Musings

Film, Digital, and Paradoxical Simplicity

One of the allures of film is that in its relative simplicity, there is supposed to be some tighter connection between the scene before the camera and the recorded image. The lens impartially draws on the film, and that’s it (not really, but let’s pretend). This stands in stark contrast to the computational photography creeping steadily into digital capture, particularly in the case of phones. All sorts of digital magic goes on behind the scenes: compositing images, automatic "best" selection, massive distortion correction, post-process background blur. It’s all very complicated, and if you’re of a certain mindset, it reduces the authenticity of the final image. The traditional camera, by contrast, is supposed to be more like a human eye, with its organic lens focusing light onto a retinal film and none of this digital trickery. What could be more perfect, more true, than the very organs with which we see? Would that it were so simple.

Things were simpler, better, before.

Things were simpler, better, before.

The dichotomy that sets the purity of film photography against the artifice of digital capture overlooks the fact that vision itself is a tremendously elaborate and notoriously unreliable example of computational imaging. What we “see” is disturbingly detached from the photons that hit our retinas (retinae?). It's dependent on the way our brains put together flickering nerve impulses as the eyeball saccades around the scene and melds multiple moments with preconceived schemas to form an illusion of continuous, coherent vision.

Consider the classic Harvard study in which subjects watched a video of people passing balls around. As they carefully tracked a ball, half the participants failed to notice the man in a gorilla suit who sauntered across the screen. So much for the reliable fidelity of our built-in cameras.

So the human eye is more an eye-Phone than a classic L-eye-ca (oh yes, I did that). But maybe it's film's divergence from the eye rather than any parallels that justifies our attachment to the impractical and antiquated. Human vision is complex and unreliable. Much like a smartphone, much like the world. And digital photography, which is as much about computers as optics, suffers from the fundamental opacity common to so much modern technology: nobody understands it.

No single body, I mean. As a product of humans, of course “we” understand it. But consider the thousands of minds, the millions of lines of proprietary code, that go into a smartphone. Could any one human really know, end to end, how the thing works? Of course, most people (myself included) don’t fully understand all the optical principles of a multi-element lens or the chemistry of light-sensitive emulsion, but we intuit that with some reading, a substantial but totally human amount of effort, we could. And this lets us feel more in tune with the technology, more aligned with it as we use it. It’s a tool, like a sharp stick, not magic. Magic, despite its appeal, has a dark side. They burned witches, you know. And they burned David Copperfield. Or if they haven’t yet, David, you better watch your back.

Digital natives performing strange rites. The smart ones may one day recognize the poison of convenience, the corruption of algorithms that presume to create an idealized memory of a fictional moment. Whose ideal? Whose moment? Get off my lawn.

Digital natives performing strange rites. The smart ones may one day recognize the poison of convenience, the corruption of algorithms that presume to create an idealized memory of a fictional moment. Whose ideal? Whose moment? Get off my lawn.

Perhaps it's digital technology's transformation into a subjective, active partner in image making that's freshened analog photography's appeal. Digital, having largely achieved the goal of total fidelity that photography has aspired to since its inception, is now trying to out-think us. We want what we remember, or wish we remembered, whether it was there or not. This is how human vision and memory already work, after all -- the perpetual golden hour light of childhood afternoons half-cribbed from old movies, the moment when everyone laughed that never actually happened.

And to some extent, this is what all photography does. The moment of family bliss caught in the frame is what carries forward across the years: the sulking and hair-pulling that bracketed it are allowed to fade. But film, when you understand it, feels more dutiful, more reliable, perhaps more beautiful, with its opto-mechano-chemical process that affords no judgement in the moment. Once the shutter is tripped, a chain of events rooted in the physical world leads to an image hiding in the film emulsion, waiting for developer. It's magic, but it's a small, predictable magic. Nothing you're likely to burn for.    

Leica: The Unreasonable Choice

I wrote the following over a year ago, before I plunged into the madness.


Shhhhh. Just look at it.

Shhhhh. Just look at it.

Why do I want a Leica M film camera? Honestly, I'm asking you, because I can't figure it out. I'm basically a digital native photographer: although I grew up in the last years of film's supremacy, I didn't get seriously into picture making until I bought a Canon digital point-and-shoot in 2004. From there, I followed the familiar camera-DSLR-mirrorless trajectory. At each step, the image quality got better, the cameras got more responsive. Now, with an Olympus OMD E-M10 as my daily driver, I'm far more likely to not see a shot than blow it because the camera couldn't.

And yet. A mechanical Leica. Apparently, now I want a camera that costs money every time I release the shutter, that requires me to focus manually with the camera mashed against my face, not to mention set aperture AND shutter speed on my own (and since I'm looking at fully mechanical bodies, doesn’t even suggest what those settings should be), that needs to be disassembled after taking 36 frames (and forces me, right then, to decide what the ISO will be for the next 36). Also, it's heavier than my current kit. And it costs more. What the hell am I thinking?

Whatever it is, I think it's been percolating for a while. From time to time over the last several years, I've started looking at metal-bodied SLRs on eBay before deciding I was just being silly. I had a lot of fun researching obscure lenses that might work on my NEX 5N (I once blew a whole night learning about Exacta-mount lenses) and I enjoyed using the old Olympus 38mm Pen half-frame lens that I bought from someone in Japan. Sure, it was a great performer above f2, but I really liked the mechanical solidity of it, a dense metal knuckle with a focus ring that felt good against the fingers compared to the plasticy stuff I was used to. I’ve long been interested in what I refer to in my head (though not, generally, out loud) as “knob feel” – the tactility of control surfaces. One of the main reasons I bought the E-M10 over the contemporaneous Panasonic GX7 was knob feel: the Panasonic’s control wheels had an unsatisfying clicky movement that I couldn’t abide. But a fine mechanical camera has knob feel all its own. The knobs and wheels and rings actually do something – they aren’t the disconnected surface of a virtual machine but physically linked to their purpose. This changes the way they feel, both in the fingers and in the mind.

Olympus F. Zuiko Auto-S 38mm f1.8 Pen system lens   So metal. At first it was just for fun. Then just when I needed it. Then I needed it every day.

Olympus F. Zuiko Auto-S 38mm f1.8 Pen system lens

So metal. At first it was just for fun. Then just when I needed it. Then I needed it every day.

And speaking of mind, I took a pleasure in that old half-frame lens that was entirely apart from its functional qualities, something more poetic than practical. What light had already passed through its glass? Whose fingers had focused it? Imagining the answers to these questions somehow enriched my experience of using the lens. And what stirs imaginings more than a Leica?

Then there’s the harder-to-admit part. The credence in legend. The illusory connection to a tradition that encompasses some of the greatest practitioners of photography we have known. The ridiculous but irresistible sense of aligning one’s self with genius through the tools used by geniuses. Is there a pathos in this, an admission that I have not produced immortal greatness with the best tools of my day, and so I retreat to tools proven in another age? Well, let’s look out rather than in.

©  Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos   I have never seen like this. I will never see like this. I fill this sadness with objects.

© Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos

I have never seen like this. I will never see like this. I fill this sadness with objects.

Then there’s the soft Neo-Luddism that permeates our moment, with our reactionary gaze towards the vintage and authentic. Do I entertain ideas about how digital abundance erodes the thought I put into each frame? Do I harbor fantasies that shooting film will force me to contemplate, slow down, consider, and perhaps see more clearly? Do I imagine that each image will be more precious, will be imbued with some quality that is otherwise sacrificed to digital disposability? I confess, this does seem to be the case.

Now, you might reasonably suggest that there are less torturous ways of dabbling in film and old cameras than joining a cult whose demands are as onerous as Leicaism. And I would retort that, first off, I've tried other mechanical cameras and they didn't do it for me, knob-feel-wise. And second, la la la, I can’t hear you. I don’t want a reasonable camera. I want one that satisfies my unreasonable hungers, that sings silently over the sadnesses of the everyday.