Prodigal Photographers: the Filmwasters

by Ry Beville

Let us pose a philosophical question: if only digital cameras existed, would genuine pictures still exist?

The answer is a semantic one depending largely on however you define ‘genuine’ and then maybe ‘pictures.’ Of course what was photographed would exist, albeit stored as a series of ones and zeros. The data subsequently rendered into image could be printed, giving us a picture—or, in some near-future, a holographic projection. Ansel Adams, one of the world’s film greats, looked with anticipation toward the digital age of photography at the end of his life. But you have to wonder if his stunning prints of American nature would have retained the same stark beauty in digital format.

The increasing digitization of our world hardly marks a decline in artistic sensibility or human reflection. The digital age has brought many conveniences and has actually been with us for quite awhile.

Most people believe that ‘digital’ is synonymous with electrically powered devices, whether from a battery or other power source. Digital devices actually depend on the discretization of continuous data. In other words, something is translated into something else for easier processing. Data into ones and zeros, for example. This science has been around for centuries. It is certainly possible to create non-electric digital processors, too. A team of students from MIT, in fact, created one in the late 1980s with Tinker Toys. Likewise, a non-electric analogue computer, called the Antikythera mechanism, which was used to compute astronomical positions, existed as far back as 100 BC!

It’s natural to associate the analog age with LP records, Polaroids and hand-written letters—an age before digital devices rose to ascendancy. The impact of digital technology on our lives is most immediately experienced in the realm of communication and information dissemination: e-mail and the worldwide web. But artistically and privately, its impact on photography has perhaps been most significant. Not everyone has an i-pod. But who, in developed countries at least, doesn’t own a camera?

People now own more digital cameras than analog ones. Film photography is in decline from the perspective of brute numbers. Developers are closing down or doing mostly digital prints. Once-popular types of film are being discontinued each year. Some concert photos previously featured in Koe, in fact, were shot on film that is no longer being made. Many camera manufacturers, like Nikon, have ceased production of analog cameras.

Still, we wonder if analog photography is dying or just shrinking back to a sustainable niche. Retailers like Popeye Camera have told us that they have seen a surge in medium-format film sales and development with the recent popularity of toy cameras like the Holga. The Impossible Project managed to revive instant film for popular varieties of Polaroid cameras after Polaroid’s management, criminally unconcerned with historical legacy and oblivious to the potential for a cult-like revival, discontinued production of its film.

Meanwhile, camera circles renew and sustain interest in film across the globe. You have various film groups on Flickr, the cult of Lomo, university darkrooms. Yokohama’s Darkroom International even held a print market earlier this year. Museums and galleries still seem partial to film prints.

Independent film enthusiast groups exist, too—vibrant communities that share tips, critiques and inspiration. One of the more impressive ones among them is Filmwasters, a collective founded by Damion Rice, Leon Taylor, Susan Burnstine, Mark Skorj and Ed Wenn. The small group launched Filmwasters to motivate and inspire each other. Ironically, their work is web-based. From a practical perspective, this allows them to hold discussions on their forum and feature the work of other ‘filmwasters’ in the online galleries. Their original aim was to keep it small and it still is; there is no commercial content and no subscription costs. Anyone who enjoys film can enjoy the site.

Obviously, the Filmwasters’ relevance depends on the survival of film. They all agree that film will endure as long as people continue using it, and acknowledge that its selection will diminish as its price goes up. Wenn notes, “as long as inspiring photographers continue to use film in creative ways, they will perpetuate the feedback loop which draws in other photographers who seek to emulate a certain style or technique.” Burnstine adds, “I can only hope that educators across the globe have the good sense of making photography students learn the essentials in the dark room before sending them off to computers. There is no better training than analog, as it forces you to learn essential basics without having the leisure of fixing it in Photoshop.”

But starting with digital and fixing in Photoshop seems to be the prevailing attitude. Why hassle with film? Each of the founding members gave separate but compelling answers.

Rice: “I love the look of film, the way each film only has a certain number of shots—that makes me think about what I am shooting. I’m also a fan of some alternative processes and the hands-on approach, such as Polaroid manipulations, transfers, emulsion lifts—none of that is possible with digital.”

Taylor: “Questioning the validity of film is like questioning the validity of using oil paints when there are other more modern alternatives. I use purely analog process from image capture to final print. I can’t make my prints without a film negative. So how is dark room printing still relevant? Hold a well-crafted silver-gelatin print on glossy Baryta Paper next to a good-quality carbon inkjet equivalent and you will instantly know the answer.”

Wenn: “Negatives are still the cheapest and most reliable way of storing images. I’d hate to be a serious photographer and have to worry about how I was going to store my digital images for posterity. Film is important to me quite simply because I get a buzz out of using it and it helps me achieve the look and feel that I aspire to in my photography. There’s an excitement involved in film photography that I just don’t get with digital. I like the idea of being part of a tradition that’s over 150 years old, where certain truths still hold to this day. There’s so much change in my life and the world around me; it’s nice to have a part of it that is kind of frozen in time.”

Burnstine: “Film is a living, organic element in comparison to ones and zeros. You can touch it and therefore it’s real. Digital is void of that tactile experience which is essential to my creative nature. Sitting in front of a computer cannot compare to getting a good whiff of fixer or viewing your film when it comes out of the can.”

Skorj: “Film is relevant because of its unique attributes. While many film-like effects are available digitally, professionals and amateurs alike will continue to embrace film for many reasons, including simply because it’s not digital. Film lacks that dry brightness, and contains everything from latitude, texture, feeling, smell, appearance and sound (from the mechanical camera) that does not come with flat digital files.”

A tour of their website clearly reveals the inspiration they derive from film, as well as the great range of expression that film provides. When asked about what other film photographers they admire or try to emulate, they are rather demure, mentioning each other at first. Skorj opens up a little, “While Moriyama’s Hokkaido and Kertesz’s Meudon inspire me, I am recently enjoying Vivian Maier.” Burnstine admits, “Sally Mann and James Fee had a direct influence on my work and I never tire of their images.” They all acknowledge that guests to Filmwasters inform their photography and enhance the site’s dynamic to a great degree.

Historically, film photography has been both a community experience and a private endeavor. Even with digital disruption, that hasn’t changed. But used analog cameras now fill second-hand shops in abundance. Japan isn’t just a photography mecca, but also the largest used analog camera market in the world. Because of demand, prices are rather affordable, too. Holgas are only a few thousand yen, anyway. The barriers to analog photography are, in fact, not terribly high.

Some will always say that shooting film is wasteful now that digital cameras exist. Analog users may not completely disagree. The point seems to be that shooting analog is an experience, an art, that photographers shouldn’t waste. At least not while it’s still alive.







フイルム写真は完全になくなってしまうのか、あるいはニッチ市場として残っていくのか。「ポパイカメラ」などの小売店によると、ホルガに代表されるトイカメラの人気に伴い、中判フイルムの売り上げが大幅に伸びているという。また、ポラロイドフイルムなどインスタントフイルムの復活を目指す有志のプロジェクト「The Impossible Project」は経営破たんしたポラロイドの工場を引き継ぎ、インスタントフイルムを完全消滅の危機から救ったという。












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