The Meaning of Film's Decline

I shoot both digital and film. In Colombia, I've found exactly one lab that processes medium format color and it charges roughly 2.5 times what the two labs I use in the US charge me. That means, although it sounds absurd, I can save hundreds of dollars each year by sending film FedEx back to the States. Even cheaper than sending a package to the US is to wait to develop until my next trip back.

The last time I was there to turn in and pick up my rolls in person, the employee of the lab reached across the counter to shake my hand and thanked me for still using film. About a year before, she had done the exact same thing. She also, telling detail, has a spool of 35mm film tattooed in a spiral around her forearm.

This is a problem. Not the tattoo, which I wouldn't get, but to each their own, but because I think she actually accelerates the inevitable alteration of meaning of the format she wants to preserve with that handshake.

The "death of film" - I prefer "decline" - is what it is: inevitable and overblown. We live dedicated to a discipline established on a technological bedrock that shifts ever so often, upending itself, opening fissures that give us opportunities and new toys. Film's eclipse was inherent in its invention, as the end of early digital formats is already written. This is the inevitable history of photography.

It's overblown in the sense that this is any sort of surprise. The next hundred years will continue to bring unimaginable change to the medium and to be surprised by this is your own damn fault. Additionally, I think it's not a stretch to suggest that film will always be available, even if it's through niche businesses with websites that play classical music when they load and it costs a kidney. We can still make daguerreotypes today if we really, really want to.

The interesting conversation isn't around the technological changes of photography, but rather what happens to visual language and the meaning of our work due to technological declines in our medium. It is in relation to those considerations that the woman's annual handshake irritates me, plus the fact she doesn't remember what I had hoped was a more memorable and charming personality and face. The woman thanks me for staying true to some sort of cause, and by doing so introduces nostalgia, superiority and resistance not only in the act of continuing to produce photographs in a particular way, but in the actual meaning of the photographs produced in the medium. This is the irony: staunch defenders of film have actually accelerated the changes in the reading of work produced on film with discourse that creates nostalgia, superiority and resistance in the photographs themselves. The infection of meaning with these overtones comes from its inherent link to technique and form, but also through direct shifts to meaning.

My father, some would say...well, ALL would say...is nostalgic. I know nostalgia. In contrast to what I just proposed in the preceding paragraphs, there are plenty of reasons we could pull out the bottle and hug every time Kodak drops another type of film or every time a roll of Portra jumps another dollar.

The loss of film as a mainstream photographic practice is, like the decline of every previous format for creating photographs over the last 170 years, the elimination of a mainstream vocabulary and way of visualizing reality as well as an alteration of its meaning and visualization in the corners of photography where it remains in use. Every format has particularities and film renders space, light, color and volume in distinct ways from digital as well as from the formats previous to film's invention. Those distinctions affect content because changes in how photographs appear create different readings just as the changes in how the words we choose when we write a text alter meanings as we read them.

The decline of a format in mass popularity creates a loss of easy financial access to it, also changing the demographics of those involved in the conversation held through that format. Film will become the province of those that can afford it just like every previous format that has declined; the format becomes selective, reduced and specialized in who speaks with it. The visual conversation becomes a much less democratic one and the meaning of speaking through it shifts, just as in the 1950s peppering your speech with French terms meant erudition, aspiration and worldliness and now it just makes you sound like an asshole.

Additionally, digital, as Fred Ritchin and dozens of others have argued, also affects the credibility of images. The ease and speed of manipulation of digital images creates ever more doubt in how we read photographs and this is a major issue in particular to photojournalists and documentarians whose content and authority comes from their integrity. Witness the inevitable annual World Press Photo dance around the questions of truth and photography and the passions that it arouses – for these folks, to lose integrity is to lose one's way of making a living.

Yet while we have legitimate reasons to be nostalgic and while nostalgia is inevitable in the long term, for almost everything and everyone as they are looked back upon from a far enough distance seems nostalgia-worthy, to choose to invoke nostalgia now through conversation and action, with many art photographers still using film and major companies still producing it (if Kodak is still a major company) prematurely accelerates a psychological cultural process that has begun to burden the many of us that still shoot film with unwanted associations and, ultimately, meanings. The power of the content in film photographs begins to be limited by replacing conversation on their meaning and assessment of their value with a focus on the least powerful elements of photography, technique and process and, additionally, the reading of meaning in film photographs is infected by this conversation on technique and process as it injects nostalgia and also sister concepts such as scarcity, the passing of time, decline and death through the interlinking of technique, form and content directly into how we read the image.

For most of us, film was the universal visual vocabulary we grew up in and one that we associate our memories with and therefore see our very selves as. It was the standard capture in most art photography, photojournalism and documentary practice for so many decades it wasn't a choice, but essentially a given. By shifting away from the medium, we slowly rupture those visions and assumptions, the meaning of a film image directly shifts meaning per se towards nostalgia as we perceive the image, and the very decision to shoot film becomes a loaded one forcing the photographer into considering the added variables in regards to how their photographs will ultimately be read and interpreted. While this process is inevitable, it is a process unnecessarily accelerated by a handshake that foregrounds decline as the dominant mental framework around film in conversation and action.

In addition to issues of nostalgia, the clerk also insinuates, in my interpretation of her handshake, a sense of superiority of film over digital which misunderstands how comparisons should work. Judging digital against film's language - including fidelity to color, expanded tonal range and a separation of planes that gives a realistic expression to air and volume - of course film is superior.

She commits the sin of not letting each medium be its own language and letting it describe reality with its own unique qualities. It's also a judgment that forgets Matisse's maxim, apparently stolen from Eugène Delacroix, that, "Exactitude is not truth." An assertion of the superiority of film based in its descriptive abilities of reality is as exciting as the last season of Lost. I have seen photographs made with early generation one megapixel cell phones that have spoken to me much more profoundly about reality and my perception of living than 8x10 contact prints. It also, one can argue, limits photography's aspirations and the possible range of its future developments by asking digital to ape analog criteria of quality. Formats aren't superior to each other, they are different from one another.

Finally, in addition to the issues around nostalgia and assertions of superiority, trying to make shooting film into an act of resistance links uncomfortably to the belief in film as a format objectively better than digital, again focusing the conversation on technique and process and adding to that an association with shooting film as a kind of attempt to challenge the flow of photographic history. Resistance to this flow would destroy more than it preserves by attempting to limit reality to its current iterations. It's ultimately reactionary.

And so I resent this woman's handshakes. I don't want to be in her club. I still shoot film because I started a project in 2010 in film and I still haven't figured out what the work wants to be yet – I know, I know - and I don't want to switch formats mid-project without some sort of reason based in the project itself. I resent the focus she puts on how the images are made that reduces the conversation from content to technique. I certainly don't want my photographs to be judged by how well they define reality as the criteria for their quality. I don't want to be creating work that's increasingly resonant with the word nostalgia, or to have the way I create photographs be associated with mentalities of superiority or resistance, or injected conceptually with relationships to decline and scarcity.

Film is still available and I shoot it. Eventually it will be much more difficult to get and I probably won't shoot it anymore. Yet while its inevitable continued decline as a contemporary process will bring with it some unfortunate consequences and the eventual loss of a vibrant conversational medium for photographers as has already happened for non-photographers, nothing can castrate film as a medium faster than basing our conversation and actions in its decline.

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