I am a film street photographer, inspired by my father’s deep appreciation of Cartier-Bresson and particularly Robert Frank back in the 1960’s. In the early 2000’s, like many, I drifted away from film and plunged into digital photography, excited by the prospect of digital’s instant gratification, feedback and editing ease. So it seems counter-intuitive that a street photographer would turn back to film. Surely the benefits of digital make it eminently suitable for street photography?
The turn to film happened slowly. I started to miss the analog way that I had been brought up with: the increased complexity of electronic photographic systems seemed to place extra distance between me and my photographs, putting more distance between the subject (me) and the object (my world). I looked back nostalgically to the ‘look’ of black and white film, to the simplicity of film cameras and to the ‘craft’ of film and print development. I even missed the sheer effort required to make a good picture. Results that flow from hard work seem more valuable than those easily gained.
One day when clearing out some stuff from my barn I re-discovered two old books: Barry Thornton’s ‘Elements’ and his ‘Edge of Darkness’ – neither had anything to do with street photography. I opened one of them and was immediately reminded of the time that I had spent in the darkroom at Inversnaid Photography Centre in Scotland (now sadly gone) in the 1990’s with André and Linda Goulancourt. The books took hold of me and through them I reconsidered Fay Godwin’s landscapes (which still hang on my wall), John Blakemore’s still life studies, Caponigro’s shadow details and many other photographers too numerous to mention. One thing led to another.
These people ‘made pictures’ rather than ‘took photographs’. There is a big difference, well understood by still life and landscape photographers, but not by street photographers. There was an eye for the subject, to be sure, but there was an equal eye to the photograph as an object of aesthetic intention. A photograph is more than what is being photographed.
As a result of reading Thornton I started to question my own street photography where, as is common across the genre, the concern is more with story-telling and message and less with the aesthetic qualities of a photograph as an object. There are some exceptions to this, but not many. My street work had gone down a cul-de-sac and I turned to film to find my way back out.
Street photography is particularly prone to a predilection with message as it is message that defines the genre. But should there not be much more to a good street photograph than message? The emphasis on ‘capturing the moment’ at the expense of form pushes street photography into an endless fix of gimmicks, special moments and ‘do you get it?’ photographs.
Many march to the drum of Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ in an unquestioning way without understanding what he meant by the phrase. He said, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression”. It is the convergence of the special event with a photographer’s vision that is crucial. The photographer must see the elements of composition and the effect of framing in the process of alignment before ‘the decisive moment’ occurs. Vision and anticipation are central. The relationships of form serve to intensify vision.
The essence of street photography lies in anticipating a set of relationships ahead of a moment, as if surfing the crest of a temporal wave. Agility is often the decisive factor. It is probably the most difficult type of photography. But an interesting situation does not make a good street photograph – much more is needed, particularly intelligent framing so that the relationships within the frame act out their parts in an orchestrated way, almost as if the photographer is also the conductor. It is not by chance that many great street photographs have been made using cameras with optical viewfinders as opposed to electronic screens – one can simultaneously focus on the inside of the frame whilst being aware of approaching developments outside the frame.
And so I started to look for a different way, wondering whether the medium itself, film, could play a bigger role in eliciting the dialogue between photograph and viewer that I seek, a relationship which classic film street photographers took for granted. Thornton’s book played a big part in this conversion but I also studied the work of Stieglitz, Brandt, Minor White, the work of great cinematographers such as Vilmos Zsigmond and Greg Toland, Japanese aesthetics and much else.
So here are two thoughts on film photography:
The first has to do with film’s ‘filmic quality’. The look of film is different to one produced digitally, or so the argument goes. Indeed to underscore this, add-on apps have been created specifically to allow photo editors to approximate this filmic quality, whether it is through grain, colour, resolution, dynamic range or some other parameter. Some argue that the filmic effect is down to film’s grain texture (random shapes), which is different to a digital pixel (rectangular). But there is debate over this. Irrespective of the actual reasons, I do think there is a difference in look when a photograph is printed. This difference tends to be lost when the photograph is scanned into a pixel format, as you would expect, despite the best emulating efforts of add-on apps. Don’t misinterpret me, digital photograph quality can be stunning, but it’s different.
A photograph’s potential to add distance between a viewer and a photograph is important in explaining how a photograph is experienced. At first blush, added distance or separation might seem a disadvantage; one might think that the photographer’s intention should be to stimulate greater immersion on the part of the viewer, not greater distance. But a photograph that retains ambiguity, either in its composition or through the effect of its medium (for example film; black and white) draws a viewer further in. Here, filmic quality is an advantage, (whether you believe that it is inherent to film or a feature of photographic style).
So my first thought: A film photograph creates a different relationship between a photograph and its viewer, notwithstanding digital’s ability to emulate filmic qualities. (If it didn’t why would ‘filmic apps’ exist?). If you add to this the physical effect of a medium or large format camera, then the effect is multiplied. The inherent qualities of film propels the viewer into a different state, a door into ‘Reality’s Unconscious”, to borrow a phrase from Benjamin.
My second thought involves the merits of learning a physical craft like film picture making. Exploring the relationships between exposure, film type, film developer, dilution, temperature, time and agitation and so on affords a sense of ‘ownership’ of the final photograph in a way that digital can’t easily reproduce. No doubt producing a beautiful digital picture can be satisfying, but the black-box nature of the equipment and its software that intervenes between the moment of shutter release and the final image robs the photographer of something precious: deep participation.
Digital technology seems to alienate us from the means of production rather than help embody photography as part of an extension to ourselves. Not only do we have to run the treadmill of continually upgrading cameras and software but more importantly we don’t feel we play as much of a part in creating a photograph as we would like. At times it feels like we are incidental. The trend in computer-camera design is towards automatic functionalism and ‘style menus”. Our mobile phone editing apps urge us to choose between ‘drama’, ‘grainy’, ‘retrolux’ and so on. Choice is pre-packaged, modularized, made easy. We are funneled down decision-trees: Landscape or Portrait? Colour or B&W? Grunge, Vintage or Noir? Etc.
Film photography on the contrary, enables a greater sense of embodied extension. We are not channeled down specific routes. We work within constraints of course, but our options are not bundled into tight compartments. And of course a film camera will work in almost any condition, as the Apollo missions showed. Not much to go wrong with a mechanical Hasselblad 500.
And of course within the analog process, chance often sparks an inspiration. I am reminded of Thornton’s photograph “Loch Arklett, April evening”, taken with SL66/HP5+ and developed in Perceptol 1:1. A mistake in calculating dilutions led to a new visual insight for him and a marvellous picture. The result gave him something new, another page to his arcane manual.
So here is my second thought: the business of making a film photograph to the stage of print, can set up an entirely different creative dynamic within the photographer than that involved in digital picture taking and processing. The film photographer’s deep participation in an analog physical process, more akin to the haptic tasks that humans have evolved to deal with, provides a sense of union with the final photograph, a fruition of the different senses at work. The photographer Casey Orr says it well: ‘For me the problem doesn’t lie with the production values or quality of the final images which are exciting and staggering, but I worked well with the rough and tumble of a reliable, simple and mechanical tool; glass, metal and wood – often tossed in my backpack, wrapped in a tea towel’. The difference has to do with the involvement of the senses and the body.
I am not one to argue that film photography is in some sense better than digital. The argument seems sterile to me. Great street photographs are being taken on digital equipment. The crucial ingredients of a good photograph remain the same, irrespective of medium: vision, composition and production. But film photography is quite different: what differs between the two is the role acted out by the photographer. In one, the photographer skilfully (or not) presses buttons and things happen in an expected way according to embedded computer code or a decision tree; in the other the photographer is an alchemist skilfully (or not) playing with chemicals, light and paper, delighting in his tactile world. The two feel very different. This must have consequences.
Barry Thornton, who died in 2003, an alchemist-photographer par excellence, spent his life in deep contemplation of light and shade. His command of his medium, film, enabled him to not only to faithfully print what he saw in his mind’s eye, but also to transcend the subjects of his photographic eye and make objects of exquisite beauty. His work is an inspiration to me as I try to make street photographs that transcend those very streets.
© Tony Cearns 2016