MUMBAI–I have a memory etched into my personal history, one I recall to remind myself of something. I was in Honduras on a nine month assignment with a medical relief NGO. It was nearing the end of my time and all I could think about was where I would go and what I would do, figuring out what comes next. I was dating a Swedish woman who was there working on a related project. Our days were spent investigating, writing, and photographing; nights and weekends living la vida loca.
It was a Sunday and we were together at a rooftop bar that had a small pool. She was in the water, laughing, and as she tossed her long blonde hair the water droplets were spun out into the late afternoon sun like melted sapphires. I sat at a table and fretted about where I would go next until a sudden moment of calm overtook me. I looked at her, looked at what I could see of my own body, hands and legs all tanned and strong.
In my black canvas Domke bag was a Leica M6 TTL and a bunch of Ilford HP5+. And I thought, “You had better enjoy this, son. This thing will never be as good as it is right now.” So I smiled and I am glad I did, as that moment, for all those even better, never came again.
I miss shooting film, but what I am really missing is the world in which one shot it. I am not an old man and this world is not far removed. For all the types discontinued, for all the price increases and added complications, film is still widely available and easily processed. I still shoot multiple types of film and several different formats. But these are nearly all personal projects and they are done both out of a love for the medium and a certain dogged perseverance.
I miss the world in which we shot film. When there was a cost to each frame and where the knowledge of the thing had a certain magic to it, a whiff of sorcery in the arcane terminology, the alchemical smells and actions conducted in dark rooms under red light.
I miss the certainty that I had the best cameras in the world—among the finest expressions of the manual 35mm that will ever be made—and the certainty that if you had enough film, enough knowledge, courage, and a little luck, that you could use those cameras to capture moments and bring them home.
I miss the satisfaction of making a last exposure, finishing a roll, winding it back into its protective metal shell, and pulling another from the bag. I would slide it into the sprockets with motions I had been practicing since I was 10 years old and wonder what it might come to hold.
I had 36 chances to explain something.
There was a feeling that exposing a frame of film was a little like breaking a pane of glass, a thing once done that could never to undone. Unlike breaking glass, however, the transmutation of film via light and time and chemical reactions is an act of creation and preservation, not destruction.
The actual light reflecting from your subject forever changes the film into something else, burning a brief moment of existence into another thing.
What was dark and inert became a true record of the light of history. I miss those things but I miss the way the world that surrounded them was. I miss not having a cell phone most of all.
More than anything else, the smart phone has made the world a smaller, duller, and less romantic place. Along with it, photography has become more of a reflex than an act of creation, more bodily function than conscious document. As we grow more and more dependent upon the machines, they become more and more a part of us and we become both more and less than human.
We have extended the range of the human voice to infinity.
Driving the streets of old Bombay I can video chat with a friend in Sweden; from the deserts of Rajasthan I can send mundane snapshots to family in America. I can find a hotel, a restaurant and let everyone in the world know I have done so and what I am now digesting. It is all very convenient and because of it we are all a bit duller, a bit more robotic and less ingenious, less adaptable, less brave.
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, when you exited the airport in a foreign land you were on your own, reliant on your wits, experience, and preplanning.
It was more exiting, more dangerous, and absolutely more wonderful. You were forced to make new friends and new contacts and to rely upon them for support and companionship. When Friday night rolled around you followed through on the plans you had made to meet at Lilly’s Cantina in Santa Rosa, Bar Sonora in Obregon, or The Front Page in Les Halles because you weren’t at home scrolling through Facebook and waiting for better plans to send you an SMS.
As a photographer things were simpler and more complicated. Working on a long term documentary project was a nearly Zen-like experience. Your film piled up and you worried a bit, but there was nothing you could really do except keep shooting and shepherd the rolls until they reached the lab.
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Daily news was all about getting the shot and then getting the film into the right hands, be they across town or on a different continent. Before you knew how it would change things, you dreamed about digital cameras and what they might someday do.
Well, here we are living in someday and they are better and more versatile than we ever hoped for, but the world has changed along with them. You can take a nearly infinite number of images at astoundingly high resolution in unbelievably low light, shoot cinema quality video, edit it all on a computer the thickness of a pencil and send it anywhere in the world. Or you could just do it all right from your phone, take a picture, write a story, shoot and edit a movie, record the soundtrack, mail it to the editor. The ubiquity of the thing has put the technology in everyone’s hands and while the democracy is heartening the pride, professionalism and magic seem to be slipping away.
I had a fully developed style of shooting that digital took away and only just gave back (albeit with some dividends) in the last year or two.
I would typically work with two cameras, a Nikon F3 with a 20mm f/2.8 MF Nikkor and a Leica M6TTL with a 50mm f/2 Summicron. I would usually have both cameras loaded with the same film, either Ilford HP5, Kodachrome 64, or Focal 400 and I would change between those two, seeing the world through the wide angle SLR view of the 20mm and in the frame-lines of the M6’s viewfinder. Much of the time I would carry only the Leica.
That rig has been replaced by a Nikon D800 with a 20mm f/2.8 AF Nikkor and a Leica M-P. Anymore, however, I tend to prefer the 35mm focal length, so I alternate between a 35mm Voigtlander Color-Skopar and a 50mm Zeiss f/2 Planar ZM. This works well. Both cameras are very good, though both are larger, heavier, less responsive, and much, much more expensive than their film counterparts.
They work, but the changeover was a long one. We quickly forget that cameras weren’t always this way, that you had a landline and an answering machine, televisions weren’t flat, and making a good print from a digital file was harder than getting medium format film developed. Video gear was expensive and its picture quality was atrocious, Internet access was slow or nonexistent, there were no Wifi hotspots, and the first 1GB Compact Flash cards cost $1,000.
Just a few years ago there was no such thing as an entry level DSLR. There were only the professional models like the Nikon D1. These were slow, had low resolution, poor battery life, a $5,000 plus price tag and a cropped DX sensor.
The most basic DSLR of today so far surpasses the first professional ones in almost every regard that I would have strangled you in an alley with your own camera strap for something as fine as a Nikon D3300 and at least considered doing in your entire family for any full frame model.
And so digital limped along. Film became less and less practical but digital didn’t live up to its promise until the introduction of the Nikon D3 and D700, Nikon’s first full frame offerings. Canon had already introduced full frame cameras but it was the D3/700 that offered the first real high ISO performance combined with beautiful images and great auto-focus.
For the first time digital hit a “good enough” plateau and the D3, in my opinion, is still a perfectly valid camera to work with. Contrast this with the mechanical perfection attained by a Nikon FM or a Leica M3 that decades after release later are still as fine a thing as when they were new.
My D3 followed a D1X and the D3 was joined by a D800. Eventually I was able to afford a Leica M-P and those were recently joined by a Leica Monochrome. There is nothing I lack. There is little I even want.
I sit in my study here in India. The Leica M6TTL is in a glass case next to my desk along with a bunch of other film cameras I use, have used, or simply like to look at. It is quiet save for the hum of the air conditioning, the dehumidifiers, and a murmur of Bollywood techno floating up from the streets below. I am writing in between editing my most recent photos of Mumbai and laying out a book of images I shot in Transcarpathia. I shot that story with the M6TTL and the 50mm Summicron on Kodak 400CN long after I already had professional digital gear. I decided, for various reasons, only to use that one camera and lens and it remains one of my favorite series.
That foray into Eastern Europe was the beginning of the end of many things, the beginning of many others.
All of that past is neatly wrapped up, edited, collated, exhibited, critiqued, and published. That life, Central America, Sweden, and endless rolls of film has been developed, fixed, and printed, sleeved, archived, put on a shelf.
My new life is being processed. I am in India now, figuring out what comes next.
~ Andrew Tonn
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