OK, so “mourning” may not be entirely accurate here, and the “loss of a loved one” bit is a bit melodramatic given the circumstances. But the news of Eastman Kodak’s bankruptcy has caused me to reflect on many of the recent changes in the photography world. Specifically, it is the symbolism of the bankruptcy – the near literal death of film photography – that weighs on my mind. I know it’s odd to mourn the loss of an (almost) antiquated technology, but film photography will always be near and dear to me.
Near and dear in an idealized, romantic sense, mind you, but not in a practical sense, given I, like most other photographers, haven’t purchased a roll of film in years. The end of film photography for me can be traced to the day I gave my wife a digital SLR for Christmas three years ago. To be clear, I had no intention of ever shooting with that camera. I had only put one roll of film through my new Canon Elan 7E (a 35mm film SLR) and had my beautiful Mamiya RZ67 (a medium format film camera) for when a 35mm just wouldn’t do. The thought of switching was still out of the question, despite the fact that most of the world had already embraced digital cameras. To be sure, digital was flourishing and film was already gasping for air, but somehow the romantic notion of remaining a “film guy” had taken root.
Now, while it is true that I had no intention of using my wife’s new camera, I knew I would need to shoot with it just to show her how it works. It also happened that the gift I received from my wife that year was a Canon 580EXII flash. Being a “natural light” guy myself (for some reason I seem to label myself when it comes to photography — something I don’t tend to do in other areas of my life), I had spent very little time shooting with a flash. And so, without really thinking much about it, I snatched my wife’s new camera out of her hands to “show her how it works” practically before the packaging came to a rest on the the heap of discarded wrapping paper that was passing for our family room floor. That first tutorial lasted a few hours, my wife being absent for a good many of them. I shot my daughter opening her gifts. I shot my daughter playing with her gifts. I shot my daughter’s gifts as they lay on the floor, abandoned for the next new toy. I shot the floor. The tree. That heap of discarded wrapping paper. The Christmas dinner. The Christmas dinner dishes. I haven’t shot a frame with my film cameras since.
And that, after all, is the beauty of a digital camera — you can shoot with reckless abandon, because it doesn’t cost you a penny. Just pure, free, instant photographic gratification, and you don’t even have to do the Polaroid shake. No doubt digital photography has made me a better photographer. The ability to instantly see what a change in aperture has done for an image or how a change in lighting impacts the mood of that image is invaluable. But that is also the curse of digital photography. There is no need to think anymore — no need to plan — because you can just shoot, and shoot, and shoot until your image looks right. I always hated keeping the log of images and settings — a process that inevitably detracted from the image-making process — and it was torture waiting for the film to be processed (hoping and praying all the while that those 36 images would turn out like I imagined they would). But that process made me a more thoughtful photographer. The notion that I had a mere 36 chances to get it right – to capture that decisive moment – made me think. It made me plan. It made me visualize.
I understand that “good photographers’ do all of those things whether they are shooting digital or film. But today I chimp more than I visualize (I know I’m not alone), and I don’t think there will be as many “good photographers” in the digital age. That’s not to say there won’t be lots of photographers making great images, but too many of those images (IMHO) will be luck of the draw. I suppose if the net effect of the digital revolution is that there are more great images in the world, we’re better off regardless of how they’re made. I’m just hoping that despite all the bad habits I’ve picked up — or in spite of the discipline I’ve shed — I can some day become a “good photographer.” It just saddens me to know that I’m unlikely to have Kodak film to fall back on if I decide to shake the dust off those film cameras and actually put some thought into photography again.