Film photography in the modern world


Does film photography still have a place in the modern world? is it at all relevant with the constant upgrading of new digital sensors that capable of resolutions that we only dreamed of? With the simplicity of taking digital images, that can be edited, uploaded, shared and printed with seconds of being taken, why would we bother with the laborious process that is analog photography?  Is there still room for the cameras of 50 years ago? Does it even have to be a 50 year old camera? With resurgence of analog technology in many different areas, one has to ask if it is again becoming a relevant platform for photography. Is film photography purely for photography’s few remaining dinosaurs? Those left over from the time before the great microchip was discovered? Surely this would mean that no one over the age of 30 has shot a roll of film? Wrong! Plenty of people have and do, so why? What place does a antiquated technique have in todays fast pace world of chips sensors and auto focus?

“one could argue that analogue photography has only recently become a medium in the fullest sense of the term, for it is only when artists refuse to switch over to digital technologies that the question of what constitutes analogue photography as a medium is self-consciously posed. While the benefits of digitalisation  – in terms of accessibility, dissemination, speed and efficiency – are universally acknowledged, some people are beginning to reflect on what is lost in this great technological revolution.”   There is a lot to be lost from this, I see digital imaging and analogue photography as two entirely separate mediums. One is more hands on, connected to the creation of the photograph from start to finish, the other is more often than not a computerised process destined to live forever in a hard drive.

There are plenty of photographers, both professional and amateur alike that are going back to film, or renouncing the existence of digital altogether. To gain a insight into why this is I will be looking at three different artists – Zoe Leonard, Tacita Dean and Ralph Steadman. Both Dean and Leonard shoot primarily on film and have not only both created exhibitions titled Analogue, but actively seem to stage a protest in analogues defence.

Zoe Leonard shoots with a 1940’s Rollieflex left over from the mechanical age, as she puts it.  “Progress is always an exchange. We gain something, we give something else up. I’m interested in looking at some of what we are losing” From her photographs it seems clear to me that Leonard is intentionally using  the disappearing art of photography to photograph something else that is disappearing from out streets, using the gritty feel of film to capture the gritty run down shop fronts and emphasise the texture in her photographs,   she seems to use analogue technology to reconsider photography’s place in the  modern world.

Tacita dean describes photography as  “the imprint of light on emulsion, the

alchemy of circumstance and chemistry” I love Dean’s attitude to analogue photography she is distinctly militant in her views on digital imaging, the effect it has on the art world and actively mourns the potential loss of analogue photography.

“Dean is even more outspoken than Leonard in her stand against digitalisation of everything. In the introduction to the catalogue for the exhibition, Analogue, she declares that analog is a description ‘of everything I hold dear’. She points out that analogue refers to a vast range of things, from the movement of hands on a watch to writing and drawing. She continues, ‘analogue implies a continuous signal – a continuum and a line, whereas digital constitutes what is broken up, or rather, broken down, into millions of numbers’. While the convenience of digital media is wonderful, she confesses: ‘for me, it just does not have the means to create poetry; it neither breathes nor wobbles, but tidies up our society, correcting it and then leaves no trace’. It is not ‘born to the physical world’. We are being ‘frogmarched’ she declares, into a digital future ‘without a backward turn, without a sigh or a nod to what we are loosing’”

“I will confine my attention to those moments in her work when her conjoined interest in chance and analogue film is most apparent. In an email correspondance with me she confirmed her sense of the link between chance and the analogue” ‘a decline in one will invariably mean a decline in the other and our lives would be greatly impoverished for it’.

Ralph Steadman although he is best known for his illustrations, is also in my opinion  a  wonderful photography artist, in the purest sense of the phrase. He goes one step further than just taking the photo on analogue tools, he uses the malleability of the polaroid images before they are set to  manually work into the photos to create warped photography cross drawing caricatures that rival his illustrations in weird otherworldly status, creating one of a kind pieces of art that can never be re produced either physically or optically because  the physical manipulation that Steadman uses gives a physical contouring on the paper, he attacks these Paranoids as he calls them creating essentially a three diminutional art object from a Polaroid. This cannot be replicated in a digital print, you cant compare a physically manipulated object with a digital print, one is two dimensional the other three dimensional. It can not be created using a digital process.

It is my opinion that none of these works would have been nearly as interesting in a digital format. They would not have had the depth, feeling texture or authority if made in any other way, that is not to say digital imaging  does not have its place, simply that analogue photography also has its own special place in society.

With each click of the camera, light interacts with the chemicals in the film, creating something fragile and sensitive that needs nurturing and bringing into the world. There is also a ritualistic style analogue process – each photographer has his own workflow with completely different results. resulting in a unique style that is hard to replicate unless you know exactly what the photographer did to gain those results. The photographer manually manipulating the image somehow makes the image worth more for me, he has taken the time and effort to create something that is a one off, no matter now many times the image is printed after that, there will never be another exact copy.

Doing anything optically that doesn’t have the disruptive transduction into the digital realm, will always be closer to the human experience of reality due to the facts that light, like sound and many other things is all wave physics and to do with the movement of waves and the way humans experience the world. You get a smooth wave rather than a nasty stepped digital form. The sensor in a digital camera consists of photosites these are sensitive to light and in a less scientific world are commonly known as the pixels, one single tiny element that goes to make up a photo. on many levels you could argue that this provides a collage not a picture. As the size of each pixel and their number defines the quality or megapixel rate of the image. The fundamental basis of this segmentation can never be accurate to the same particle base level as with light base optics until a single pixel can be the size of a atom. although the IBM labs as many as ten years ago, as PR/gimmick were drawing pictures at a particle size level using their show super computers, this is not mainstream technology found in any camera on the market. Digital is a fragmentation of what should be a smooth analogue form and inevitably provides a transition to a sample, a slice based interpretation or in its purest optical wave description translates a pure sign wave to a square or stepped square wave. Therefore even the most high tech digital cameras still do not have the resolution of film.

“The analogue is defined as a relatively continuous form of inscription, involving physical contact. From this point of view, the photogram, produced by contact between an object and light sensitive paper, only makes explicit what is implicit in all analogue photography. Conversely, digital imaging’s translation of light into a arbitrary electronic code arguably interrupts that continuity. This discontinuity preceded the effects of digital editing or computerised image synthesis. These reflections on the distinction between analogue and digital arguably raise the thorny question of whether digitalisation has compromised the authority of the photograph as a document.” Would the exact same images taken on a digital camera have the same feel, the same effect and the same importance as their analogue counterparts? I think not, Believability of a image is very important to me, it has to convert a truth, tell me something I didn’t know or couldn’t see. Analogue has that truthfulness for me, its open, not as easy to manipulate, there will always be slight variations in manually printed images, its more tangible has a certain depth and authority to it yet still seems fragile, expendable even.

Nothing beats the magic of film photography, seeing your creation appear before your eyes, you created that, not a series of electrical interactions within a microchip. You did not just press a button on a automatic setting. I believe its art when you put something of yourself in what you do, for this, time, effort and love have to play a part in the finished image.

Does using film make you a photography artist? Dean, Leonard and most definitely Steadman have proved it can. But why? Because it’s harder to use, reproduce, master even, does that give you more of a controlled art market than the constant stream of digital images that are forced down our throats? We can not look anywhere without seeing the results of the digital world, does taking a step back from this, slowing down and using analog technology to create something more tangible make our photos mean more, have more depth? Wether real or perceived?

Do you have to have the best and latest equipment to be a artist?  Not for me, the camera is essentially a tool and have no bearing on the finished image. As Don McCullin said “Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling, if you can’t feel what you’re looking at then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures” It is a visual representation of how you were feeling at the time, of moment you had before you, the image you had in your head that you wanted to save forever. A stolen moment. What defines a artist to start with? Who has the right to say what does and doesn’t have a place in the world? After all, art is about pushing boundaries, exploring new techniques, conveying a emotion.

We are now in a age where digital isn’t new, when today’s youth were born, they were born surrounded by digital, however people always want to discover new things, it is not just people still using film, it’s people discovering this new to them art form. These people along with the people still using analog photography from the first time around are the ones that are shoring up the analog revolution.

What will ultimately turn me away from digital imaging, is the new software thats becoming readily available, the ability to allow our cameras to auto delete digital images is a fatal flaw in digital photography, the technology moves too quickly the drive for new things and better results is removing more an more of the human element. Enabling a artificially intelligent camera that has the ability to remove artistic effect is censorship, totally destroying any artist vision or involvement. Purely furthering the technology for the sake of doing so. I do not see this to be a asset to photography, more so a step back, it no longer requires the photographer to think, auto focus, auto exposure and if it goes wrong then auto delete. Art is not a automatic process and should never be made one. Phone cameras now have the ability to refocus after the shot has been taken – this isn’t art, this is technology taking over.

“from the early 1980’s up till now, and probably for another fifteen years to come — this is the darkest time ever for recorded music. We’ll come out on the other end, and it’ll be ok okay, but we’ll look back and go ‘wow that was the digital age. I wonder what music really sounded like. We got so carried away that we never really recorded it. We just made digital records of it’” Is this what is to happen to the world of digital photography too? This is the way digital imaging feels to me, so I hope so. With a digital image you cannot craft your image in quite the same way, it seems fake, has nasty edges and often over sharpened, this simply isn’t possible with analogue photography.

In conclusion I do not think either is better nor one without a place, the resurgence of analogue technology not just within photography, but in other mediums as well proves without doubt that there is a place for film in the digital world, analogue is loved, wanted and has a very big place in the world. As the landscape of camera manufacture has shifted the financial livelihood of nearly all major camera manufacturers hinges on the ability of their research and development departments to further the race of digital. No CEO of a major camera company is placing the future of their company on purely analogue. This allows analogue formats to be free of the rampant commercial lead constant tweaking, software updates and brand reissues. And for many people this in itself, alongside the superior resolution of film is a socio political choice.  Just as in the last ten years reel to reel tape for serious high end audio recording has proven that new companies can not only enter the market place but completely flourish simply by either making their own version of or re issuing and licensing old formulas for tape for example formulations previously sold under the brand Ampex now being sold by the company Emtec bearing the statement the formulas you previously trusted as Ampex. This is just as applicable in the photography realm, the remanufacturing of analogue polaroid and polaroid inspired formats along with companies such as the Impossible Project who specialise in enduring Polaroid manual manipulation as well as re manufacturing their own polaroid film stocks. Many designed with artistic choices not pristine quality in mind and will even go as far as to provide advice on emulsion lifting and re using the negatives from the shot. Another example of the more experimental less safe and consumer lead world of new analogue photography products has even been embraced by a company previously seen as low rent or even gimmicky namely Lomography. Approximately a year ago after placing a rough idea on Kickstarter and selling all five hundred units immediately and funding a full scale production the re issued Austrian made brass Petzval victorian portrait lens with aperture slide plates and manual wheel focusing was released with a appropriately high price tag more than tripling the value of their most expensive product in the range. This product and its sales information revels in its love of the analogue and vintage forms, the fact that a grass roots Kickstarter campaign brought around such a unashamed homage to art deco junk shop cool with the optical characteristics to match proves a love for the ascetic of the image as well as the design of the lens. Instead of using photoshop to recreate the effect of analogue images, digital users are now buying the lens to get a authentic photo rather than manipulation the image post production. “ I believe analogue is my way of reclaiming that link. Albeit not straight forward snapshots, photography for me is about experimenting and twisting old techniques into new mediums.

Analogue is experimental by its very nature, there is no adventure in digital photography, no life to it. Analogue makes you slow down and appreciate what you are doing, making you think about things more without the opportunity to just delete the image if its not what you want. Photography for me  is about capturing a moment, not snapping away until you find one you like. I consider myself to be a artist, so for me at least, the future is analogue, nothing can beat the feeling of creating something from light and having it appear before your eyes. not pop up on a badly lit screen ready to be deleted in a second. And that is art, because whatever medium we choose, art is the feeling it gives us, the reaction to what is in front of you, if a photography provokes a reaction, wether good or bad then it has done its job, it has made you think about the subject.


Berger, J. (1973). Ways of seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corp.

Bright, S. (n.d.). Art photography now.

Iversen, M. (2012). Analogue: On Zoe Leonard and Tacita Dean.

McCullin, D. (2015). Photograph in conflict. Birmingham 24/3/2015

Milner, G. (2009). Perfecting sound forever. New York: Faber and Faber.

Ritchin, F. (2009). After photography. New York: W.W. Norton.

Thompson, H. and Steadman, R. (1983). The curse of Lono. Toronto: Bantam Books.

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