Film’s not dead…….. or is it??

In the last year or so, there has been a massive resurgence in the use of film and film cameras bringing huge debate about what’s best and what is right.

A few years ago, i was approached by a gallery in London about the possibility of putting on an exhibition of my work for them. They had seen my exhibition at the Somerset Rural life museum following those of the late James Ravilious and then Chris Chapman. They had read that i had finished a commission for the former before he died. All was good, we met up, but in my usual chaotic style of the time, i forgot, and nothing more was done about it.

The thing that i remember most about the meeting was that before they’d even seen my portfolio, they had asked me to ensure that they were all analogue and that no digital stuff had been done to them at all. They professed that they felt that digital prints held no intrinsic value and therefore only sold “proper photographs”.

I didnt think much of this until i read an article in the Times magazine where Sabastio Salgado was being interviewed about his latest book and exhibition “Genesis”. Whilst at school and college, we were fed images of Salgado working, always using a Leica (R Series) and always sooting on black and white film. I’m not sure what i thought when i read that he no longer uses either. He now shoots digital using a Canon EOS 1Dx. At first i though he was giving into pressures of the modern day and then read the article and all made perfect sense. It would seem that with amazing quality digital cameras and the ability to print with digital enlargers (or whatever they are called), it is now possible to produce an end product with exactly the same aesthetics and more importantly the physical properties of a high quality fibre based darkroom print.

Salgado gives many reasons for his current photographic methodology, all which show a refreshing logic rather than the rose tinted longing for techniques past. He says that the main reason he shoots in black and white is that when he started, you had 2 choices, B&W or colour slide film. With slide film, you got a box of slides, but B&W gave you a contact sheet enabling the shots to be seen in order enabling easier building of a story for the traveling photographer.

Since Salgado’s move to digital, his workflow has hardly changed. He still works in exactly the same way now that he did with film. He shoots with the screen turned off and only using the camera information he would’ve had 20 years ago and quite often with a hand held meter.

Salgado stated that he has never used a computer (and has no intention to do so), sending the full memory cards to his assistant who converts the files to monochrome (using DXO Film Pack), does a tiny bit of adjustments to levels etc and produces the most excellent prints. These prints are produced on a digital enlarger onto traditional fibre based black and white paper thus producing a print with identical properties to one that would’ve been shot on film in the old days,

Sabastio Salgado interview from the Sunday Times Magazine

The point I am making here is that one of the worlds most respected photographers has adapted to a modern / efficient workflow to produce prints of the most amazing quality. These prints sell for upwards of £11,000 each and anyone who knows anything about photography would love to have one in their collection. So why is it that the small galleries, usually representing up and coming artists insist that your images are shot on film?

I think the time has come for people to accept the modern way of working. If the end product is equally as good then the reasons to shoot film are far and few between. A point that’s often quoted is that with digital prints it’s impossible to control editions. Possibly, but no more so than in the old days. In my darkroom monkey days it was quite common for me to run off 50+ off the same print for something like a school photo or a football team, I could do this probably quicker than can be done now with anything but the most modern digital printers.

So, as I see it, the quality is as good if not better, the workflow is simpler and the ability to control editions is if anything far easier, so digital shooting is the way forward.

Or is it??

When I’ve had enough of computers, shift lenses and Photoshop, there’s nothing I like more than taking my trusty Olympus OM2n and a 50mm lens out for a day. No computers, no autofocus and not even a zoom. As my mentor said, the best zoom lens is your feet. Some of my best images ever have been taken in this way. As the old saying goes, keep it simple, stupid!

So, my point is, digital is amazing and produces images and prints beyond compare, but there is something special about a “real” photograph that you’ve made with a 40yr old lump of brass and made appear using chemicals and processes that have been around for over 100 years. It’s’ just a bit of magic and soul you can’t get with a computer.