How Shooting Film Has Helped Me Think About What I Do
Around Christmas my sister-in-law lent me her A-1 Canon 35mm SLR, along with a bag of lenses. Part of me did wonder why I was bothering. After all, if I wanted to get back into photography it’s much easier, and cheaper, to get a decent digital SLR and get out there. Why muck around with the uncertainties of film? With digital you can be sure of exactly what you’re getting when you press the shutter.
If you know what kind of pictures you want to take then digital is clearly the way. But when I look at the photos I’ve taken in the last few years, it’s pretty clear I’ve got no idea what I wanted to shoot. I was just taking pictures for the sake of it: friends, family, holidays, interesting vistas. I’d always try to take ‘a good picture’, one that had an interesting composition, tone and colour. But I never questioned why I was taking the picture in the first place; why I felt this particular moment needed recording. I had a vague feeling of what I was trying to do, but I never really thought about it too deeply. Instead I kept my finger on the shutter trigger and hoped for the best. Sometimes I took what I felt was a good photo. But mostly what I ended up with was gigs of data I rarely looked at or cared about.
One of the few good ones
But since Christmas I’ve been steadily taking pictures on 35mm film. My A-1, or should I say, my sister-in-law’s A-1 is a beautiful object in itself: metal, chunky, well made and built to last. This is a proper bit of kit. As is the Olympus OM-1 I picked up with a wide-angle lens. It’s been dinged about a bit, and I have to use a light reader app to get everything set up right, but there’s now a process to taking a picture. If I don’t set the ASA, or think carefully about F-stops and exposure times, then all I’m doing is exposing film. And there’s something lovely about having a maximum of 36 exposures at any one time. It forces you to think about why you’ve decided to take a picture, and as I did that I realised what it is I’m trying to take pictures of.
I like non-pictures: indeterminate moments or places that could be one thing or another. I’m not especially interested in the practice of photography itself, I just think it’s the best way to get at what I’m looking for. My best writing does the same thing in a slightly different way. In fact, when I think about it, all my art for as long as I can remember has been about ‘non events’, or the moments between things happening. Two years ago, I made a documentary about a drag racer. Here it is:
The film is as much about hanging around to see what happens, as it is about Nigel’s struggle to compete in the sport he loves.
The other day I went to see a lecture by Junot Diaz at the New York Public Library, and he said a number of things that sort of pulled it all together for me. As a writer, he’s not interested in appealing to other writers. He wants to talk to his readers. That sounds obvious, but he has a point: some authors tend to write for their peers. And the other thing that Junot said is that he tries to create space within his writing to introduce ambiguity and give the reader a chance to participate. You can take his stories at face value or you can dive into his references and add to the story.
Both these points are important. I realised that I like ambiguity; all day long in my professional work I strive to simplify my ideas and hone my craft. Whereas when I make ‘art’, for want of another word, I’m looking for something else. Craft is about the perfection of technique so you get a consistency in output. Art is about making something new; it’s about experimenting and accepting that sometimes things just don’t work out. With film photography, you’re never quite sure the picture you’ve taken will be a good one. Often, what I thought would be an average image turns out to be the best one on the roll. I also love waiting for the film to be developed.