Well today is a marked occasion in the artistic life of Paul Miller, the once stoic proponent of 35mm film has finally purchased a Digital SLR. I know, I know, I’m around twenty years behind the rest of the world, but what can I say, I’m cheep. My prized Praktica, fully manual SLR 35mmm will still be snugly stored in my camera bag with a few rolls of film (and now I’ve found where I can purchase Tmax ), but not long after a few hours of playing with the used Nikon D40 I picked up today, it fitting nicely in my hands and my fingers quick to discover how to adjust aperture and speed easily without fumbling and crying at the complexity of modern technology and vowing never to pick it up again, I began to see some potential.
Now I’m not trying to convince anyone that I’m a purest, and that the virtues of older technology far out-way that of the new, or that I’ve submitted myself to the ever immolating maw for the need to satisfy instant gratification, but I will say that not too long ago, somewhere deep inside, a little piece of my heart broke.
Look back with me three years, my camera was collecting dust on the shelf above the coats, and children and work occupied my attention, and there was little time to give to the task of artful photography. Of course we had a cheep Kodak digital to take pictures of the kids to save and share, but it hardly had the control of my Praktica. I mean, what’s depth of field?
It was a hot summer day and my wife and I had taken the kids out to look around the town-wide ‘trash and treasure’ day in the village where we lived, and after a grueling journey down main street where the three little ones had to stop at every table to look through boxes and baskets of used toys in order to spend their dollar on a bag of fifty carefully studied gems, we came upon some tables erected under some shady, grand chestnut trees. My wife was talking with a friend and the kids were busy with their new finds sitting on the grass, and there, on one of the folding tables was a shining treasure, a silver and black Olympus OM1 amidst an assortment of lenses; the push-pull zoom even had a black leather carrying case with draw string. A flood of memories washed over me like images revealing themselves on pure white, glossy paper in a tray of developer. The trips to the pro shop to buy black and white film, the excursions with friends to experiment with techniques, dropping off the rolls to be developed, and waiting for a week before making the trip to see what awaits in the carefully folded envelopes.
“How much?” I asked.
“Twenty for everything,” he replied.
What! Twenty dollars for this ancient artifact, this piece of human ingenuity, this mechanical marvel of marvels! I mean, think of all the photographs that had been taken with this very camera, trips across country, weddings, graduations, days on the beech, flowers in the garden, closeups portraits of young lovers, all passing through the soft curve of the fifty millimeter or other suitable lens. I couldn’t wait to get to the local photo store and get some rolls of film. The light meter was functional so the battery was still good, and with the camera being a steal at twenty dollars, I had plenty of extra cash to spend on a multitude of different rolls of films. I rushed the family home, jumped in the truck and raced to the local go-to place for all things camera, my mind filling with ideas, looking at trees and fields and hundreds of potential places and views to capture.
“Hello,” I grinned from ear to ear.
“How can we help you,” the man smiled back from behind the counter.
“I’m looking for a shutter release cable,” I motioned a pumping action with my thumb on a closed fist, “and a roll of 100 ISO and a couple of 200’s…”
He looked at me blankly, “You mean a shutter release?!” and he made the same motion with his hand.
“Yeah,” I nodded, still grinning stupidly.
That’s when it all began to fall apart. He muttered something about perhaps finding something upstairs in storage and he went to look. The young girl helping explained to me that they don’t have 100 or 200 ISO but they do have some 400, and they wouldn’t be getting any other kinds in. He came back with a murky plastic bag with folded cardboard stapled at the top. He flopped it on the counter and tried to imagine what he might charge for something like that.
“Where’s all the film?” I asked mystified.
That began a long discussion on the reality of photography for the previous ten years. No more film within a few years, you can’t buy developer nor fixer for your darkroom, nor photographic paper.
“Why,” was his question, “would you bother?”
I dragged my foolish tail behind me with a limp shutter release cable and my three rolls of Fuji 400 in my hands and felt like a stupid, silly dinosaur. I nearly broke down in tears as I explained to my wife what the terrible prognosticator of the impending doom for film cameras had said. What happened? You don’t obliterate one technology because an alternative has come along. Digital is just for lazy, impatient people who don’t understand the intricacies of feeling the camera body, the aperture ring and clickety clickety of the advance leaver, the satisfaction of winding a roll back into its cocoon with the little tiny windy thing after the final frame has been captured. The sense of reflected light smashing onto the film branding itself into the silver emulsion. The transmogrification of nitrocellulose-film-base into the images that fill your photo albums that stack on the bottom of your living room bookshelf and in boxes stuffed on the attic.
My dusty enlarger with missing bits and pieces will be buried deep in a landfill to never more shine it’s light through the smiling faces of my children onto paper so sensitive you had to purchase it at night.
As time went by, and I repeated my story of woe to unhearing friends and family, I became more and more sure footed in my stance that they will never beat me down, that film will last, and I shall be vindicated. That there will always be someone who shares my love for things that are good and just and will keep open a shop that sells and prints film.
Move to present day, and I marvel jealously over photographs posted on Flickr and Facebook. I still post photos from our 0.46 megapixel digital on my FB wall, and have piles of envelopes stacked on all surfaces in the house, some nice, some of family and friends with their eyes closed or of their mouths open in expressions of stupification. I think the time has come for me to bite the bullet and pay the price. I will buy a negative scanner so I can upload my beauties onto the world and blow their unsuspecting minds with images of tranquil blisstitude. But I don’t have the money to buy a nice one so I’ll shop around for a used one. A quick search online shows me there’s a shop on Bank Street that sells used equipment. Lets start there.
Enter into the realm of the photo-maniac.
“How can I help you sir?”
“Yah I’m looking for a dedicated scanner for 35mm negatives.”
“Well we have this one, but it’s pretty cheap and does a lousy job, but it’ll get it done for you…your other choice is this $7000 Epsome photoscannulator with a Dmax rating of 900 and a resolution that makes a flees bum look like the Rockies.”
“But what is it you’re trying to accomplish here?” and so it began, a somewhat abbreviated recital of what I’ve generously shared with you here and a sympathetic ear from the photoguru of Canada.
Ask one question,”so what’s the digital equivalent to 35mm film?” and get a detailed answer that shoots so far over your head you feel a cool breeze and hear a hollow sound like you may be entering a coma.
“Well, I gotta D40 in the back here, it’s got no lens but I’ll let it go for two hundred.”
I mean, the cheap scanner was near that anyways.
I smucked a lens on it from my camera bag (the fact that I have a Nikon lens is another long story that I’ll perhaps save for another occasion) and played with it a bit. My new friend loaded the photos onto his laptop and voilà.
“Hey, those are pretty good,” I marveled.
So I don’t have auto focus, but that’s more technology wasted on useless irrelevance. I snapped the equivalent of 40 rolls of film within 35 minutes of being home and have a handful of pictures that I would be willing to allow the rest of the world to see, if only they suffer to the end of this post.
Why do we cling so tightly to the past sometimes? Will I use film ever again? Who knows, but don’t tell me you don’t sometimes yearn for the simpler days of your youth, whether it be riding in your dad’s 20 foot station wagon with room to sit twelve, or the day your folks brought home your first black and white television. Life was good back then, even if it wasn’t really.