The lab where I buy my Ilford FP4 film is in Valencia, Spain. Their service is excellent and I am happy to give them a shout out: Carmencita Film Lab is great. They ship quickly and always have stock on hand. I have not tried any of their other services, but if they are anything like their film service, I am sure they are great!
The reason I decided to write this blog entry is the tag line on Carmencita’s website, which I have used for the title here: Because Life is not made of 1s and 0s. I am starting to see a renaissance in the use of film. People stop me and ask about my camera. In the line-up at airport security – as it used to be – there was always curiosity around my old beaten up Leica, but the frequency is definitely up.
I take this as a signal that the concept of the limitation to just 36 frames, the wabi-sabi of having to wait to see your imperfect negative and print, along with the idea that digital manipulation is not a requirement, is back in vogue.
After all, digital manipulation has nothing to do with the concept of capturing light and shadow, which is the foundation of black and white photography, it is about fixing it later. Photography should be about you and your pursuit of excellence in the moment, much like drawing a circle freehand, over and over again, knowing you will never do so perfectly, but you still keep trying!
To many, I will always be a dinosaur. A slowly evolving photographer, who has spent countless hours trying to get the camera to help me capture my particular split second view of the world around me. I frame, I shoot, and I hope that I get what I conceived in my mind’s eye. Sometimes it works, more often it doesn’t. I like the idea of chance… of serendipity.
So, for those that are interested in analogue and those that see film as the new frontier: Welcome! For those that are still shooting film and love it: Keep doing your thing!
If we are lucky, the analogue ripple may one day turn into a proper wave – if not a tsunami – and we may actually trigger the rebirth of interesting printing papers on par with what existed in the first half of the 20th century.
I once toured the ‘S’-class Mercedes manufacturing line, where hundreds of highly paid auto-workers hand-build the top-of-the-line Mercedes cars. There is a certain respect owed to those people that build and assemble with their hands. The aura in the great hall was palpable and the pride was everywhere. I crossed the road and went to the ‘C’-class Mercedes plant, which is virtually 100% automatic and has robots swinging large and small pieces back and forth across space and time, before a car emerges at the far end of the line.
In discussing the two plants, which could not possibly have been any more different, the member of the design team that was walking me around said that actually, the ‘C’-class is a much more accurate and precisely assembled car, and if it wasn’t for the customers who insisted on having a hand-built car and were willing to pay for it, rightfully the ‘S’-class Mercedes should be built by a similar line to that of the ‘C’-class. Clearly, there is value in a little inaccuracy, knowing that it was made by a human, and not a machine.
The Japanese have a lovely term called wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi has many definitions. To me, it means that there is perfection in imperfection. That a small error, or imperfection in say a drinking vessel, a flower arrangement, or even a new building, is what adds the human touch. The little something that is a signature of human quest.
Analog photography is much the same. There is film, a camera, developing,
printing, a final print, and at each step, there is a little bit of the
photographer. A little bit of
wabi-sabi. Bruce Weber talks of clients
being impatient and wanting to see a photograph, even before it is taken. How digital has created the need for urgency,
immediacy, perfection, and if not, the ability to make perfection.
“A lot of people have gotten so used to this digital age. They all expect to see the picture before it is taken. Or they want to change the picture. I like it when pictures aren’t so perfect.” – Bruce Weber on Shooting with Film
I read recently about the thousands of individual micro-lenses
that combine to create the perfect depth of field in a digital camera. The perfect sharpness from the front of the
image, all the way to the back. This is
like the new hyper clear and sharp televisions that give me a headache. Life is not like that.
When we look at our surroundings, our eyes focus on something. We focus on something close up and everything else around that object falls slightly out of focus. If we look at a wider area in the distance, things that are near us drop a little out of focus. To some degree, analog photography mimics this. As photographers, when we focus a camera on a particular area in front of us, we are making a decision. We are choosing to focus on something, and not something else. Or we may elect to throw it wide open and get as much of the scene in front of the lens into view, but that usually comes at a price, which drops whatever is immediately in front of us out of focus. Of course, modern technology can mimic these types of decisions. A digital camera can be set to take photographs like an analog camera. But, most photographers who shoot using digital don’t bother. They deal with that on the computer later, using Photoshop, or whatever software platform they choose.
The joy to me of analog is that you see the image in
your mind’s eye. You set your variables,
select what goes where in the frame and focus on whatever draws your attention,
or not, depending on what you are trying to achieve. You press the shutter and you wait.
First there is the joy of seeing the negative and
placing it on the light table, getting out the glass and having a look at what
you have managed to capture. Then there
is the print itself, when you place the negative in the enlarger and make the
first test print. Perhaps a small 8×10
or 5×7 print. And only after you have
studied and played with the process for a while do you end up with the final
print. Doubtless, there are
imperfections. Things you could have
done better. Perhaps a bit of shadow
where you had not seen it, when composing the image. Perhaps the horizon line is not entirely
level. Perhaps there are a couple of
people in the distance that you had not noticed, because you were so focused on
getting a particular subject just right.
To me, this is the fun of photography.
The serendipity that sometimes works in your favour, sometimes not. This is analog photography. Photography as it should be.
I have the luxury of making the same photograph five
times; I compose it in my minds
eye; I make the photograph; I see the negative; I see the test print; I make the final print. And no matter what, there is always something
that you wish you could have done perhaps a little differently. This is wabi-sabi. The small imperfections that make us human.
I have spent a lot of time recently looking at Japanese photography from the 1960s through the early 1980s. There is a great depth of material. Photographers that are outstanding and so very different from what we are used to seeing in Europe and North America.
I am sure that we can come up with many reasons for
this. The end of WWII. The horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The devastation of a nation. The loss of a generation. Famine and malnutrition. Layer upon layer of pain and suffering. But the crop of photographers that are now
dying out, who were born during or shortly after the war, are sadly not well
known outside of Japan. They did
Often heavy and moody. Often a little, or even very sad. Contemplative. More often than not printed with heavy blacks. There is a feeling. An atmosphere that makes me pay attention. Often saying ‘Japanese’ well before I look at the label. It is hard to explain. But, very real. It is as though the Japanese idea of perfection is there, in terms of skill. Like a great sushi chef, who spends 10 years making the rice before being let near the fish, or a knife. Photographers in Japan of the postwar generation are like that to me. Skilled beyond most anyone, but being Japanese they perfect their skills and then they let a little wabi-sabi in. A little natural error. Beauty in imperfection. This is done with the harder blacks in the printing, the crop, or simply shooting from the hip without even looking, and saving it in the darkroom, as in the case of Moriyama.
I was recently able to view a show by Shin Yanagisawa. Now in his 80s. He frequented a particular train station in
Japan with obsessive regularity and produced a body of work. A wonderful book. And to my good fortune, a small show of
vintage prints in a small gallery in Paris.
In the print here, which I admire greatly, he has achieved a feel, a
mood and a story to be told by anyone who has ever seen anyone off at a station
or airport. Only 18 x 24 cm in size, the
black is deep as the darkest night, and the woman… well, what can I say. This is a photograph that is universal, yet,
so very Japanese.
In 2001, Shin Yanagisawa said: “…… I have always believed
that photographs express something that cannot be captured in words. If I were able to express myself in words, I
would stop working as a photographer.”
The lady on the train needs no title, no story. This may be the highest form of poetry.