2.23.2020

The Inspiration of Operational Friction. Why old guys want to go back and shoot film.

The Sigma fp can be a pain in the ass to shoot with...
for the uninitiated. 

Face it, some people just love a challenge. It's why humans invent stuff, create stuff and generally push boundaries when they really don't have to. When things become so easy that the results are eerily predictable people get bored and look for ways to make their processes harder so they can own the virtue of the effort required to do things that are not easily do-able by everyone else. 

Most old guys who profess to "love" photography grew up in the time of film and had to learn all the alchemy of shooting, processing, printing and presenting if they wanted to be successful in the field. I've written before that I think most were drawn to the challenge of having a complex process to learn and master more so than actually having a profound visual message they wanted to share. At one point in history photography they nestled in at a point where the discipline was still difficult to master but not nearly as daunting as the age of large format glass plates, and, having achieved a balance between ease of use and just enough friction photography became the pervasive imaging tool of choice for many. From the 1970's until the turn of the century film became much more consistent, cameras much easier to use, and printing was a mature technology.  But it still took time. And resources. And knowledge.

Make no mistake, the whole process still required people to know a lot and to practice the workflow and processes a lot. There were also far fewer ways to "fix" images that you messed up on in the initial taking stage of photography. You had to get more things right in camera to be proficient. The process for most working photographers, and a great number of ardent amateurs, was still time consuming and daunting, and information was harder to come by that just initiating a Google search or watching a "take me by the hand and explain to me with small words" video tutorials on YouTube. Most people hit the wall when it came to loading film onto reels in total darkness...

Film had to be correctly loaded, meters read, focus adjusted, filters applied for shifting color temperatures and so on. If you wanted faster or slower film you either had to unload and reload your camera or carry along multiple cameras, preloaded with a variety of film types. 

Most people in the general population could not be bothered to either learn the minutia or to spend the money required to participate fully. Most lighting stuff didn't really enjoy the low prices mass production made possible in the first two decades of this century: it was priced more painfully. 

While it's true that, adjusted for inflation, most cameras were equally affordable back in the film days, compared to current digital cameras today, but what people who make those comparisons miss is the sheer cost of film and its attendant processing. It cost money per frame to shoot. Money that seemed then to constantly be in short supply for most. And it required experience not to mess up a developing tank full of latent images by making some critical misstep.

For the last twenty years or so hobbyists and pros alike have been investing their discretionary time and money into digital cameras and all the associated accessories and, until recently, having a blast doing so. They've been hellbent, in the early stages of digital development, in having the pleasure and bragging rights of mastering yet another aspect of photography. Living on the new edge.

Photographers seemed to be having a blast until right up to about three or four years ago at which time I started hearing about many people's enthusiasm for photography waning. After having mastered the "art" of getting images out of the new technology that are, by every measure, profoundly better than what they had been able to get out of film and film cameras they had become bored. (The gods make  bored first those whom they wish to destroy - Virgil...).

It was at the point when "sufficiency" was declared (the idea that current technology and capabilities were more than enough to satisfy most users) that the boredom set in like a fog over the legions of photographers who had just a few years earlier been on the hunt for the "next great thing."  Seems that in the absence of a message, or a subject matter to pursue, the game of "mastery" had run its course and many photographers became victims of a certain ennui. An emptiness about their hobby. A feeling of gloom about their occupation.

I posit that any true art requires a certain degree of friction in its process for us to feel that it is both challenging and worthwhile. Writing a novel comes with a set of challenges that is immune to changing technologies. Yes, you can now dictate your manuscript directly to your computer but the true guts of any novel is the story, the descriptive artistry, and the perseverance to get the whole story out before you run out of time and die; or become too bored and distracted to finish. 

Mastering html or the art of "researching" on the web has, really, nothing to do with the true process of writing the book and telling the story. In this one way writers are naked and alone. There's no machine to blame for the short comings of the final product, no special keyboard that will facilitate the use of better analogies or cleaner word play. But in photography......it's all interwoven. The vision, the technology, the human interface and even the final presentation. If you are subject driven that means you can create things more easily (a good thing) but if you are process or mastery driven it means there is so much less mastery needed; the friction which moves art forward has been remediated. Squashed. Lined with Teflon.

We can't even walk without friction giving us enough purchase to move forward. We couldn't pick up a cup of coffee without the friction between the surface of the skin on our fingers and the sides of a cup. Why would we think we would enjoy our process of mastery more if the one thing that gives us meaning in our proficiency is eliminated? Watch how art dies as the friction of creation is systematically removed. 

Since we adore mastery and we require a certain amount of friction in a process to push us to overcome and master the process the newest flurry of equipment and apps creates a tough choice: Give up and find something new to master or re-introduce enough friction to the process to both challenge ourselves and to create a barrier to easy mastery by the great unwashed. 

(This has nothing to do with the 10%(?) of photographers who are motivated purely by a subject matter they absolutely love or a message they feel duty bound to share with a wider audience. If that's you then don't take any of this personally...).

So now bloggers and writers of a certain age, who've been right there cheerleading the digital takeover all along, now find themselves bored (real challenge gone) and generating less income (all cameras now good enough and on a longer replacement cycle) and  they are looking around to find something different to take the place of that quick digital mastery. As Dash says in the movie, The Incredibles: "When everyone's special then no one is." 

What the pundits and hobbyists are mostly saying is that they want the friction back in their process. They want this photography thing to seem more like work and less like just hanging out and watching shit on TV. I'd even go so far as to say that in the cultures which embrace photography as a popular hobby there is a connection to how people feel valued while engaged in work. In many ways photography is the "work" of people when they are not at work. Some feel at loose ends when they aren't being productive in the moment and photography, with some friction involved, allows them to feel the familiar comfort of appearing productive even during time off, or on vacation. 

Give me back my friction. Give me back the belief that my work matters more than the inherent magic of the camera itself. 

Well, from what I hear and read the cohort of photographers who grew up with film and remember with nostalgia how much "better" and more difficult it was to take pictures back in "the day" are going retro. They are buying up film cameras and lenses to go with them. They are buying whatever film formulations are left as well. And they intend to go back to a time when not everyone did things the way they do now. They intend to reconstruct their feelings of engagement, challenge and even friction by pulling the baseplate off a Leica M film camera and struggling to get the film leader to catch just right. They look forward to a wide and virtuous variety of over-exposures and under-exposures which will only go to prove how difficult (hence rewarding) this revived process truly is. Mostly because it has the requisite amount of friction. 

Inevitably they'll bring with them (for a few months anyway) the energy and focus of new disciples. Film photography will be the "real thing." They'll start proselytizing the wonders of shooting with film, the wonders of advancing film with particular camera brand wind levers, gushing about the smooth focusing of vintage, manual focus lenses, ad infinitum. There will be a run on all the remaining film cameras littering Ebay and a whole cottage industry for writers will emerge as new readers require the guidance of a "film camera expert" to guide them through the wide range of cameras still available.

And then film will finally vanish and we'll have to find some other way to re-introduce enough friction into our lives to revive our feelings of adequacy and worth. 

Can't imagine videographers on a hot search for old 16mm movie cameras but then that's a whole different topic.


Final note. 

No one is immune. The reason I love shooting with the Sigma fp is that it can be a straight up pain in the ass to use. The I.S. is just silly and inconsequential, there's no EVF, it's interesting to hold, etc. but it does serve to make me think more and work more to get photographs I like.... Just so you don't think I hold myself above the fray.

27 comments:

Dick Barbour said...

Kirk,
Thanks for an explanation, which had so far eluded me, of why I chose to buy a Sigma SD Quattro. This is a circa 2015 camera that is like your FP in a lot of ways, except it has a Foveon sensor. For those who don't remember, that is the 3-layer (blue, green, red) sensor that claims to have 3x its actual pixel dimension's resolution. And after trying it I agree, it does have great detail and wonderful color if you get the exposure right. The raw files aren't handled by Camera Raw, so you have to use Sigma's own software to produce an intermediate TIF, and it will never be mistaken for a speed demon. Anyway, I got a lot of friction with it and am enjoying it for the reasons you so well stated. Oh, but it does have an EVF!
Dick

Eric Rose said...

So true. A lot of amateurs I ran into during the 70's and 80's had several things in common. They loved high fidelity stereos, high quality mechanical watches, might have an engineering background and/or love to putter around with engines. Most of these pursuits are very hands on, or at least on your wrist. When I mention hifi audio I am not referring to the crap Japan pumped out for decades. With one exception, the Kenwood KD-500/550 turntable with a Grace 707 tonearm on it. That was and still is an awesome plater spinner.

Audiophiles would spend countless hours testing their favourite direct to disk records on various combinations of preamps, power amps, speakers, cables, pickup cartridges, speaker placement and even the angle the pickup cartridge should be at relative to the surface of the record.

This same obsession with detail, mechanical design, fit/finish, and the voodoo nature of achieving success lent itself to analog photography in spades. Combine a Leica, Rolleiflex TLR or a Nikon F2 with a plethora of films and paper then stir the pot with Ansel Adam's exposure voodoo and you have a combination that is as addictive to the above mentioned personality types as "likes" are to our newer generations.

The older generations that grew up with analog are finding modern photography quite boring for the most part. It's like the new engines, you just can tinker with anything. The ability to completely create a false world in PS might hold some allure but even this fades.

What's left?

Going back to analog processes, which many are, or finding cameras that provide some "friction" as you describe it. Or as I have done taken up video production. I also have to admit I have never given up my darkroom and still shoot and print analog. Not very often mind you, but every once in awhile I need to scratch that itch. Yesterday I loaded my Leica M4 up with Ilford FP4. I'm tired of creating computer images for awhile.

I guess I needed some more "friction".

Eric

Dave Jenkins said...

Very perceptive post.

MikeR said...

Going back while venturing forward:
I have my Nikon D700 set to use a Nikon monochrome "picture control" tweaked to look like a Kodak B&W stock, and I'm forcing myself to use Epson's Advanced Black & White option, after I massage the image in Lightroom. All the film and darkroom fun without the mess.

By the way, when you shot with the D700, how high would you push the ISO?

Eric said...

Having recently introduced more than a modest amount of "friction" into my work by having a monochrome camera built (by stripping away the Bayer array that lets digital cameras THINK they've photographed in color), I take your point. It's the closest thing digital photography comes to shooting film, and it's a pain in the ass, not helped by the wholly illogical camera workflow (thank you Sony). I was after buttery smooth transitions from light to dark, but what I've achieved so far is low contrast images that resemble mud soup. I'm sure that this will resolve itself with time an practice, but .... perhaps there's a bit more friction that I really wanted. Time will tell.

The point of the post isn't to grouse about how big a pain this is, but to agree with you that there are things film cameras can do that digital cameras simply can't. There is something to be said for mastering old fashioned techniques. I can't help that I'll eventually meet or surpass the results I get form converting color digital images into BW digital images, and thence to prints.

As a post script, why prints? 1. For public display at very large sizes 2. Pull the plug, and your images remain until you pull them out and look at them, or your gallery closes, whichever comes first.

Michael Ferron said...

The reason one might shoot film besides "Because I can" is the classic old work flow. People still play vinyl, strum acoustic guitars, drive classic old vehicles, and a few even listen to the radio now and then! I love the look of B&W film and still shoot it now and then using a variety of old cameras.

Film may go away someday because no one makes film cameras anymore really. Maybe some large format stuff but when all the old repair techs move on and there are few cameras left to shoot then film will die.

Dragan Novakovic said...

How true, every word of it! As for me, although I did my best work with film in the 1970s, I wouldn't go back to the drudgery of it for the life of me. The thing is, then I was an ardent young beginner and now I'm an old geezer who has lost his mojo. But I keep hoping... A swansong perhaps?

Greg Heins said...

I go to two big photo art fairs each year (there's one coming up in NYC at the beginning of April) and believe me, I get all the friction I need from looking at the prints on display there. By the time I walk out, I am DESPERATE to get back to work!

Martin Fine said...

One has to wonder whether photo post-processing has gone through the same trajectory. The most recently developments in post-processing software have incorporated many of the same techniques utilized in the darkroom. From the use of LUTs, styles and presets, post-processing has also become an area of friction. If you watch enough Youtube videos and vsit photography sites you will find a number of photograpers lamenting that they are spending more time in front of their computers than taking pictures.

Rene said...

Hi Kirk,

I guess I'm one of those 10% of photographers you mention who are subject driven. I learned "just enough" technical knowledge to operate a film camera proficiently, but I was always more interested in the subject matter. Since I always shot color slide film (my mentor was a fanatic about the superiority of slides), I knew that I had to become really proficient in seeing the light and understanding how to expose properly. Other than that, the technical aspects of developing, etc. were best left to experts in my view. So for me, the friction became exposure, composition and subject matter rather than all the other aspects you mention above. However, this did not absolve me from the boredom you mention, as at a certain point you become good enough that the challenge of exposure and composition loose a lot of their friction leaving only subject matter as the challenge. This, for me, became particularly true with the advent of digital and the ability to manipulate files endlessly, but that too became boring after a certain point, again leaving only subject matter. Fortunately, the world is filled with interesting place, people and things. After decades of nature, landscape, and event photography, I'm currently on a search for new subject matter to bring back that friction.

Gato said...

For most of my time in photography, just about 50 years now, the friction has been in the content, in how do I make a picture that says something (even if it only speaks to me). How to make a picture that people will want to look at.

At the beginning I was told by my artist friends that I came into photography with a pretty decent eye and a feel for composition and subject. But soon I immersed myself in technique and somewhere along the way lost the eye -- my photos began looking just like all the others.

It came together at a gallery opening. People were praising the quality of my black and white prints when a photographer I much respected came up to me, shook his head, and said:

"All technique and no soul."

I've been working on soul ever since.

On another note, there's a group of 20 or so local artists and photographers who meet for breakfast on Fridays. A few weeks back one of the middle aged photographers asked, "How many of you wish you could go back to film?" The topic died a quick death in a chorus of "No" and "Never." I think the photographers with the most film experience were the quickest and loudest in the chorus.

Mitch said...

From 2002 until about 2008 or 2009, I wanted to go back to film. I wanted the systems and processes that worked instead of the battery hungry grainy flaky flash system digital stuff. I would have been content, like Bugs Bunny stepping unharmed off the falling elevator at the last second, to step directly from film into the functioning digital world late in the '00's.

One reason I pine for the film days is that there was some revenue to be had because I could ... make a black and white print and 'they' couldn't. Or me and my 300, 400 and/or 600 could sometimes create images consistently that they couldn't. So there was a nice little bit of revenue from those two equipment-operation factors during the film days, which are long gone.

A second reason I might pine is that dropping a dozen rolls of chrome or neg off at the lab and being told when they would be ready was way easier than doing post after several days of hard shooting, post that it's very hard to get compensated for in most instances. But, in the old times there was the pain of seeing what you missed, mis exposed, spent too much time on or flat out could have done better. But it was too late. The shoot was long over and hindsight at the lightbox only served to educate.

Perhaps my view is colored by having been a photojournalist for a couple of decades, having handled hundreds of thousands of rolls of film. I'd never go back to the darkroom but I do like some of the commercially available wet process prints from digital that are available. Nostalgia? Superior quality? Don't know.

Anonymous said...

Say what you will, nothing quite like a well done Contact Print from an 8x10 or larger negative.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

"Say what you will, nothing quite like a well done Contact Print from an 8x10 or larger negative."


Yes. You are right. I see so many examples on Instagram and they are just great....

adam said...

my old photography teacher predicted things fairly well in 1991 when he said "photographys going digital for the most part and film will carry on as a fine art process"

Fred said...

Kirk,
Regarding your penultimate comment in the post
“Can't imagine videographers on a hot search for old 16mm movie cameras but then that's a whole different topic.“
I ran across this article yesterday that may be apropos to that comment.
https://craftsmanship.net/real-film-strikes-back/
Boy oh boy! It is not every day that I get to use the words penultimate and apropos in the same comment.:-)
Fred

Mark the tog said...

When I learned to develop film and print in the 70's my world was taken up by process.
I wanted to make prints that rivaled Weston's and Adams'.

It wasn't until I started using a digital camera that I actually though about light.
Up to that point I was shooting all sorts of subjects but largely in open shade or on snowy fields. Each bringing a certain light I used almost exclusively.

So while the friction of wet process did challenge me, it also derailed my seeing.

Anonymous said...

Is it wrong to seek enjoyment from yesteryear's toys? I figured it was a form of recycling.

Jeff in Colorado

Andrew Johnston said...

I have another variant. My "friction" is software. If I can't find something which works as I want, I will end up writing it. I'm currently in the middle of developing my own editor for 360 degree panoramas from the Ricoh Theta... It's as much a part of my photography as going to beautiful places and photographing them.

Kodachromeguy said...

Kirk, I have an alternative observation. I think much of the enthusiasm for film is from young photographers in Europe and Asia. It is the old geezers who are still trying to fight the film versus digital war of 15 years ago. "I'd rather have root canal than shoot a roll of film again." It is sad, but I have read so many cynical comments like these from former film users who have jumped on the digital bandwagon. Many of them sound like they are trying too hard, as if they are still trying to justify to themselves why they gave up one skillset (at which they might have been quite accomplished) and moved to another. Is it internal cognitive dissonance about the topic, that they lost something? OK, so some photographers want to use film? So what? Support them, don't disdain.

Spike said...

After years of frustration trying to print B&W digitally, I went back to the darkroom. I like prints. Maybe others are good at printing digitally, but I can only get the subtlety I want in the darkroom. Perhaps even more importantly, in the darkroom, I'm on my feet and moving around. With the computer, I'm sitting hour after hour after hour. Yech.

Dragan Novakovic said...

Hi Kodachromeguy,

As I am the only 'old geezer' in this group of commenters, I think you are referring to my post and feel that I should try to clarify matters and clear misunderstandings.

I hope that I was quite clear about my four main points: I spoke strictly for myself; I wouldn't go back to film because it would be too much bother - for me; I have switched to digital but am not shooting - as I explained, I've lost my mojo (inspiration, zest, whatever); and I still hope that my former enthusiasm will come back to me. So, where do you see the cynicism, what crusade do you think I am conducting?

I wish to assure you that I have no axe to grind and am appreciative of all great photography irrespective of how it was made: what procedures and techniques Julia Margaret Cameron, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sally Mann, Saul Leiter and other greats used to make their art doesn't matter to me. So, if film or digital is not your cup of tea but wet-plate collodion (or fishing, or golf) makes you happy, go for it.

Best regards,
Dragan Novakovic

Gordon Lewis said...

The main reason I like "operational friction" is that, regardless of the source, it requires me to pay attention to what I'm doing and, if necessary, bend the tool to my will rather than the other way around. Too many photographers these days get so used to automation that it never occurs to them that cameras can't read minds, or if it does, they have no clue how to take control. Why take the time and trouble learn about photography and lighting if all you want to do is "point and shoot?"

MARK L said...

Well I look at your colour photos and tend to go 'meh', then I look at your square black and white film photos and I go 'yipee!' or something similar.
I love both film and digital, heck I just love photography full stop, however I recently tried a review of the last 45 years of my work (yep I'm 60). I simply picked out every photo I had taken that still thrilled me, being really fussy and picking out about 100 of my favourites from digital, colour slide, 35mm to 10x8in. And I earned a living from both film then digital. I was a bit staggered to find not one digital image in my top 100. Kinda makes me wonder.......YMMV.

George said...

I had the dry side of my B&W darkroom set up in my spare apartment bedroom. Black plastic over the window, weatherstripping around the door, and I would kick a towel along the bottom of the door. After exposing the print I would place it in a black plastic bag, carry it across the hallway into the bathroom and kick a towel along the bottom of the door. The tray of developer was on the left side of the sink. The stop bath on the right. The fixer on the toilet lid, The hypoclear in a tray in the bathtub next to a wash tray with water flowing through it. I kept a holding tub for the prints in the hallway and the archival washer was set up in the kitchen sink. The drying rack was on the dining room table. My dry mount press was stored in a closet. I made a few thousand prints this way.

And then there was developing film. Ilford HP5+ exposed usually at 400 but sometimes pushed to 1600. A five roll tank. I found developing film tedious so would sometimes allow it to back up to forty rolls or so to develop. It would take hours.

The ease of shooting digital does seem to "cheapen" it for me. I don't seem to value a good image the way I did with film. But that is a small price to pay to not have to go back and forth across that hallway.

A 36 exp roll of HP5+ costs $6.00 today before being processed. 17 cents every click of the shutter. And I'm no longer throwing dollar bills into the waste basket as I try to burn and dodge a print to my satisfaction.

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Nick said...

I think you hit the nail square on the head. When I first got into photography as a hobby more than a decade ago, I was fascinated by the gear. That fascination wore off as the gear got good enough for what I like to do (really, it was mostly there a decade ago) and I got good enough at basic technique to reduce it as a limiting factor. The friction was reduced to nearly zero, and the "leveling grind" (ask your son) has lost its appeal.

Now, I go through periods where I don't take many photos at all and periods where I shoot a thousand images every other weekend or so for months at a time. The high-friction part of it is gone, so the challenge is now in finding something new and interesting to shoot in my own style, or to expand and improve how I see. It's more of a meditative activity than a problem to solve. It's much better for me this way, but if I were a photography content creator (rather than just a hobbyist), I'd imagine that I would have a serious problem finding things to talk about.