Well almost never stopped… For a few months I did stop using film but it was a brief period of mourning.
From the moment I first saw a print emerge under the dim red light of the Art School darkroom in 1974 I was hooked. I gave up my ambitions to become a painter and set out to learn everything I could about making photographic prints. It was printing that got me to that point and it is print making that really excites me 42 years on. The reason I couldn’t settle in the digital world is more than just process though.
I know when I scroll through social media sites I am bombarded with images, usually colour, highly saturated or sometimes subdued to emulate outdated film, often processed with the “clarity” slider shifted to the right, sometimes with a look more reminiscent of “Ladybird book” illustrations than photographic representation as I am familiar with, I rarely hover or stop at an image. When I do, and I investigate further, it has usually been made on film, more often than not black and white and very commonly in an age before digital photography. Maybe it’s nostalgia, I have tried to analyse it for myself.
The first two images I have used to illustrate this article were made using a digital camera. I have desaturated them and taken them into a film emulation programme to simulate the appearance of grain. Back in the day, before we realised that the world of photography was about to be turned upside down, grain felt like an enemy. We did what we could to reduce the effect. If we had the time for slow films, big, tripod mounted cameras and fine grain developers we took that route. At one point I purchased an 8″x 20″ Banquet camera from the US. It was a beast, more like a piece of furniture than a camera. It produced a giant 20″ x 8″ negative that I made platinum prints from, there was no visible grain at all. Of course, as was often the case I would be working in low light and had little time to set up fast moving subjects, then I would need to use small, very portable 35mm cameras and fast, very grainy film, that I might often have to “push” process to punch up the highlights, that had the effect of enlarging the grain even further.
Then digital arrived and all that became possible with smooth, grain free and eventually low noise, very clean results. So call me fickle but something was missing for me. Those beautifully clean results I was getting from digital cameras just left me cold. In my mind there is something “plastic” looking about digital images. They are too sharp, too clean for my taste. I guess I am experiencing something similar to what the “Pictorialist” photographers of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries were feeling. They considered that a photograph was nothing more than a precise representation of reality and to elevate it to the status of “Art” they needed to manipulate the image. They often used soft lenses, textured papers, they toned their black and white prints and created lavish tableaux for their subjects. A digital image can easily be manipulated, far more than the Pictorialists were capable of, and a digital image can be made to look a little like film. There lies the rub for me. A digital image can “almost” look like film but when it does it is a clear contrivance. An image made on film is an image made on film, there is no pretence.
Now, even for subjects that allow me lots of time, slow films, tripods and grain free development I prefer to work with 35mm cameras, fast films and high acutance developers because I love the grain. It’s more organic than pixels and there exists a pleasing aesthetic that I can not replicate in a computer.
That moment in 1974, when I first saw the print emerge in the darkroom has never left me. I still get a tremendous thrill from making silver gelatine prints in my darkroom. I have always seen myself as a printer. I make negatives in order to print. Often, even in the pre digital days, as a commercial photographer I wouldn’t be required to make a print, just deliver a transparency for a repro house to scan for a magazine or brochure but that was just making money to live. As a 21st century wedding photographer we are often just asked for digital files, but in my head my work is only partly complete until I have made a “Fine” print.
I went digital for my commercial work in 2006 but I kept a darkroom and continued to make black and white prints of my personal work. For a brief time in 2011/12 I was without a darkroom, that was the time that I felt bereft and soon realised I had to get a space back, at least for my personal work and to offer workshops to those who wanted to try the “Alchemy” for themselves. My space in Kendal is designed to print my own and my clients work but is also a resource for hire and for workshops.
It has become very popular. Not only are the prints, colour as well as black and white on weddings, exceptionally beautiful, in albums and frames but they are all archival processed so we can guarantee that, with a little care, will stay like that for generations to come. The prints we make for portrait and wedding clients are special.