.
The sheer quantity of quality has been addressed (for most, some are never satisfied), so I feel the hole needing to be filled is a uniqueness and preciousness of that quality. Good image makers are always looking for the extra something. That something is rarely found in the homogenising of perfect tools. What happens when everyone is equipped with more pixels than they can possibly use, automatic depth of field/focus and dynamic range fixes that always work and near bottomless battery charge and storage? The subject will become more important than ever, indeed it will be the only important thing. The ability to tell a story with a unique look and feel will be entirely creative, not a product of technical limitations.
When film was king, technical short comings limited or caused many variables, so finding solutions created character. Overcoming imperfections added connection to it’s processes. I had a friend who would process his film in paper developer for very short hits, at precise, slightly hot temperatures, then print through the extremely sharp pebble sized grain with a modified enlarger. Solution to a perceived problem = character. I used an entirely different approach (Rodinal at 1:200, with hardly any agitation over extended periods for maximum physical edge development to establish my “look” and a modified light source based on a trick picked up from the very last issue of Camera and Darkroom magazine). Two contrasting roads to the same end.
All darkroom users had their own tricks and secrets with glass, chemicals and light and there laid the romance.
Therefore film, what ever the real process, is not dead and will have a relatively long if niche life. It is not technically better, but it is different and it’s exponents talk a different language. As time marches on, common traits become less common, making anything to do with film “mysterious”. The uniqueness of the light leaking camera or poorly processed film is also falling away as genuine artists are starting (or continuing) to seek the better characteristics of film not just it’s fault filled faux character. The later user is after that alternative contrast and time stamped chemical look of film in all it’s ordinariness.
Is it just this physical rendering we pine for or are we trying to connect with a lost romance?
I feel that, like music, cars and other pursuits, the tangible nature of an analogue or mechanical process promotes connection, where digital separates us from process, making us focus heavily on end output. Without a connection to process, we stifle, even remove the romance. No one out there is trying to emulate the sound of early CD or digi cam look, but the quest to re capture the feel and look of film or sound of an LP goes ever on.
I no longer have any romance for photography, but maybe that comes with age.