There is somethng alluring about monochrome photographs.
They encourage us to look closer, to look beyond colour and see the textures, shapes and shades in the world around us. They draw us in and hold our attention, helping us to see things differently. They make the familiar seem new and the hidden, seen.
I was drawn to monochrome photography because of this love of monochrome images. However, it was my decision to enter this world of monochrome images using film in preference of digital that has resulted in a richer experience than I could ever have envisaged. So, why go to all the trouble of film photography when digital can offer instantaneous results and almost infinite editing possibilities? The answer is already there in the question; it is the word “instantaneous”. What appears to be such an attractive proposition is in fact the very thing that can limit the pleasure of photography.
Slowing things down
Don’t get me wrong. Digital photography is amazing. The ability to take high quality images, instantly see the results, edit them on a standard home computer and print them in your local supermarket is an astounding technological feat. However, it is based on the assumption that instant gratification is a benefit. I challenge that assumption. I believe that there are a lot of benefits to be had from slowing things down. For me the journey is more important than the destination.
Once I had decided to give film photography a revival I searched out my old camera bag from the back of the wardrobe and took out my old Canon A1, originally purchased in 1983. I was relieved to find that, on inserting a new battery, the camera seemed to be in working order. So far, so good. I now needed to shoot some rolls of film and see the results.
When i started to take monochrome film shots, the initial thing I found was that I took far more time than previously, planning and looking at what I was about to photograph. There were two elements to this. The first was the way in which I actually looked at things because I was “thinking” monochrome. I was much more aware of shadows and light, texture and shape. But more importantly, because I didn’t have the instant feedback of an image to look at (as I would with a digital camera), I took time to assess everything about the shot before I pressed the shutter release. I also ensured that I took a number of shots at different settings (bracketing) to give the best chance of getting the image I wanted.
The next part of slowing down was the wait for the film to be processed. I didn’t have processing equipment so I had to wait about four days to get my negatives back from processing. This delay reinforced the whole “slow” approach and actually added to the enjoyment and anticipation.
It was with an element of trepidation that I collected my first negatives from the camera shop. Would the negatives be usable? Was the camera still working properly? Holding a strip of negatives up to the light I felt like I had been transported back thirty years. I was relieved to find that the negatives seemed ok. I could make out the images I had captured and felt a small sense of pride in what I was doing.
The next step was to actually print from the negatives. Luckily the Gallery of Photography rented out fully equipped darkrooms so I promptly booked a three-hour session for the following week.
Enlarging and producing prints is a very tactile experience, compared with the computer-based approach of digital editing and printing. It is a manual process, with dials to be turned, images to be focussed, timing adjustments to be made, photo paper to be bathed in chemicals and results to be examined. It is also a pseudo-random process. By this I mean that it does not have the repeatability of digital processing where images can be endlessly reproduced with a digital exactness. When printing from negatives there will always be subtle differences between prints; this is one of its most attractive qualities, the uniqueness of each individual print. There will inevitably be variations in exposure, developing, paper etc.
There is such satisfaction in watching a white paper sheet come to life before one’s eyes in the bath of developer. The images floats into existence before one’s eyes – pure magic!
Again, that tactile experience of lifting the print with a set of tongs from the developer into the stop, then into the fixer and finally into the rinse. There is a sense that one is actually ‘making’ something rather than just clicking on the computer mouse.
Over a week had elapsed between the moment when I had taken the shot and the moment I held the first print in my hand. Because I had spent so much more time and effort in making it, I felt much more “ownership” of this print than I would have with digital images. It is true that one values more those things that take more effort and it certainly was true in my case.
In a world obsessed with instant results, instant gratification and digital images, I recommend you slow things down, take our your old film SLR and enjoy the journey!