4.23.2009

Why do I keep talking about shooting medium format black and white film????

I had lunch today with a very well known advertising shooter who does work with the big boys. That would include:  McDonald's, Quaker, Compu-Add and many other big names.  We were sitting around eating burgers and talking about our favorite subject: Photography.  I mentioned that I'd added yet another medium format camera to my collection and he scoffed.  I'd never seen a really good scoff before but he did it expertly.  The kind of scoff that makes you feel like you totally missed the boat.

"Just get a Canon 5Dmk2 and be done with it." he told me.  And I think it's probably good advice but I'm rather bull headed and I really like what I like.  

And what I like are classic black and white portraits that are shot on long medium format lenses with the aperture set to nearly wide open.  The opener the better.  As long as I'm not sacrificing core sharpness.  My favorite looks come from 150mm lenses on 645 or 6x6 bodies. And, without doubt, the film of choice is Kodak's amateur version of Tri-X.  Let's shoot that at ISO 200 and pull the development just a tad for some really wonderful skin tones with lots and lots of detail in the highlights.  You remember that kind of highlight detail, it's what you used to get before you started living in fear of your digital camera burning out all the good stuff.

Right about now is where a person who's never shot film comes in and says,  "All the stuff from the old days is bullshit.  I can replicate any of it in Photoshop".  Oh the hubris of youth. Would it change their opinion if they knew that I started shooting digital in 1997?  That I've owned Kodak 660's and 770's while they were dancing to the New Kids on the Block ?  That I owned copies of Photoshop, pre-layers?  What if I told them that Photoshop once existed without "undo"?

So, the reality is that there are things the medium format cameras can do when it comes to imaging that small sensor cameras cannot do.  The number one attribute is the ability to make focus fall off fast.  While keeping the areas that are in focus incredibly sharp.  Is that subtle?  Yes, but so are fine wines, good tailoring and proper grammar.  Does everyone desire it?  No.  Some people like everything to be in focus.

But here's the deal.  I'm not willing to settle for "good enough" or the hoary phrase, "good enough for government work"  or "this isn't rocket surgery".  You only get one life and you might as well do your art exactly as you envision it.  And for me that means controlling the focus fall off.

On to the film.  Guarantee you that if you scan a piece of well shot and custom developed Tri-X you can't mimic it convincingly in PhotoShop without hours of hard work.  And even then you probably won't be able to get the non linear nature of the edge acutance and the non geometric changes of tonality to work the same way.  It's too perfect perfection will give it away.

Here's the thing I think you need to know about art:  We are attracted to the imperfection that exists in nature.  The imperfection in a face is the frame for aesthetic perfection.  When everything is symmetrical we are bored by it.  When everything can be endlessly duplicated and every experience exactly replicated it looses its attraction.  Film works precisely because it doesn't work perfectly every time.  To attempt to be an artist means being afraid to fail miserably but to go forward anyway.

That, in a nutshell, is the appeal of film to me and a legion of other people who can have it both ways but choose to try and master the infinite nature of craft over the ease of digital production.

Before you write me off as a Luddite, please understand that I own all the same cameras that my possible detractors probably own.  A Nikon D700 and a D300, a drawer full of cool lenses.  A big Apple computer.  The works.  And I use them every day for client work.  But for my own stuff I can't bear the compromise, and, after hearing the workflow lecture of Vincent Laforet, I decided that  life is too short to become a slave to my digital archive.  Tending it and replanting it on every changing generation of storage devices until my whole life's energy is consumed with  "migrating" my library of ephemeral images every two years.  I'll keep the real art in a notebook.  In a filing cabinet, where, properly stored it should last a lifetime.  And the negatives should be printable long afterward.

Here's to beautiful black and white portraiture.  If I remember correctly, the photo of Michelle was done with a Pentax 645 using the 150mm 3.5 lens wide open with a large tungsten light source.  According to modern pundits I've done everything wrong.

To see more work like this please go to my website and look for the black and white portfolios.

Thanks, Kirk

for more lighting tips see my Studio Lighting book!