Coming full circle

Many serious photographers are forsaking the instant, glossy charm of digital, returning to the subtlety and unpredictability of film, be it large-format or classic 35mm. John Stones admires the results of this backlash against manipulation and convenience.

There’s something of a quiet rebellion taking place against the bland virtuosity of digital photography, with emerging photographers instead finding creative inspiration in the limits and procedures of film and funny old cameras.

For many, professional photography has come to refer to an image captured by a digital camera sometimes costing many tens of thousands of pounds, which is then dispatched to post-production for yet more fettling, tuning or downright manipulation. The results are often undeniably virtuosic. And yet, despite digital photography’s near ubiquity, why are such a significant proportion of the most interesting photographs of the last year or so taken on film, often using the most rudimentary of equipment?

These aren’t the products of real ale-swilling Luddites and eccentric hobbyists, but of serious and passionate photographers forsaking the instant gratification and practicality of digital photography to reawaken our jaded visual palettes.

Take, for instance, Giacomo Brunelli, who uses a 35mm Miranda Sensomat, a little-known SLR camera of the 1970s that he inherited from his father, to take pictures of animals in the street. Despite the innocuous description and equipment, The Animals, recently shown at Brixton’s Photofusion gallery, is a raw and unsettling body of work that would be impossible to achieve with the clinical glare of a digital camera.

For personal street photography of a very different kind, London-based Matthew Stuart puts the digital equipment he uses for his clients to one side, and relies instead on his little film Leica. ’The film Leicas are very quick and the fact that I can shoot without being distracted by what I shot a minute ago is important to me,’ he says. ’My Leica MP is also made of brass, runs like clockwork, and is as tough as nails.’

But for most, using film is primarily an aesthetic rather than a practical choice. ’I think it is the same as making a choice between colour and black and white,’ suggests Paul Floyd Blake. His image of young Olympic hopeful Rosie Bancroft (which won the National Portrait Gallery’s 2009 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize) has a richly resonant tonality enabled by the large negative of a 5×4 view camera, qualities that led to it being widely published.

Russian photographer Olya Ivanova prefers to stick with film for all her work, both personal and commercial, and has found that magazines come to her precisely because, if time allows, they want film’s ’deeper, stronger and more poetic’ look. She mainly uses a Yashica Mat-124 G, a small, simple and quaint TLR [twin lens reflex] camera that was archaic even when it was introduced in 1970 and which can be picked up on eBay for peanuts.

It’s not only the look – the soft and subtle, slightly unpredictable, yet more forgiving tonality of image caught on film – but the actual process of using old and seemingly antiquated camera equipment that photographers are rediscovering.

One of the most acclaimed recent photography books, Simon Roberts’ We English (see feature, DW 17 September 2009), was shot entirely with a large-format field camera, and Roberts says its slow and ponderous nature informed the nonchalance of the people being photographed – they were, in effect, bored into ignoring it. Now, freshly appointed as official General Election artist, Roberts will again be draping a cloth over his head to document the spectacle of the forthcoming poll.

The calming effect of seemingly archaic cameras applies in a more intimate situation, too. ’People seem less threatened by medium- and large-format cameras, as opposed to the paparazzi-style 35mm. It becomes more of an occasion and they tend to relax and give more of themselves,’ says Blake.

Ivanova agrees. ’When you come to photograph a very busy, important man and you get out an old, strange-looking camera from your bag, you can see how his attitude changes towards to you,’ she says. Maybe he will give you ten minutes instead of five.’

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