by David LaBelle
I think most of us pine for something from our past – people, a car we loved, a pet or even a former self.
Sometimes, we don’t even know what we miss because our lives are so busy, then something triggers a memory, carrying us back through the decades.
Last week a reporter for the New York Times contacted me asking if I had photos from 35 years ago for a story he was working on. I found the 8×10 boxes holding the prints but years of humidity had glued most of them together. Hoping to separate and save as many prints as possible, I soaked them in the kitchen sink, then dried them in the tiny, warm closet that houses our water heater.
Wow, did the scene bring black a flood of memories.
As I looked at the rich tones of the submerged black and white prints and felt the emulsion and the water over my hands, the process carried me back to a lost time.
I realized how much I loved black and white film photography, especially the process of shooting, developing and printing. And I missed me, the documentary photographer, whose film camera felt as natural in hand as a baseball.
I never imagined I would ever quit shooting film or making prints. Yet, sadly, it has been at least 20 years since I last made a print in a darkroom.
A lot of photographers today write about how superior digital is to film, usually citing how much faster and easier it is. No more nasty chemicals or waiting for results, they assure. There are even filters that add grain to create the look of film for those who want it.
There is no debate that digital has transformed photography and made it easier, less expensive, likely safer without the chemicals, and more accessible to the average person. With it we enjoy amazing benefits – especially speed in capturing, transmitting and reproducing images, and therefore, as a news tool, digital photography is unequalled. And the higher ISO’s that allow us to see and capture in the dark like nocturnal creatures makes me jealous. I wish I would have had those when I was a daily news photographer.
But digital can never replace the experience film provided any more than microwaved food can replace the aromas, sounds and communion of preparing a slow-cooked meal.
As with most technological gains, something valuable is lost.
In this case, I feel we have compromised quality time.
Like riding a gas-powered vehicle while cutting the grass instead of huffing and puffing behind a push mower, you can cut the lawn a lot quicker and with less effort. But what is gained in time and ease, is lost in physical activity and connection to the earth.
Similarly, driving or riding in a car is different than walking or riding on the back of a horse. An automobile is faster, but what is gained in speed is lost in connection to our environment. The horse connects two living beings with earth and sky, while the automobile separates and insulates us from both.
As we have progressed, we have also lost so many sensual experiences.
The computer is another “artificial” layer between me and my images. With a film camera I feel a closer connection to both the beginning and end of the creation – the photograph.
And I miss the darkroom – the process of developing and printing, of being a craftsman and trying to create in a print representing what I felt when I pressed the shutter. And being alone in the darkroom with my thoughts or maybe a radio or tape player was soothing and calming, the opposite of sitting for hours in front of a computer screen, which drains my energy and hurts my eyes. I realize now the process of developing film and making prints gave me much-needed time to process what I had just witnessed and photographed. The images, once they appeared, helped shape and even clarify what I was feeling.
I miss the sound of the shutter opening and closing and the reassuring, familiar whirring of film being pulled from a cassette across the film plane.
I also miss the strategy of composing, figuring exposure and making images in 36 frames, trying to process, print and even transmit on deadline.
I even miss the smell of film.
But what I miss most – which ironically is what we tried to gain with digital photography – is quality time, that wonder-filled “latent’ space between the pressing of the shutter release and the birth of the negative or print. Within that valuable, magical latent time hope is grown and dreams imagined. In our world of instant gratification, which digital continues to feed, we have traded this deep, valuable experience for the “immediate” image.
I love what digital can do but would gladly trade the speed and convenience of today’s photography for the craftsmanship, community and pace of the past.
But I recognize there is a place for both.