Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Slow Photography

I worked for several years in an assortment of one-hour photo labs. At the time, the machines we used were big, clanking Noritsus, and the process of developing the film and the photos themselves was largely automated, but the actual printing of the picture still required the negatives to be fed one at a time through the printer and the button pressed by hand.

How involved the process was was up to the crew who was doing it. It could range from just poking the button, to at least inputting the recommended color correction for the type of film in question, to actually looking at each individual negative glowing in the window and adjusting color balance and exposure based on what you saw there.

I prided myself on my ability to glance at a negative and perform reasonably good eyeball adjustments on the fly. The results were measured by the lack of prints that needed to be fed into the shredder and reprinted. This was easy to do on 35mm film with a bit of practice, but you know what was hard? This:
110 film was fortunately on the way out by the time I had to deal with it at work, so if it was more than a couple times a week that I had to squint at tiny negatives half the size of a postage stamp, then it was a bad week indeed. Further, I'm not going to suggest that there was automatically a correlation between the type of film a person was using and the quality of the images produced, but I am going to suggest that such was often the case.

Ever since the famous "You push the button, we do the rest!" Kodak Brownie democratized photography by allowing Any School Boy or Girl to push the button, people have been snapping unfocused, badly-exposed pictures of... well, frequently it was impossible to decipher what exactly it was they were trying to take a picture of. If a photograph requires a subject, then most of the stuff I looked at while seated at the controls of that Noritsu 901 was just exposed film.

Film purists decry the cell phone camera as some final perversion of photography, but I maintain that that point was reached with Kodak's Disc cameras of the early Eighties. If we were to plot a line of imaging technologies from the Lascaux cave paintings to whatever is the current ne plus ultra of photography, the Disc camera surely represents some sort of nadir. And yet, even given the truly awful pictures I've seen come from those chintzy little abominations, I'm sure someone, somewhere was taking good shots with them. I mean, some of my favorite photos have been taken with some truly subpar equipment...

Kodak EasyShare V1073

Nikon Coolpix S6500

Nikon Coolpix S6500

Samsung Galaxy SII
I'm getting back into film partly for the nostalgia, partly because I buy into the whole "slow photography" woo-woo a little bit, and partly because I like the process and the gear. The clicks as you select the aperture, the glide of the focus ring, the sense of coiling and storing energy as you thumb the winding lever for the next shot...

It's like driving stick shift; in this day of twin-clutch automatic transmissions, there's no performance advantage to the classic manual, but a certain amount of interaction with the machine is lost. I suppose a vocal few probably lamented the loss of the magneto advance control on the dashboard of cars, too, claiming it was an essential part of driving. Maybe it was, or maybe the ideal machine really is the one that translates our thoughts into reality as transparently as possible. Which is the Perfect Vehicle: An MG-TD or Scotty's transporter? I don't pretend to have the answer to that question.

When I read these words at Leicaphilia...
"In 2013, 25% of all of these images made were taken with smartphones, presumably by folks who don’t think of themselves as “photographers.”  As a result of this image explosion and the technological advances making it possible, photography is no longer a specialist language. it is now a universal language, spoken via social media, most of it inconsequential chatter. We have entered the fast food era of photography."
...I had to wonder where he was when I was spending those Monday mornings after a big concert weekend, printing roll after roll of images consisting of a row of sharply-focused badly-overexposed heads seen from behind, with something going on only dimly glimpsed in the murky background far beyond them. I guess he was hanging out with photographers. Lucky bastard.