Rosemary Evans examines the rise in popularity of film photography
To the average observer, analogue photography looks like a lot of faff that offers very few benefits. Why bother spending heaps of money on film and considerable effort on carrying an unwieldy camera around with you everywhere when you can whip out your phone and take a photo for free in a matter of seconds? Why bother spending several days (and yet more money) waiting to develop your photos, without even having seen them to verify that they were worth the effort, when you can view them instantly on your phone? Surely the rapid technological progress of the past few decades is meant to have simplified our lives and made all that hassle unnecessary. No need to bother with chunky cameras – the new Iphone 8 weighs less than 150 grams and has a 12 mega-pixel camera. (And by the way, it also lets you listen to music, access the internet and talk to people who are thousands of miles away. Can your chunky camera do that?).
However, despite the increasing sophistication and availability of tablet and smartphone cameras, the popularity of film photography, particularly among young people, is resurgent. With technology companies reporting a consistent annual growth of 5% in their sale of film over the last few years, members of the digital generation are increasingly choosing to embrace the analogue. For a generation that is meant to be glued to digital technology, our growing interest in film photography may seem surprising, but it is because of, rather than in spite of digitalisation that analogue is becoming so popular.
Digitalisation has made the process of taking and viewing photos literally effortless, allowing us to take so many photos so frequently that it has become second-nature. You will take dozens every day: of lecture slides, of your friends, of your face, without even thinking about it. Today you will probably scroll rapidly through hundreds of photos on Instagram and send multiple photos on Snapchat that you’ve spent less than a second taking and will never look at again. Digitalisation has made photo-taking available to everyone, at all times, and although this isn’t without benefits, it has changed the meaning of photography as an art form.
There is something obsessive and inartistic about our approach to digital photography, something hurried and frantic about the way we scramble for our phones any time we see anything we want to capture. You only have to visit a tourist attraction (i.e. walk past the Minster on a weekend) to see what I mean: people take numerous photos of literally everything. If the person standing next to me decides to take a photo of something, I will probably panic and reach for my phone too. I won’t think about whether the angle is right or the lighting is good – I may not even bother to check that the camera is properly in focus. Photography has become less of an art form and more of a way of building ourselves a very comprehensive visual diary. Although there is something worthwhile in this, it has caused photos in themselves to lose value – now that they are so widely accessible to us and the number we can take is infinite, there is no longer anything special about taking them.
The irony is that, a lot of the time, those stacks of photos we end up accumulating in our hard drives get forgotten about: If you’ve taken twenty pictures of the Minster you’re unlikely to look at all of them in much detail, and the chances are you won’t end up printing any. They might be appreciated by your followers on Instagram or Facebook, but most of the time, the value of photos on social media lies in the appeal of their subject rather than the skill behind taking them. A photo of a dog is unlikely to earn likes because people are impressed by the use of light or the style of shot. The photo of the dog will get likes simply because people think the dog is cute.
That isn’t to say that we don’t take advantage of the sophistication of our phone cameras and appreciate the way that photography can be used artistically. However, in general, the photos that we have taken of scenic views or pretty sunsets end up scattered around our galleries surrounded by photos of lecture notes, trashy memes about geese or screenshots of particularly scandalous Whatsapp conversations. It’s a strange place for us to put something that we consider art.
That is what its devotees find so appealing about film photography – it provides an escape from the culture of mindless photo-accumulation, recapturing the value of photography that smartphones have arguably removed. If you’re using an analogue camera, the expense and time required to buy and develop film means that you can’t afford to take hundreds of frantic photos. Given that you can’t negotiate with film – you can’t edit the photos you take; you can’t delete them, or add filters – it demands a slower, more careful approach than the one we have all grown used to. It forces you to stop and think about what you’re doing. What you’ve captured when the shutter clicks is exactly what you will get when the photos are developed, and the fact that you can’t view them instantly provides an element of anticipation that our phones and tablets, with their graceful efficiency, never can – the digital age can offer us nothing comparable to the excitement felt by an analogue photographer seeing their developed photos for the first time. Another thing that appeals about analogue photography is the way that the images you produce with a film camera are a physical product of a chemical process, rather than a characterless collection of numbers and pixels on a screen. The fact that you can’t control exactly how that process goes does add an element of chance: your photos might be a blurry mess, or they might be incredible. But that’s art for you, and it can actually be a lot of fun.