“In many ways, shooting film allows us the perfect middle ground between connection and detachment…the time that it takes to develop our images also forces us to distance ourselves from the photos we’re taking, giving us time to consider how we really feel about them.” ~ Alex Gray for Lomography
I received my very first film camera, a Pentax, for my fourteenth birthday. I can’t remember the model now, although I’m sure I still have it in a storage box somewhere. Along with the prints of the first two rolls of film I took with it when on a school exchange later the same year in France.
Even now, more than twenty years later, I remember those photographs vividly. What stands out to me is that I can’t remember taking them. There are a few memories from that trip, but none of them are connected to the photographs. These pictures seem to offer a different experience from the one I can vaguely remember. An experience filled with art, scenic views, sleepovers and a quiet obsession with growling, cafe-littered cobbled street scenes.
There’s one photo in particular I think about often, taken from the top of the steps at the Sacré-Cœur. I don’t remember climbing the stairs or who I was with when I did, but I remember that photo. Despite my novel camera skills, I’d managed to hone in on the view, and the figures standing around in the foreground are darkened blurs. It’s close to dusk, and the sky is a hazy pink-blue.
I’d love to find that photo someday. Perhaps the next time I go home to England.
Alex Gray’s essay, quoted above, for Lomography magazine caught my attention as they discuss the reasons behind why we take photos. I guess my experience with the Sacré-Cœur is a sort of testimony to what Alex is getting at about connection and distance.
That photo is a relic of my emergence from childhood to adulthood (that trip was my first without my parents), and perhaps that’s why I feel an attachment to it. Knowing it exists out there in the world somewhere makes me happy. A moment of, I did that, I was here, I experienced life.
When I look at the photos of my Paris trip, I want to reach into the past, to my adolescent self, so concerned with what other people are thinking and hug her. Despite her crippling anxieties, there's an observation of life in those photos that I'm grateful to her for capturing. They're reminders that for a long time, despite my fears, I found the world so open and beautiful.
And while I might think that less so these days, the photos serve as a reminder that feeling can be found again. It's worth capturing.
Holding Onto Versions of Ourselves
I recently had a roll of film developed, and when I collected the prints, there were half a dozen shots of my dogs in there.
My husband questioned why I’d taken so many when I already have thousands on my phone (and, quite accurately, I literally spend every day with them - they’re right in front of me most of the time). I thought for a moment before advising he’ll thank me for these candid photos of them when they’re gone, taken around the home in its full mundanity.
Unlike my iPhone photos, which are mostly taken on our hikes and walks, the dogs often posed and focused on me as I tempt them with a favoured treat, these shots show the simplicity of our daily life.
The film photos feature them snoozing in the sun of our kitchen or in front of the wood fire in my office, or close-ups of their little boopable noses with obscured backgrounds. In many, one dog is focused in the frame while the other has moved and is blurred, or already made half an exit, so just a fluffy tail or lone paw remains. One of my favourites is our oldest boy sitting up proudly on our armchair, draped in sun stripes filtering through the wooden blinds behind him.
The photos don't just make me think of them, they remind me of the places - physical and existential - we were living in at the time. My dogs are charting an unparalleled phase of my life and they can't recant any of it back to me. They are silent witnesses to so much of who I am becoming. They might seem my benign companions, but they hold an immense amount of emotional weight for who I am and strive to be.
I will most likely outlive them and they will leave me with nothing but a consistent longing - for their soft, warm bodies pressed against mine and the parts of me they'll take with them. Gone forever.
Except, perhaps, momentarily found in the glint of a bright brown eye in a 35mm photograph taken one sunny day in the garden when we lived on an island at the end of the earth.
Sharing is Caring
If my photographs are to support my own memory and expressions of life from different phases, why then do I share them online? Why does anyone share anything at all, whether analogue or digital?
In their article, Alex asserts that sharing is caring and does a great job of exploring what this really means for photography - especially in a media-heavy world where anyone can snap a photo, edit, filter, tweak and re-create with a few simple taps on their device. I won't go into details here and regurgitate what they have to say, but definitely recommend you read the full piece.
Photography is still an art, but what does that mean in contemporary society? I’ve been pondering about creativity and why we feel driven to share our creative efforts for a while (largely in connection to the question of why I myself specifically bother to share anything at all) - is it ego, narcissism or connection?
“Photographs are the universal language of our era. Everyone has hundreds, maybe thousands, in their pocket. Weightless, they turn the scale when the argument is: What happened here?” ~ Kathy Ryan, Director of Photography, the New York Times Magazine
While I’ve been reading widely about this artistic query for some time, I don’t yet have any concrete answers because many examples sway the discussion in either direction for me. Alex touches on this, too:
“In the annals of art history, there have been rare individuals who don’t want to share their work, even when that work is extraordinary. Vivian Maier is one of the most famous examples, or outside of the world of photography, Henry Darger. We find these people fascinating, and we call them “outsider artists.” Nothing, it seems, is so alien to us than an artist who doesn’t share their art…To deliberately disconnect seems counterintuitive to the fundamental reasons for making art.”
I'm at a crossroads when I reflect on my creative efforts in writing and sharing my fiction. I pursued getting my work ‘out there’ for years, but more recently, I’ve waned. I haven’t stopped writing but I've felt less motivated to share or attempt to publish the work.
I’ve relished indulging my writing joy without the follow-on pressure to edit, kill my darlings and subject myself to the never-ending pursuit of publication. It’s been a returning to the simplicity of creating, but I feel what Alex says when they question why you would create and intentionally choose not to share.
My photography, on the other hand, is something I continue to love sharing. Whether via Instagram or on my Lomography account, I enjoy showcasing the visuals I’ve been indulging in.
I’ve always loved taking photos (and was a very early adopter of Instagram - and yes - it was much better when it really was just about photography). For a long time, digital cameras were my go-to, but I began acquiring a collection of film and polaroid cameras, things I found in op shops and antique shops. I’d dot them about my bookcases.
Most of them were no longer functional, but I liked what they still represented: a way to engage in the present moment but still take a memory of it into the future with you.
In recent years, I’ve found myself returning to my love of film photography. While I’m wrapping my head around my own creative philosophies and attempting to answer the question of why I create and what it means to me, film photography is the balm that soothes.
Outside of snapping multiple shots via my iPhone and choosing the right one, film photography encourages me to ground myself in the present moment and pay attention to the details.
It invites me to create the memory and then forget about it for as long as pleases me - until I decide to get the film developed. I am rarely without a film camera these days, snapping the things that catch my attention.
Some of my rolls of film have traversed the globe with me, only to be developed a year or more later. One roll I developed recently had shots from London, Maastricht, Canada, Melbourne and Perth. Sometimes I intentionally don’t take a photo with my phone if I have taken a photo with my film camera, saving the moment for a later fraction of joy when I see the print and remember.
Film photography has a way of alerting my senses. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve looked at one of my film prints and recalled the chill in the air, the smell of the rain, the dog barking across the street - any number of small details that are lost with the instant gratification of digital economies.
And perhaps I should ponder more - try to offer some further arguments and philosophies here about photography as art or memory or why we bother to share anything we do at all. Some psychological standpoint (there are many). Write it all down, dissect and tease apart and back together again any ideas I might have. But I am not that far gone in this thinking for myself, and certainly don't have the prowess to offer anyone else anything you can't read in more detail and better thought out than I could put down into words.
I only have my own experiences with attempting to be creative and if I am honest that's all I wanted this piece to be.
A summation of where I'm at and a little sharing of the photographs I am starting to cherish, along with the soft knowing that one day, years from now I'll look at them and feel something nostalgic for a time in my life when everything and anything could happen.
Not too dissimilar to how I think about those Paris photos.
Urgh. I sound pompous.
All this to say, if you feel you are getting lost in the subtle loss of meaning that sometimes comes from the digital dependence that drives our days, pick up a film camera.
Find something that catches your eye, create a photo journal of your life as you live it now or find a moment you might want to keep sacred for a time.
Point the lens.
You may have noticed that I use works from some of my favourite artists to accompany my thoughts. Going forward, I am going to use my film photography. A way of forging a connection between my two creative loves and, perhaps, you.