Nick Carver Photography Blog

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The Virtues of Film: Tangibility

This is the first in my new series of posts under the heading of "The Virtues of Film." With my recent venture back in to film, I often get asked "why'd you go back?" I usually respond with "I could write a book on why I've gone back to film." So here it is, the first chapter in said book. 

The Virtues of Analog PhotographyThese are photographs, not 1's and 0's

Those of you who are close to me know that I'm "old timey" at heart. I like the whole vibe of the turn of the century - late 1800's to early 1900's. The fashion, the technology (or lack thereof), the fact that things were built in America, the robust cast iron construction of old machinery and the way things were designed back then, the muted colors, the music...I just dig it. The way I designed my website is a perfect reflection of my affinity for the old timey style. I even dress old timey when I'm in the mood.

But it goes beyond simply the look and feel of these old times. There's something else to this period in history that speaks to me. And the best way I can describe it is in one word: tangibility.

It was a time when dialing a phone meant rotating a wheel that had some resistance to it instead of tapping intangible pixels representing faux-3D buttons on a glass screen. We wrote letters on paper with ink and dropped them in a mailbox. Now we shift pixels around on a computer screen, sending a bunch of 1's and 0's out into the ether that we trust will be reconstituted into a matching arrangement of pixels at the recipient's end.

Pixels have replaced tangible maps, books, calculators, phones, notepads, record players, phonebooks, and even money. Yes, money. Think about it. You get your direct deposit, you see the pixels change in your online bank statement, you pay bills electronically, the pixels change again. How much of your money do you actually get to hold and touch?

Pixels have replaced things. The tangibility of our daily lives isn't what it used to be.

I know, I know. I love my iPhone, too. The digital revolution is awesome and it amazes me every day what we can do with it. Information is always at our fingertips and everything is accessible now. It's great.

But I feel like this degradation of tangibility is unhealthy for society. We need tangibility. It's gratifying. We all know it's gratifying. That's why it feels so good to build something yourself instead of buying it or hiring someone to make it. It's why a long day of spring cleaning is ultimately so rewarding. You accomplished a goal or you created something. You did it, you can look at the finished product, you can touch it, everyone else can see it and touch it, and it ain't going anywhere just because you turn the power button off on your computer.

This is a big factor in why I shoot film. I like the tangibility of it. It's rewarding.

One thing I've always hated with digital is that it leaves me feeling like something's missing. There was always a small void in me at the end of a shoot. After all the effort, time, and planning I put in to creating a photo, I felt like I had nothing to show for it. Sure, I had pixels on a screen that represented what I captured, but nothing more than that. All it took was a power outage for my pictures to be unreachable.

Digital photos don't exist on their own. They only exist in the presence of electricity and a computer screen.

I don't like that about digital photography. I can't touch my digital photos or hold them in my hand. I could only look at them on a powered up computer screen or phone. Sure, I could touch a print, but that's not the original. A print is just a facsimile of the original creation. I want to touch and feel the original. And the original digital photo is just a bunch of 1's and 0's on a hard drive that looks like nothing more than a clump of metal.

With analog photography, I have a roll or sheet of film that I can touch. I physically put that film in my camera, made an exposure, then I put it in chemicals I could smell and that I mixed in a jug with weight and heft to it. I clipped that film to a clothesline to dry. Then I looked at those images on a light table that I could touch before storing them in binders that I have to open and close and store on shelves in my office. And even if I have a lab develop the film for me (like I do with color film), I have exposed film that I hand off to another human being who will then return it to me in a box that I can open and touch. It's all tangible. It's all actually really there. It's all there for me to touch and see. And I don't even need electricity to do it. I just need a window with some sunlight behind it.

35m film slide in front of windowLook, ma! No electricity!

For me, this tangibility with film puts it on a completely different level than digital. It's the difference between the tactile experience of driving a car versus playing a racing video game. And for all you digital fanboys out there thinking "That's ridiculous. I now it's not that different. The instant gratification of digital, the freedom to take as many photos as you want, and the fact that it's really all just photography anyway - there are a million reasons why digital is better and more rewarding."

Well, maybe "to each his own." But I wouldn't go waving the flag for digital until you've used both extensively. Who knows? Maybe there is a big void in your photography that you don't even know is there. Maybe your photography could be a thousand times more rewarding than it already is. And with how rewarding digital photography already is, imagine how much greater it could be with film.

But don't get me wrong. Film isn't for everybody. Digital is much better for many subjects like sports, family photos, wildlife in many cases... Besides, film never fails to weed out the real photographers from the fair-weather pixel jockeys of the digital revolution.