Welcome to a new series here on EMULSIVE: My return to film.
In this series you’ll be hearing from “relapsed” film photographers, who have returned to the medium after a break of (in some cases), decades. We ask each author to tell us about their own photographic journey; what drove them away from the medium in the first place and what ultimately drew them back.
Over to you, Adib.
Beirut, Lebanon –
Indulge me a brief stroll down memory lane.
It was during the fall of 2004 when I was first exposed to photography through a course at university. I still remember that day, when I packed my father’s Minolta XD7 and ventured to my first class. The requirements were simple: a 35mm SLR camera and black and white film. The assignment was to capture three images representing the following three techniques: pan, freeze & blur. As simple as it sounds, the mission was to shoot, develop and print; the results were magical. The relation between light and emulsion produced shades of gray on a piece of paper….
This was the start of my three years majoring in Communication Arts.
Throughout my university years, I worked as an assistant in the university’s photography laboratory. The advantage of helping other students developing and printing their projects was that it helped me learn from their mistakes and discover film and its limitations.
In addition to that, I had full access to all the equipment available, such as digital and film 35mm cameras, medium format cameras (Hasselblad 503CX and Mamiya 645), and the Sinar large format camera. I completely took advantage of that opportunity, and was able to experiment on all types of film: black and white, color negative, and slide film.
The odor of developer followed me wherever I went, and the fixer bleached most of my wardrobe! The days went by, and I graduated with a wide array of theoretical and practical set of skills that paved my road in the photography world.
In 2007, digital technology was booming, and I recall Leica releasing their first digital camera, the ‘M8’, while Arri released their 20D 2K digital video camera. It was the era of digital film and photography, especially after seeing almost all the elite film gurus move towards digital technology.
Unfortunately for me, digital photography was taking over film, and it was financially beyond my reach. I managed to get my hands on a Canon 5D Mark II as my first DSLR, and immediately started using the camera as if I was shooting with a regular SLR camera. However, that didn’t last for long, especially when I had access to upgradable storage. Technically, this reduced the responsibility I had towards film, opening the door to a limitless amount of frames captured, instead of only 36 images.
The major drawback, from my perspective, was the absence of a light meter, because I started counting on the direct outcome that was showing up on the camera’s LCD screens.
With time, I stopped receiving any pleasure with photography, and started rejecting all photography projects, especially due to the fact that digital cameras were progressing so quickly and I couldn’t keep up with all the advanced technologies.
Due to my profession as a director, I naturally shifted my interests to video for few years, before I decided to go back to photography with some new trends and gadgets such as the GoPro, and later on, I purchased the Leica D-Lux 6. It all started the moment I got my motorbike, and I started seeing things I had never seen before whilst driving a car.
I felt like sharing my experiences through the lens of a camera, by a photography concept I named #RideWithMe, which was later on followed by #MySurrounding, another theme that allowed me to share my surrounding in places a bike couldn’t reach. It was fun creating pictures but it wasn’t real photography.
Pictures were the outcome of trial and error rather than calculations. There was no control over the aperture or shutter, it was simply a point and shoot process.
While packing to move to my new flat a few months ago, I came across my old prints, a film camera, and an expired roll of Ilford HP5 film. Flipping through the old photos was a very nostalgic experience, taking me back to the old days, reminiscing every situation and story that came with every click.
I was eager to use this the old film, so I planned a photography trip with my friends consisting of only 36 photographs. During the shoot, my friend brought along his DSLR camera to take backup photos in parallel, and that’s when I discovered a new genre of photographer: The Digital Photographer.
The Digital Photographer: (noun) An operator who sets his camera on program mode, sets a frame, and shoots and shoots and shoots…
I could hear the shutter clicking like an automatic rifle in a battlefield – hoping to capture the right frame from pile of hundreds of shots at his feet. My film was provoking my friends, since the only person who could actually envision these photos was myself. After every photo I would capture, they would walk up to me looking at the camera expecting to get a look at the end result on that tiny LCD screen, only to be unpleasantly surprised, asking: “Why are you even bothering with film, can’t your Leica shoot in black and white anyway?”
You can’t even begin to compare film to digital when it comes to black and white photography. No digital camera can convey the same feel film can, in its grain, contrast, latitude, and its infinite shades of gray. Film photography is a painting drawn in light rather than paint.
After that photo shoot, I went back to my university’s photography lab, where my relationship with film first started, and it felt like yesterday.
This intimate and personal relationship with film made me realize how much I had drifted from my roots. It’s quite easy for us to get caught up in trends rather than honing in and mastering the basics, especially in an era where every phone owner considers himself a photographer. I went back home, unboxed my Hasselblad 500cm (which was given to me as a gift from my friend’s father), cleaned it piece by piece, and changed the battery of my light meter.
The next morning, I visited the local Ilford dealer to stock up on film and there I was finally ready to go out for some medium format film photography. I started testing my skills again: push processing, long exposure, reciprocity failure calculations, and numerous other techniques. I even tried today’s photography trends and techniques using the old film.
The more photos I took, the more the ideas would flow into my imagination, just waiting to be executed. Taking my camera with me where I went became an addiction. My favorite moment would be the anxiety after developing film, as I would unwrap the film, hold the negatives up against the light, and take the first glimpse of the end result, comparing it to the frame I had envisioned. That experience would always put a smile on my face, taking me back to the good old days when we used to sit and wait for our results to come out.
This process became my weekly ritual. Every Monday morning, I would visit the lab to develop the films I had shot during the weekend, becoming some kind of my motivational therapy.
We can’t neglect the quality and clarity that digital cameras produce, however, it can never have the same feel film does. Diving into digital photography is never ending self-torture. It is in a permanent state of evolution, advancing at a much faster pace than I could catch up with. Recently, they’ve released 100 megapixel digital backs, and very soon, we’ll be hearing about the newer 120 megapixels if not more; and that’s the beauty of film. Evolution is in every person’s imagination, and curiosity to experiment, yielding different outcomes each and every time is the never-ending challenge towards perfection.
To sum it up, film photography is on the verge of extinction.
It’s almost impossible to find a store where I live that sells used medium format cameras, lenses, accessories, chemicals, or even films. Even my local Ilford dealer offers only a limited range of products, due to the shift that universities have made from film to digital.
Despite all of that, I insist on experimenting and indulging in film photography, hoping to reach the perfection I strive for. It may be the sense of guilt from neglecting film photography that haunts me, however, it motivates me to try to catch up with what I’ve missed out on over the years by reading books, blogs and joining film photographer communities to learn from their experiences.
I get the chance to ask for advice when needed, and ask for professional criticism with my work, but what is more important is that I have to load my camera and start imprinting my vision on film in a continuous experimental journey to reveal the mystery of perfecting film photography.
We all have the same eyes on the physical level, but we don’t share the same vision. That is where my photography adventure begins, applying modern day photography techniques with yesterday’s camera technology.
In this day and age, my photographic mission is to assemble a photo exhibition that will be published in a book summing up my years of conceptual visualizations, practical skills, and how I see life from my own perspective.
That is my return to film.
~ Adib Mufty
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