On Returning to Film
I have a lot of stuff going on in my life. I mean, a lot.
There's my marketing communications business that I started because I was let go from my previous job. (Okay, if you want to know the real, real truth, I started my marketing communications agency because deep down in my heart I never really wanted to have a “day job” anyway and that dates back to the mid-1980s.) There's my bike racing obsession which includes training up to 15 hours a week. There's my personal writing like I'm doing right now, and then there's photography. I have a video documentary that I've been working on for nearly a year and which will take another year, at least.
And now there's this: returning to film.
I have no reason to join the hipster bashing movement. So-called hipsters in their so called Civil War beards have brought back so many of the things that were considered best in class when I was coming-of-age. Vinyl recordings, excellent coffee, Artisanal drinks, and now, that which I was trained in by some of the best minds in the business back in the mid 80s: film photography.
Deciding which college to go to was an agonizing decision for me between 1982 and 1983. There were lots of factors in play that kept me wanting to move too far from my hometown of Louisville Kentucky. In retrospect, one of the only true regrets that I have in my life is not moving away. I was given essentially a free ride scholarship to the fine arts program at Murray State University after being seen by the heads of the painting program during a summer art retreat. All I had to do was maintain a B average, something which I know in my heart I would have had no trouble doing because fine art has always been simply who I am. However, the practical considerations of making a living echoed in my head like the sound of a dumpster being emptied down the block at five in the morning.
A well-meaning high school photography teacher drilled into my head that "commercial art" was the only way to make a living as an artist; that there's a reason why they're referred to as "starving artists." And with my mothers omnipresent injunctions to "get on down at the factory," the idea of actually pursuing a degree in pushing paint around on a canvas seemed more than irresponsible; it seemed insane.
I don't know that hindsight is actually 2020. But I can say that in hindsight, I know what my heart screamed for. After 30 years working in corporate offices for interests that never settled with my own, I cannot count how many times I told other people to invest themselves in those activities in which they "lost track of time."
For me, reflecting the beauty of the natural world using charcoal, pencils, acrylics, oils, and a camera were the activities that stopped time. Everything flowed into one harmonious mass. And I was at the center of that warm mass, not selfishly, but simply home.
The regret is that I did not follow the natural urge of my heart into fine arts and take that Murray State University scholarship. Instead, I allowed the tyranny of the urgent to reign supreme and I took a path of commercial art and design at a satellite school of the University of Kentucky in Louisville.
Taking that path led me to the threshold of decades of corporate work rather than decades of personal expression born of spiritual experience. That said, the personalities I encountered during my commercial education have had a profoundeffect. None of those personalities was more bold and colorful than that of my universities photography director, L. Are. Anderson .
Leroy Anderson was larger-than-life.
Okay. That's a phrase that has never made much sense to me; it is much more accurate to say he enjoyed life and embodied a life loudly lived. He had a tremendous sense of humor and an even greater skill at wielding sarcasm. His aesthetic and cultural dictionary was massive. And if you couldn't relate to that which he considered basic, he really didn't have much time for you. He knew what was important to him, he knew what brought him joy, and he invested in that. To those who were still aimlessly searching, he must have appeared brash and even mean-spirited. But that wasn't true. He embodied that phrase from Calvin and Hobbes: "the days are just packed," and with so much to see, so much to do, so much to express, you had to be choice for regarding what took up your attention.
I learned how to shoot film from LR Anderson. I learned how to process film, I learned what the law of inverse square means, I learned about reciprocity failure, I learned about diopters and neutral density filters and depth of field and hyperfocus distance and medium and large format cameras, and Gina Lola Bridget, and how complaining about things you can't change is the equivalent of Scarlett O'Hara whining "old rat, help me save Tara!"
What I failed to recognize then was that LR Anderson was trying to show us as frightened first year commercial art students, some of us who felt forced to take photography because it was part of the curriculum, that you can be a fine artist expressing spiritual reality from behind the eyepiece of a camera.
A buyers market and returning to roots
Here in 2016, you can go on to eBay and acquire professional film tools that were economically out of reach even for successful photographers back in the 80's for comparatively little money.
Although I have five professional digital SLR cameras, a raft of lenses, lights, stands, and multiple tripods, I have been wanting to get back to using my hands to sculpt light.
I have wanted to return to the art of shooting film.
When it was new, the Nikon F5 camera retailed for $3200, and that was for the camera body only. No lens.
The stuff the F5 could do when it was new was absolutely mind-boggling to photographers of all experience levels. Now, you can find all of the same controls on virtually any “pro-sumer” camera. But — this shoots film. Glorious, lucious, juicy film.
I just acquired one for a little over $200.
I have also acquired the tools to use all of my studio flashes wirelessly with my new film body, and I have purchased a brick of transparency film. I have researched the best remaining E-6 labs left in the country to process this film, and to provide extremely high resolution digital scans from this film.
To say that I am excited is an understatement.
My middle son was watching me fiddle with my old Minolta film camera a few weeks ago. He didn't realize it was a film camera. He heard me snap the shutter, and he came over and expected me to look at the back, presumably at a glowing screen.
"Where's the picture?" He asked, knowing the answer for well.
"Inside the camera, on the film, as yet undeveloped." I said, dryly.
Well that's dumb." He said.
Interestingly, of all my sons, the one most likely to take on his fathers hipster tendencies is he.
Taking the picture is part of the picture. The tool you use is as much a part of the art as the art, itself. The action is art as much as the product of the art.
Deliberately seeing and composing a scene. Thinking through the exposure. Selecting an individual lens. Understanding how a particular type of film stock responds to a particular type of light. All of this is organic and all of this takes time. It takes time to stop time.
And of course an image is a micro slice of time.
When I am finished with the roll, it will go into a small paperboard box and be sent across the country to people who still process slide film. They will then use a very modern piece of equipment to scan my film at a very high resolution. I will then receive the archival film as well as the digital scan. Finally, a new device recently produced enables this film camera to share data regarding each photograph through and interface with the scanned file. Hey perfect marriage of organic film and digital photography.
I am looking forward to crafting images in this hybrid fashion. Watch this space to see some of my initial results.
But give it some time. It will not be a quick process. And I like it that way very much.