Pining for the past: film vs digital

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.

bw sink.jpg

Photo by Erin Moroney LaBelle

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.

me at sink.jpg

Photo by Erin Moroney LaBelle

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.

hanging prints.jpg

Photo by Erin Moroney LaBelle

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.










10 thoughts on “Pining for the past: film vs digital

  1. Very well said Mr. Labelle. I miss the craftsmanship too. The art has been taken out, somewhat, by not observing and carefully crafting a photo. Now you can take a thousand images and have a couple of creative photos that will suit the customer. However, during film and hand printing days, you cared for that baby and were much more careful with forming a thought. I even think you had more time to talk with your subject, to really get the feel for them. Thank you again for the reminder. Blessings, Patti Longmire

  2. Preach it! A few years ago I found myself thinking about black and white film again, missing the very same process you so eloquently described here. I dug out my old Nikon F4s, whose batteries still worked after 8 years of being idle, and idly began making pictures again.

    It was a tentative process at first, spurred by the realization that Kodak had discontinued one of my favorite films, High-Speed Infrared, and that if I ever wanted to shoot it again then I’d better buy as much as I could on eBay, fast! Over the next few years I made pictures with my old gear, at off and on times. Cancer was taking my father from me, I used the film to make a few photographs that could weather time stronger than some computer file vulnerable to spike in power or a bump on a hard drive.

    I started wondering if I was being a caveman, though. I didn’t know what i was trying to do, other than tend to the neglected corner of my spirit that relished all the same thing about film that you described. Was I being a throwback? Was I unwilling to move forward? Was I a luddite? Should I feel guilt over this? Should I not embrace new tech and just not look back?

    Funny thing, it was when I started hearing young people describe their love of vinyl records that I knew film was coming back. They were talking about the “warmth” of the experience, the mellowness and delight of the sound made by the needle on the disc. All those things people hated about vinyl in the 80s when the compact disc arrived to market, folks practically danced in the streets over that new fidelity.

    So I bought a new film camera, a rangefinder made by Zeiss, and accompanying lenses. I figured there was still more to be learned and better yet, even though photography is my profession, film photography could now once again become my hobby. I can shoot anything I want, I can be any kind of photographer I want, all within that sandbox. And so that’s where I am.

    Best wishes, Dave, and thanks for your thoughts.

    • I miss the seconds of mystery as shades of gray slowly come to the surface; the first time that image grows before you. Digital never gives you that, way too complete and immediate. Not nearly as satisfying.

      • That is the beauty of shooting film: you learn patience and how to capture a moment. Not spray and pray.

        I see too many newbies asking why they don’t have great shots from a soccer game they just shot 64GB of photos. They never learned the patience required to get the really great photos.

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