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|| News Item: Posted 2006-03-02

Is Film Dead?
'How do I get to this picture?'

By Matthew Mendelsohn

(Editor's note: With the advancements in digital technology the days of a news photographer heading out to cover an event with a "pocketful of Tri-X and a Nikkormat with a 24mm lens" are over. Or are they? The Sports Shooter Newsletter asked four photographers to address the question on whether film is still viable in this day and age of gig-a-bytes, pixels and Photoshop.)

I should probably share this kind of information only with a shrink but what the heck: I've been having conversations with a long-dead Navajo warrior.

I talk to him, he talks back to me. I stare at him, he stares back at me. And I'm fairly certain he's been mocking me of late. My relationship with this particular Navajo warrior started fairly innocently enough (as imaginary friends go): I opened the mail one day a few years back to find a set of postcards touting the New York Times picture collection. For a couple of hundred dollars I could buy archival prints of famous pictures that The Times had in its collection--the Knicks 1970 championship, Neil Armstrong's tickertape parade, that kind of stuff.

One of those postcards has been with me ever since. It sits crudely taped to my computer screen, silently keeping watch over me. It's a photograph of a Navajo warrior, circa 1905, taken by Edward Curtis, the great chronicler of the American Indian. In luscious sepia, this handsome young man stares forlornly off camera. I instantly wondered who he was, how he came to be photographed, what happened to him. 1905 was not a good time, needless to say, to be a Navajo warrior. His way of life, his people, and his land were all vanishing before his eyes. All of this is in the portrait, shot on an ancient camera, with an exposure many of us would deem an eternity.

As I stared at my warrior postcard, freshly affixed to my screen, for some reason I thought of all the new crap I had recently accumulated: dual processor G5's, Mark II's, 2-gig cards, etc. I laughed out loud, to no one but myself. "I'm going the wrong way," I giggled. "How do I get to this picture?" Sure, I was shooting nice portraits but nothing that came close to having the impact that this one image did. The Mona Lisa quality, the timelessness, the sadness. And the simplicity. There's nothing remotely complicated about this portrait, with its shallow depth of field forcing you right into the eyes. No Octabank, no Lens Baby, no auto-focus, no pixels. Just a big old wood box. How do I get to that?

He's been with me ever since, this Navajo, though his presence now looms even larger in my life. At the ripe old age of 43, having spent 20 years shooting things on film, I now stare at him differently. I feel an odd kinship with him these days as I watch my film world slowly disappear into history, to be replaced with the promise of progress and technology. Not long after Edward Curtis photographed this Navajo warrior, people out West began slowly trading in their painted ponies for Model T Fords. I'm doing the same, I guess, with my Mark II's and G5's. And though I may be in the minority, I'd take the living, breathing horse most days of the week.

Is Film Dead? is the question we're asking ourselves today. My gut reaction would be, of course, to say no, how could it be dead, when a photograph taken 100 years ago can still be so full of life. But I know I'm bending the rules. When we ask ourselves Is Film Dead?, in capital letters, we're asking whether it has any commercial viability in the future, whether a news photographer need ever carry the stuff, whether the Tri-X production lines should be shuttered forever. Is Film Dead? is never about Edward Curtis and Navajo warriors, it's not about W. Eugene Smith and Cartier-Bresson, nor Penn, Epperidge or Salgado. Perhaps it's a sign of the times, the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately culture we live in, but when someone asks me whether film is dead they seem to be wholly uninterested in celebrating the 180 some-odd years that it's been alive. Taking a page from the Marc Antony playbook, they come to bury film, not to praise it. (For the record, "film" is a blunt descriptor since we are, after all, talking about everything from glass plates to T400 CN. We'll call them the chemical years.)

Quizzically, much of the discussion of film these days centers on the issue of who will be left shooting it, as if this somehow strikes at the heart of the matter. We spend more time worrying about who will be there to turn out the proverbial lights than we do celebrating the amazing photographs still being shot daily on film. Pick up the latest issue of Vanity Fair and count (OK, guess) how many photos were shot on film. Would anyone dare to label these photographers as being behind the times? I didn't think so. Explain that among the best Olympic portraits taken in 2004 were those by Robert Hanashiro, shooting for USA Today and David Burnett, shooting for Time, both using Speed Graphics and Polaroid film. Or that some of the best wedding photography in the world comes from England's Jeff Ascough, armed only with a Leica. Take a look at Mark Seliger's latest book, In My Stairwell, for some gorgeous non-celebrity celebrity portraits, all taken with a view camera in a forgotten elevator shaft. Geez Louise, Walt Callahan and Darren Carroll are making pinhole camera images that are dazzling.

The common refrain I hear when projects like these are brought up is that they're niche, that they don't represent the mainstream. Well, of course, they're niche--art is not something one would want to associate with pack mentality. It's fairly obvious, to even the most ardent lovers of film, that its days as a choice for daily, deadline photojournalism are long gone. As a legendary, cigar-chomping wire service photo editor I once knew would say, "No shit, Sherlock." We knew this ten years ago. But it's this very certainty that makes it even more vital that photographers continue to choose film for select projects.

Are we not, as photographers, creative people? We photographers used to mock our friends who had boring, tedious jobs (read: attorneys) in cavernous office buildings. Suckers. But who's laughing now. Like some Dilbert strip, we now spend half our days discussing workflow issues. Workflow?!? Wow, how the mighty have fallen.

What does film have to do with this? Simple: film, like wine, is an organic process. It reminds us of our past, it teaches us about our senses, and it makes us work just a little harder. It can be frail and it can be unforgiving. It reminds us that a photographer's place should always be behind a camera, not in front of a computer. Think about those beautiful digital prints, for example. They can be printed 57 times and will always look the same. But what if they should each be different? I chuckle when I see numbered edition prints from an Epson 4400. 3/57 looks identical to 57/57. It's like trying to discern the difference between two cans of Coke. I'll take my prized; hand printed 16 x 20 Howard Bingham print of the Beatles and Muhammad Ali any day of the week.

As I continue to shoot film I embrace all of the things that set it apart from my digital experience. I invariably shoot slower and more carefully. In fact, I still don't use a prism on my Hasselblad. I like things at waist level and backwards. Go figure. People always remark how 22 meg files have made medium format cameras obsolete. They miss the point. It's not a file size issue, it's the process--the square, the finder, the lenses. I miss my handheld meter, too! When I shoot film I meter constantly, knowing that my exposures all will be dead on. The next day, when I'm shooting digitally, I quickly revert to my lazy-ass, aperture-priority, if-it's-within-two-stops-it's good-enough mentality.

Second, shooting film connects me to my subjects in a way that digital does not. I couldn't think of shooting the Holocaust project that I've been working on for years on anything else but film. It's essential that I have the organic connection to the subject matter that film gives me. I wouldn't feel right shooting a portrait of an 88-year-old survivor, living in a crappy Ukrainian apartment, on anything but Tri-X. And the thought of adding "sloppy" (God, I hate that term) borders or clicking on some "vintage" filter makes me queasy.

Third, there's what I jokingly refer to as Photo Penance. What's Photo Penance? It's the excruciating soul-searching period after a shoot where one waits for the lab to open. I love Photo Penance. It makes me a much better photographer during a session, knowing the phrase "we can fix it in Photoshop" simply doesn't exist. Sure, chimping calms our fears. But so too, Grasshopper, does blind faith.

So is there hope for some mass conversion back to film? No. Unlike so many digital photographers who keep asking "isn't it dead yet?" I bear no reciprocal grudge against the world of ones and zeros. This has been a sea change, something that happens but a few times a century. My hope, rather, is that individuals--especially younger photographers--will continue to seek out the wisdom of their, er, ancient colleagues so that they might better understand the long, glorious history of film photography. Imagine a young blues musician who has no interest in learning about the life of Robert Johnson. How far will that musician go?

To be sure, there will be those who continue to rub salt. Scan the message boards regarding film and you'll see the same phrases over and over: niche photographers, fine art photographers, obsolete photographers. The last is my personal favorite. Obsolete. What does that mean exactly? Out to pasture, over the hill, your time is up. Ask Charlie Chaplin about obsolescence. His films, from the earliest shorts to masterpieces like Modern Times, form a cornerstone of American comedy and American cinema. Yet he spent his final decades answering questions about obsolescence, of being a silent film maker in a talkie world. As if the canon doesn't speak for itself. In 1966, long past the golden age of silent movies, Chaplin was asked about his relevance. He said, "I am surprised that some critics say that my camera technique is old-fashioned, that I have not kept up with the times. My technique is the outcome of thinking for myself, of my own logic and approach; it is not borrowed from what others are doing."

It takes guts to make a comment like that, eh? To put yourself out on that limb, oblivious to what others are doing. It's a more elegant form of the "If Edward Feldman jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you jump after him" speech I used to get from my mother when I was a kid. My technique is the outcome of thinking for myself. Well, maybe Charlie had it right--the question is not Is Film Dead but rather Who Cares, 'Cause I'm Still Using It.

So let's forget the schadenfreude. Photographers who still choose to shoot film don't need any sympathy. They just need another case of Type 55.

(Matthew Mendelsohn formerly worked as a contract photographer and a picture editor on the news desk at USA TODAY. He later became the director of photography at USA Weekend. He is currently a freelance photographer in the Washington D.C. area.)

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