When I started photography there was no such thing as a digital camera. There… I’ve said it. That makes me feel old!
My first proper camera was a Canon EOS 300. (No, not a 300D, just a 300). Apart from my house, my car and my wedding dress, it was the most expensive thing I’d ever bought. To be honest, it wasn’t really very good; I think you can pick them up on eBay now for less than £10.
As well as shooting film I used to develop it. Not colour; I’d leave that for others with machines to deal with, but black and white I could develop and print at home. I had a second-hand enlarger and black out material that I could fix to my kitchen windows. I was sorted.
Fast forward a few years and digital was becoming the norm. All the photography magazines were full of it, all the pros were using digital, and the feeling was that unless you could afford an expensive digital camera you might as well stop taking photos altogether. When my youngest son was born I decided to get a digital camera and got a Canon EOS 300D. My EOS 300 was put away, I gave other film cameras I had collected to a student friend, and my darkroom equipment went to the dump; I couldn’t even give it away.
Just before I began studying photography with the Open College of the Arts I was talking to a friend of a friend, John, about photography. John is retired and took up photography a few years ago and so he spends his time travelling the country taking the most beautiful landscape photographs and entering them in competitions at his local camera club. Despite being at least 25 years older than me, he’s never used a film camera. Ever. When he told me that I felt very sad. It doesn’t bother him at all, he has no desire to try film and he makes great images with his digital camera. I realised that I felt he was missing out on something fundamental to photography but I couldn’t put into words exactly what that was, but I realised that I was missing out on it too.
I certainly appreciate the flexibility and convenience of digital. When you have the equipment it becomes cheap as there is no film to buy or get processed, there is no fixed ISO setting, more than 36 shots, and the ability to share images instantly. But we don’t live for convenience and since my conversations with John I had been trying to put into words exactly what it was I was missing out on, exactly what it is that has been lost to the photographer who only uses digital.
I had tried shooting some film on my previous course, Expressing Your Vision. I had found an old Brownie in a local bookshop and, recognising the style as one my mum used to have, I bought it for £5 and got some black and white medium format film from Amazon. I’d also rescued the EOS 300 from the depths of the ‘camera stuff basket’, cleaned it up and put some film in it. But being more aware of the cost and probable outcome, I was taking a couple of frames at a time and I didn’t get the films developed.
When I had a few weeks studying photography at Arts University Bournemouth I was surprised that most of the students there had tried film; apparently two years ago when the lecturers had asked who had used film before the number of students was zero. For the photography degree at AUB they insisted on a film camera, and so while off ill (thinking I’d be back the next week) I shot a whole roll of film with my EOS 300. I decided to develop it at home. After all, I’d done it before, so why not?
I really enjoyed developing film again and so I dug out some films from a tin full of used and unused films I had rescued from the shed a few years ago. I posted the used colour films to Photo Express in Hull and developed the monochrome myself. I haven’t scanned that monochrome film yet, but they are negatives of my youngest son at about two years old. There’s something really special about discovering these images of him. I don’t imagine I would have the same emotion if I were to discover a set of lost images on an SD card; these are more important, more authentic. I’m not sure why?
Over the summer a friend of mine moved house. She found a suitcase in her loft (attic) full of ‘photography bits’ and asked me if I’d like it. I said yes and when I got it home and opened it up I found an enlarger. It’s a Durst F30. I have cleaned it up and it’s working, but I haven’t used it just yet. For the moment I have a cheap film scanner and that’s what you’re seeing here; scans of film. The printing will come later when I have time to organise a temporary darkroom setup.
Now, the problem with using film is that there is no metadata. There’s no date on this to help me keep track of it. I developed the films dated 2018 here at the end of October 2018; the images have been taken as practice shots without any particular course in mind. But strangely I find that my filing with my films in the past has been very precise. I have a record of exactly when each film was shot and processed. The British Museum shots from 2001 were taken on 17th December.
So that’s a very brief history of my use of film. I put it here because it’s important to me to work out why I wish to use more film now and what I had been missing by not shooting film for so long. Having used it in the past is, perhaps, part of the reason, but I think it’s more than that. I want to think about the materiality of images and how the way they are produced has an effect on their meaning.
There is, for me, a feeling of a very different processes happening when I use a film camera as opposed to a digital one. The difference I experience in the use of my iPhone compared to my digital camera hints at it, but isn’t the whole story. I think it is one I will examine on this course though.
(The 2018 shots are on Ilford HP5)