I started shooting film in a middle school photography class, where we bulk-loaded Tri-X and developed and printed in the darkroom there. Our teacher, Mr Truman, was a WWII air force veteran and had a patience and acceptance of life that I think only combat can forge in a person. We had to turn in our assignments on time, but he gave us the creative freedom to do them however we wanted. For our final grade, we assembled a portfolio, which is something I’ve kept all these years, as my one and only tangible memory from those years of my life.
After that class, I continued to take pictures and develop and print them in my bathroom at home, but other things slowly took over more of my life, until I was only bringing a camera along on vacations and some weekends and sending things to a lab.
Then one day I decided to buy a DSLR (a Canon Rebel), and just go fully digital, with all its cost and time savings, plus full, end-to-end control once again. I started shooting a LOT and declared my return to photography — one that would coincide with the digital future of the world, not the past (living in Silicon Valley helped with that mindset). I sold most of my film gear and soon moved up to a full-frame Canon 5D MkII.
I loved and still love the images from that camera. I took it to India for six weeks, I started doing some fashion shoots, and I delved deep into Photoshop and skin retouching. All of this did start to require more and more work at the computer, but it mostly felt worth it, given the seemingly unlimited powers of creation.
But a couple of years ago, after yet another late night and early morning spent removing things like stray hairs from eyeballs and every last skin “blemish,” I took a break and went out to shoot some street-style photography with the 5DII. Looking around, eyeing all the people for a subject to shoot, I spotted a guy with a Mamiya 7II around his neck. I went over to him and learned he was a recent art school grad from London, he only shot film, did no retouching, and had every intention of making it as a working pro shooting film.
I had no idea that kind of mindset still existed. I knew a couple of older amateurs who never switched to digital, and that some very high-up pros still shot it (like Tim Walker). But a young kid who had every reason to use digital, but chose film? That blew me away, and I was a little in awe. I stayed in touch with him for a while, talking about film and photography in general, and as a result, I started shooting film again, too.
All I had left from my film days, though, was my beloved Mamiya 6 — my favorite camera of all time, but not the most practical for day-to-day use. My dad, however, has a number of film and digital Leicas, and when I told him I was getting back into film, he gladly got an old M6 out of storage and offered it to me. I’ve never actually coveted a Leica, and always found the M series harder to use than my Mamiya. But when someone gives you an M6 and a Summilux 35mm to use, you at least give it serious try.
I started shooting with the M6 instead of digital out on the street, took it with me to a trip to Myanmar for its first true test, and despite what I view as all its quirks, began to really appreciate its size and image quality. I had also kept a Jobo tank, some reals, and a changing bag, and started developing my own black and white film at home in my sink, just like I used to do. I was back in action, and loving it. For prints, I only have access to a darkroom a couple of hours a week, so I still make digital prints, too. That part’s not ideal — even the sound of the pint head drives me a little crazy sometimes — but printers and ink have come a long way since I first tried it.
After using the M6 for a bit, I also discovered that my dad and I had new things to talk about. Stories about where he took the M6 and images he made with it took on a new relevance. It’s now become a new father-son activity to talk about shooting with it, as well as Leica M cameras in general.
He knows a lot more about the technical and optical aspects of cameras than I do, but I take a lot more photos, and between the two of us, we have a lot to talk about. He has another M6 and has even started to shoot a roll or two of film from time to time as well. And the result is, we talk about taking photos more, and camera technology, sensors, etc., a lot less.
I’ve also begun to realize that I enjoy the community of film shooters. If my only experiences with film today were based on memories of the past, I would see all this as nothing more than nostalgia. But since that first meeting with the guy from London, I’ve met and followed many, many film shooters, often rather young, who are embracing the medium creatively in the 21st century. From art photographers like Yan Wang Preston, to a Lina Bessonova, a Russian woman living and teaching large format photography in Italy, it’s a global community of people who could use digital, but choose film as one of their paths into the future instead. And I consider myself part of that forward momentum.
I do still shoot digital for certain things, but I enjoy spending less time at a computer (although I still tediously scan most of my negatives) and working and thinking in a more constrained, focused way. People say that film slows you down; I’ve found that while film may slow down the physical aspects of shooting, it definitely speeds up your thinking.
You have to analyze a scene in your head much more accurately or risk wasting a lot of time (and potentially money) developing and scanning a crappy shot. I think about more aspects of photography, and think about them more often, in the normal course of taking and developing film photos than I did with digital.
Maybe none of this is completely logical or rational. I’ve “lost” many a “film vs digital” argument, and by now don’t even enter such discussions. I like film, from the way it looks, to the community, to the old cameras required, to the engagement with my brain. And that’s all that matters to me.