Why I Shoot Film: Anticipation

Last week, I mentioned starting a series on film photography. It didn’t take long to decide where I should start, because the one thing above all other that I absolutely, positively love about shooting film is the ANTICIPATION.

Barry Yanowitz develops film at home in his apartment!.

So, what the heck does that mean? For me, the physical act of film development is magical. The equation is fairly simple and it’s easy enough to do it yourself at home. Even if you drop your film off at a lab, each and every roll of film feels like Christmas. After a recent quick trip to Paris to visit my parents, I dropped off my film with the developer. For two days, it was agony; the anticipation of getting my film back was almost too much to bear. And then, when I got to see the photographs, it felt like my heart was going to burst. So happy. I was right back in the moment.

Knowing full well that I have a tendency to romanticize, I reached out to a few other photographers for their opinions as I was putting my thoughts together for this post. Though I expected others to provide some realistic counterpoint to the sentimentality I feel for film, I’m definitely not alone. One observation others shared spoke about how capturing memories on film seems to play into a more vulnerable emotional presence within the photos.

Peter Kruger points out that, for him, the process of taking digital photographs effectively removes you from the moment if you give in to the temptation to review the digital previews of each and every frame. In some cases, it can even become a distracting compulsion. Peter prefers to use film to capture moments with friends and loved ones. Regarding the emotional content of film photography, he says,

“I use film when I know I’m at an event or doing something I’m going to want to remember for decades to come. I don’t want to be taken out of the moment to check the photo I just took. I don’t even want to see it until much later after I took the photo and finally got the film developed. As my memories of those good times get hazy, seeing those photos months after can take me right back. There is something about the process of film that fits into that perfectly. I feel like I’ve saved a moment or a memory in a way I don’t feel with digital. As our interactions with our friends become more and more digitized, it becomes increasingly nicer to capture the moments in a way that is at its core void of any ones or zeros.”

Okay, so maybe I’m not the only hopeless romantic out there who’s shooting film, but what does that prove? I suspect that Peter’s on to something with respect to this day and age of immersive technology, where nearly everything we do is governed by or subjected to — as he puts it, the language of ones and zeros.

cadman plaza
Letting go of control, via Leica light leaks.

We’ve come to expect technology — cameras included — to provide us with instantaneous results. How many times have you pulled up Wikipedia on your smartphone to moderate a debate, or find a nearby restaurant, or check a map to see where you are? I found myself mapping out my wanderings through Prospect Park last night — doesn’t that defeat the inherent purpose of wandering? Instant gratification can threaten to strip the meaning out of an experience — if we’re plugged in, turned on, and attuned to every last bit and byte of existence, where’s the spontaneity?

As a consultant who works exclusively in the cloud, every ounce of my work day is devoted to the latest in technology. It probably seems a little backwards that I should prefer to work with an analog medium in my free time, but I really do think that the spontaneity of film is what draws me in and holds me close. The accidental double exposures, the light leaks, the infinite combination of films and cameras and lighting conditions — all of this I love. I love the fact that film forces me to let go of control (even just a little bit), to do my best and to wait and see the moments I’ve captured.

When I asked photographer Ed Brydon about his recent forays into film, he made a interesting observation about that moment of anticipation and also the distance it creates as he revisits his photographs for editing:

“There’s the obvious sense of excitement that comes from delayed-gratification that [big] kids don’t understand until they go through it. The mounting suspense to see what you got back. Sure it can lead to frustration if some photos are out of focus, missed the moment or have other problems, but there’s also usually a little gem in there. There’s also something more subtle that pertains to the art of editing. That bit of separation from when you make the photographs to when you get the developed negatives and have them scanned or printed allows you to become less attached to them, even if you are no less excited. It is precisely that time that enables the editor to do a better job of really selecting the photograph that works rather than one that may have seemed to mean the most to you at the time of being made.”

One of the gems in Ed Brydon's early experiments with film.
This concept of distance Ed brings up is an interesting one — definitely another prompt for another post. And while I agree to a certain extent, I also feel that the anticipation of development and of seeing my photographs for the first time elicits a positively wonderful child-like response. For me, the joy of seeing my negatives or slides or freshly-scanned film is one of the things I look forward to most. It’s an innocent excitement, a curiosity that can bring a host of emotions into play — satisfaction, disappointment, wonder. For a long time, I’ve also felt like it’s one big science experiment with lots and lots of variables (crazy old cameras, lots of film types) and terribly poor controls (me, the photographer).

Barry Yanowitz, who does a lot of DIY development in his Brooklyn apartment, also has a fine appreciation for the experiment — and for the simplicity and elegance of the development process. When I asked for his thoughts, he echoed Peter’s observations about the compulsion to see previews of a digital shot. I loved how he contrasts the two processes:

“Imagine removing a roll of film from your camera, putting it in a tank, pouring chemicals in, shaking it every once and a while, pouring it out and pouring more chemicals in, shaking it some more… And then finally you open it up, take out your film, and somehow, magically, there are little pictures across it. To this day that still amazes me! Even when I pick up photos that were processed at a lab, there’s nothing like placing the strips of newly developed film on the light table and taking a first look. And I’m not even one of those people who can tell if I like a shot just by looking at the film. But I still love viewing it that way.

One final thought: [Anticipation] also influences how I take photos. More than once I’ve gone out shooting so I can finish off a roll, only to wind up taking my favorite shot of the batch. When I shoot digital, I press the shutter and immediately feel anticipation to see the shot I just took. When I shoot film, I press the shutter and think about the next shot.”

YES. Barry, you read my mind. And now with that in mind, I think I have to take my camera for a walk.

Many thanks to Peter, Ed, and Barry for their contributions – you guys are the best!