Now that we can all take high-quality snaps on our smartphones, the days of film photography are surely numbered. Or are they?
Oliver Bennett discovers why some high-profile digital refuseniks are sticking with film, insisting it provides a superior experience for photographer and viewer alike.
Having first made his name as a war photographer, Don McCullin has continued to work throughout the world. His epic photograph of the ruins of Palmyra in Syria demonstrates the unrivalled graphic quality and texture of film images
Monochrome and with a brooding moral magnificence, the 250 silver gelatin photographs on display at Don McCullin’s recent Tate Britain exhibition were each hand-printed in his home darkroom, from an archive of 60,000 negatives, mostly taken on a battered Nikon F.
Proper photography, then: the polar opposite of a selfie. But why, when your smartphone can take a photograph, would you bother? Because, said McCullin, the globally renowned reportage photographer who made his name with compelling images of the Vietnam War, photography has been “hijacked” by the digital camera with its ephemeral feed of instantly forgettable pictures – and film still rules.
For most of us, it’s hard to beat the portable immediacy of digital photography. But film is coming back – and not just for the McCullins of this world. Resisting the march of the disposable digital age (where most of us don’t look twice at our digital snaps), new darkrooms are popping up across the globe. Colleges are teaching film photography as a fundamental skill. A younger generation has taken to film, both as part of a rediscovery of analogue tech and a reaction to the dizzy acceleration of digital. These new aficionados talk of the “grain” and of the “living image”, while decrying the digital desert. There is even experimentation with old techniques such as using a camera obscura, wet-plate processes and sun-burning photographic papers. As Sarah Krueger, Head of Department, Photographs, at Phillips New York, attests,
“The medium seems to be boundless and full of creativity. It’s a dynamic time for photography.”
It’s partly an argument about quality. “Film is thought filtered through chemistry and physics,” says gallery owner Michael Hoppen. “I liken it to drawing from life. A film photograph is an object: like a sculpture or a painting.” And it’s also about the process of taking a film photograph, which involves properly looking at your subject: thinking and composing. “Photography with film has a different rigour: the framing, the lighting, the exposure and the emotion,” says Monaco-based photo-journalist Nick Danziger, whose work is in London’s National Portrait Gallery. “It involves concentration. It gets you in the zone.” And you don’t want to waste expensive film, which enforces an inherent discipline.
Dafydd Jones’ shots of revellers in 1980s Oxford led to his working for Tatler and Vanity Fair. He has recently returned to shooting with film and making his own prints of his most famous photos, like this one from 1984, “Burning boat, Oriel”
Moreover, as Michael Collins, who specialises in large- format images of landscapes and industrial spaces, puts it, “Film is simply more mysterious. And it really has the edge when it comes to reproducing certain things, like sky.” Hoppen’s take on the film v digital debate is considerably less equivocal:
“Digital photography can be like bad Chinese food,” he declares. “You still feel hungry after looking at it.”
Sometimes, digital’s sheeny pixel mosaic just can’t compete with the nourishing imagery of film.
At a recent symposium on “Slow Looking” (a take on the “slow food” movement), Daniel Blochwitz, curator of Photo Basel 2019, discussed film’s comeback. “It’s curious that ‘digital natives’ [those who have grown up with digital] are in love with film, but it’s attracting many converts,” says Blochwitz, musing that some have a retro-nostalgic motive. “But it can’t be denied that using film is a more considered art.” It rewards the photographer and the viewer alike.
New York-based Emily Soto’s striking portrait and fashion photography is in high demand. Frequently using Polaroid, her work has an arresting, lyrical quality
Some photographers are reviving the whole darkroom process, including Dafydd Jones, who famously chronicled the London and New York social scenes for Tina Brown’s Tatler and Vanity Fair in the 1980s and ’90s. He has now returned to developing his own prints. “I was an early adopter of digital and loved it being so easy to shoot and catalogue,” he says. “But now I’m printing photographs that I’ve overlooked and it’s fantastic and satisfying.”
As well as these returnees, there’s a growing cohort of younger photographers choosing to work in film, from globally sought-after fashion photographers such as Philip Sinden, Emily Soto and Charlotte Wales to documentary art photographers like Cian Oba-Smith, who says that shooting on film keeps his work more “honest”.
Camera companies are responding to the trend. The Leica M-A has a cult following for its muscular engineering. In 2017 Kodak Alaris, the revived Eastman Kodak company, reintroduced Ektachrome colour slide film, dropped five years before. And there’s a knock-on effect on digital photography too. Fujifilm is making JPEGs that look like old film images; VSCO has created softer colours for its digital prints – it has long been a complaint from film aficionados that digital colour is at and atonal; and wider culture is interested: consider surprise cinema hit Finding Vivian Maier, about the lost American street photographer. Her beautiful and mysterious images taken in the 1950s and ’60s have found a passionate new audience and revived the notion of photographer as inquisitive flâneur: an idea at odds with the depthless imagery of Instagram.
Whether shooting fashion photography (as in this striking image for Harper’s Bazaar), portraits or still-life, for Philip Sinden there is “always a role for film”
Of course digital is easier, says Dafydd Jones, who is enjoying delving into his archive to produce a series of “Exhibition in a Box” sets of his various series. “But darkroom prints are more archival. They are highly rewarding. I even love the smell.” There’s only a minor hitch, he says: you need space for a darkroom.
That doesn’t deter real photographers. Sian Davey, who became one having previously been a psychotherapist, uses a 10×8 large-format camera for her direct images of family members and teenagers. “I knew intuitively I’d get better results with film,” says Davey. “I’m a portrait photographer and it offers the chance to get a greater colour range in skin. Digital is cold.” It’s also more physical: you have to think about the composition and potentially lug heavy equipment around. Some, like Dutch photographer Witho Worms, take the slow snap to its limit: his series Slag Heaps used carbon printing including soot from each mine, shot on a 12×20 camera. “You can actually see the image on top of the paper,” he says. “A digital image sits on the paper while a print from film has thickness that you can feel with a finger.”
Sian Davey’s large-format images often feature family members and teenagers. Shooting with film, she believes, gives her photographs (like this one, “Wilderness”) greater warmth and allows a range and subtlety of skin tone
The return to film is part of a wider movement. With the digital optimism of the Noughties in tatters, books like David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter have charted old technology’s new esteem. Film has found a new connoisseurship from those alert to tone, texture and the “stochastic” or happy accident. Yes, there’s a “fetishisation” of film, says Blochwitz, but it has come as a response to the “onslaught of digital images”. And in the era of “fake news”, film is more credible. As McCullin has said, “Digital photography can be a totally lying kind of experience… the whole thing can’t be trusted really.”
In the last two decades photography has come to the fore in contemporary art, a move that Blochwitz says was actually led by digital photography:
“The Dusseldorf photographers worked digitally and were able to print huge images that could compete with artworks.”
They revived interest in the photographic canon and now the editions market in fine printed photography is booming, with the great French photographers, from Brassaï and Eugène Atget to Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson, the ultimate collector’s trophies.
Nick Danziger says that working with film “involves concentration, it gets you in the zone”. This photograph, “Water Hydrant, Parkhead, Glasgow, 1995” is from his “Britain” series, which was turned into a book
Some buyers are even “scornful of digital”, she adds. What’s more, few can guess how long digital photographs will actually survive. “A platinum print will probably last 1,000 years,” says Blochwitz. Film still has that archival, documentary heft – and it could be good for you, too. “As well as everything else,” says Jones, “ film has helped me slow down in life. Which is great.”