“Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties.” – Erich Fromm
Do you prefer to shoot digital or film? – Many have tried to answer this question, and yet I find that I remain unconvinced by most all the answers. Repeatedly, a number of well known photographers shooting on film seem to struggle to offer a simple, clear answer to this question. Most just give up.
A couple of years ago it was a ‘you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’ type of question – the answer could be one or the other, and intelligence, consideration, insight and commonsense had no place in the dialogue. Today, with digital more mature and brilliant as ever, it actually becomes a harder question to answer. Again and again I see studies and research articles reminding me that digital resolution, detail, etc. are far superior to anything film can offer. Having lost all the technological arguments, many resort to rather weak arguments that revolve around rather inane and desperate statements like ‘I like holding film’, or ‘I like to have something tangible in front of me’ or other such nonsense. A losing battle really with none really being able to defend this ‘dying’ space.
I am predominantly a film shooter. The entire project on India, The Idea of India, is being shot on Kodak Portra 160NC and 400NC color negative film. Prior to this I have shot magazine assignments on film. I turn to digital only in specific situations where the client’s turnaround time does not allow time for processing, scanning and fixing of film images. But whenever and wherever given the choice I always return to film. I have shot both slide and color negatives, and of course, a lot of b&w. I don’t have the definitive answer, but I do have an answer. I am dismayed that it has not, as far as I know, been articulated before. If I am wrong please do email me a link. I would be happy to have any further backers of my thoughts, trust me!
I prefer to shoot film because it is a more human process, complete with all the frailties, mistakes, fears, worries, concerns, and doubts that define me as a human being. Yes, of course, digital has all the utilitarian advantages (cheaper, faster, quick turn around sharper etc.), but film retains all the creative advantages.
Film photography remains a slower process, requiring greater concentration and awareness since mistakes cannot be corrected by the time the results are seen. It is also a process filled with doubt, fear and uncertainty. It requires us to confront fear and work to make it something that drives us. The results are unknown, our memory of what has been captured uncertain, and we keep coming back, keep looking, keep exploring and shooting. The doubts drive, define, and push. The fear maintains the issues and subjects on our mind. We lose sleep thinking about the subject, convinced that we shot the roll on the wrong ASA, or other such amateurish mistake. There is no consolation, as Raymond Depardon argued, for the photographer. Nor should there be.
Creativity is a flawed and uncertain process. It requires mistakes, corrections, adjustments. It is driven by the pursuit of an ideal that you don’t even know exists or even matters. But something drives you, as a blind man searching for his sight but not knowing when and where he will find it. Writers, poets and fine artists embrace these uncertainties, channels these fears, thrive on the mistakes and persevere past the failures. I have always wondered why photographers are so afraid of precisely these human instincts and failings, constantly looking for the predictable, the certain, and the promised. Why are we so afraid of what we are?
I shoot film because it gives me more of a chance to be a who I am, complete with all my flaws and doubts. I shoot film because I today embrace my weaknesses and propensities rather than attempt to overcome them with toys. I shoot film because I must reach further into myself, my soul, psyche and sensibility and aspire to that place where someday I too may find something to say and show – something unique, something beautifully flawed and hence in its unique way, something beautifully human.
UPDATE: By coincidence Umberto Eco has penned a mild lament at the death of hand writing. In his piece The Lost Art of Hand Writing he suggests that “..writing by hand obliges us to compose the phrase mentally before writing it down. Thanks to the resistance of pen and paper, it does make one slow down and think. Many writers, though accustomed to writing on the computer, would sometimes prefer even to impress letters on a clay tablet, just so they could think with greater calm.”
I agree with his point that it may force us to think before committing words to paper but I am not sure I accept the entire argument. Tempting as it may be to find a parallel with my justification for the love of shooting film, I will resist. Writing is less a craft defined by the tools that enable it as photography is. I do agree that we may write different on a computer than on paper, but there are many social, cultural, economic and political reasons for why we may be writing differently today than say 50 years ago. Not the least of which would be the electronic text editor. Photography however is a mechanical craft, and the choice of the tool is not irrelevant to the work the photographer wishes to do, or is limited to do. That is, photography requires us to make a choice of equipment depending on either our goals, vision and/or preferences, or it forces us to limit ourselves to the method most suitable to the device we work with. A photographer and her camera are a relationship, at times economic, at times creative and at times habitual and each influences, limits and defines the kind of work that is produce.