It started about a year ago ago. Sorting through a pile of books, I came across “Edge of Darkness” by Barry Thornton in my book-shelf, a book that I had forgotten about. It opened onto a photograph of a deserted farm in Kerry, Ireland. The caption read…” Kodak T-Max 3200 at EI 800, Rodinal developer 1:25 for 6 minutes at 20C…”. I don’t particularly like very grainy photographs for landscape, preferring fine tonal gradation coupled with sharpness, but what makes this particular photograph special is the way in which the crisp coarse grain creates a mood of desolation. The caption had intrigued me.
I read the book in one sitting and followed it with his book “Elements – the making of fine monochrome prints”. I had left film photography behind many years before, but my interest had been rekindled. I looked through my copy of Tillman Crane’s Handbook of Photography, which he had sent me for my course at the Inversnaid School of Photography in the 1990s and made some steps towards re-acquiring a disappearing tradition. I bought a Hasselblad 503 with a 80mm Planar lens, some rolls of Ilford FP4 and Perceptol developer. I also bought a Leica M-A type 127. I just love mechanical things.
So what is it that I am looking for? Why opt for a cumbersome, slow difficult quasi-redundant process that is film photography and development? The answer is surprisingly complicated:
Firstly, there is a certain look to film photographs that creates a distance to you. It is very obvious that we are looking at a representation which places you into a special dialogical relationship to the picture.
The grain in this fairly ordinary photograph in Liverpool (35mm Tri-X developed in XTOL), emphasises a certain other-worldliness, putting distance between the viewer and the scene.
Secondly, film photography requires you to work more slowly and deliberately. A lot of effort goes into developing film, and hence you tend to be more careful with subject-matter and composition.
Finally, it’s just fun, largely because more judgements need to be made as part of a craft, and I enjoy the slower tempo.
Making film photographs is my work. It is work I love, work that is often frustrating, hard and seemingly impossible and at other times the source of some of my greatest joy. I am a reactionary photographer rather than a conceptual one. I enjoy reacting to the moment unfolding before me, particularly if it also involves a narrative. If I can do this with film, without the use of a light meter (there is often no time), then I feel a great sense of accomplishment. I enjoy digital photography too, but prefer the look of film. Call me old-fashioned! I don’t mind.