On Film Photography

essay

When I traveled back to my home in Alabama this past Thanksgiving, I discovered in my old room among the detritus of childhood, several canisters of negative film. Popping off the lids and giving them a cursory examination, I saw that they were the few rolls of film that I had shot during the first two years of college, before I gave up photography for the remainder of school. I did not, however, remember exactly what photographs they contained.

Since childhood I had an affinity for cameras — in elementary school I spent long afternoons and evenings unaware of loneliness, making stop motion videos with Lego bricks and our family’s point-and-shoot digital camera. During vacations, I would make it my job to document the highway landscapes we drove past, the hotels we slept in, and the museums we explored (I was never too interested in taking photos of people, much to my parents’ chagrin). My eyes lingered longingly on the cameras displayed in the electronics section of Costco during our family’s weekly grocery trips. But a high quality camera always seemed prohibitively expensive and out of reach.

That is, until high school, when a photography enthusiast in my computer science class informed me that film photography was not just a dead art practiced by aging weirdos. In fact, the quality of images produced by 35mm film could only be matched by full-frame DSLRs, which were (and still are) extravagantly beyond my budget. What was more, top-end vintage gear could be easily picked up in thrift stores or online for a fraction of the cost of new cameras.

I resolved to get a film camera, and I convinced my somewhat skeptical parents to buy me a Canon A1 off of Craigslist as a birthday gift. I spent that waning year of high shooting as many rolls of film as I could. My local photo lab would develop film for $2 a roll, and I jury-rigged a rudimentary DIY film scanning set up with a desk lamp, a white plastic bag, and a digital point-and-shoot. I fell in love with the graininess, the color shifts and general imperfections inherent in film — a photograph taken on film immediately looks like an object of art rather than a documentation of reality.

But like so many past hobbies of mine, my passion was fated to eventually fade away. This time, it was not due solely to laziness or boredom, the culprits of my other abandoned pursuits, but instead was largely due to the transition to college.

I had envisioned my college to be a photographic heaven. Under the gothic archways, surrounded by intellectual, like minded students, I expected there to be no shortage of things to photograph. But on the contrary, I found an utter lack of compelling subjects. There was not a square inch that was safe from the hungry smartphone cameras of campus-bound students; images of every building, every room, every tree and every flower proliferated on Instagram and Facebook until the entire campus was a single visual cliche. I felt foolish toting my bulky SLR around campus in order to snap pictures of the same archways and gardens crowded by camera-happy students and tourists.

So my camera sat untouched on my desk, or sometimes was even relegated to a closet shelf, coming out of hibernation only for special events: a visit to the state fair, a trip to Atlanta with my family, a visit to the school gardens before that too became passe for me. But the specific shots, the discrete slices of time, memory and emotion were unknown to me.

It would perhaps be not too far a stretch to say that I had never known these moments even as I brought the viewfinder up to my eye. Remembrance was of little importance to me in those first two years of school. I had developed these rolls, but never made the time to scan them in the library. There was some part of me that still loved the physical act of focusing the lens and feeling the tactile click of the shutter, but once the moment passed, these documents of the past became unimportant to me. I was determined to rush headlong into the future.

Then of course, as befalls all those who rush headlong, I arrived at my destination. Friends disappeared, courses of studies changed, relationships ended – all natural catastrophes, the cyclic sweeping of flame through an evergreen forest. But nevertheless, they were catastrophes that I was unwilling and unable to prepare for.

And after that, I felt no desire to attempt to revisit the faces of people who had passed from my life, or to attempt to conjure up old feelings that were now locked in a past I could no longer access. What was the point, other than a sense of masochism, to revisit the haunted halls of the past? It was better to stoically deny those ghosts any power. So the film sat, developed but unknown, in the back of a drawer at home, out of sight and out of mind.

//

Henri Bergson conceived of time as a strip of film passing between two reels. In his view, the passage of time is produced by cumulative difference: Monday must be different from Sunday, but Tuesday must be different from both Sunday and Monday, Wednesday must differ from Tuesday in addition to Monday and Sunday, and so on and so forth.

Thus, the uptake reel grows larger and larger as each moment passes before the snap of the shutter. Each moment contains inscribed within it every previous moment in history; a walk in the garden remembers all previous walks in the garden — and not just your walks, but all walks from all people, all dogs, all ducks, all children not yet able to walk being pushed in strollers by their parents — and not just the walks, but sunsets and sunrises, the summer heat, the dry autumn days, the rare winter cold snaps that freeze the fountains into solid blocks of ice, encasing within them hapless bacteria and protists who remember not so long ago the first aggregates of algae being formed on a hot Earth…

What then becomes of the present? Does it get more and more bloated with each passing moment? Ghosts of the past fade but refuse to disappear. Today is forever chained to comparison with days past. Is it better than yesterday: brighter, louder, more joyful, more vital? Or have you passed the inflection point of your happiness graph? One thing is for certain: those things you once had can never be recreated.

We often think of photographs as faithful recreations of the past, but they are nothing but crude approximations. The colors are off, the horizon is warped, the edge of your face is blurry with movement. The photograph was doomed from the moment it was taken; it is something static, but there was no point in time when the real world stood still. Unable to capture or to recreate, remembrance is a doomed project from the start.

//

Since moving to Boston, I have taken up analog photography once more. The city is an endless stream of interesting subjects; just walk down the street shooting from the hip and you’re bound to get a few good shots. But some of my most fruitful photographs came not from the rushing of cars and faces, but from a Sunday hiking trip I took with friends from work.

We drove in the morning to Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire, about an hour and a half from the city. The trees were fiery red and orange, and I cursed my lack of foresight for being only able to capture them on black and white film. The trail we hiked was short but very steep; in other words, a monstrous challenge for someone who had not hiked anything more strenuous than gravel-paved Alabama foothills. The previous night’s rain ran in rivulets down our trail, and the rocks were cold and slick. My trusty A1 had survived almost 35 years of wear, but I feared for its safety as it, bouncing on its strap around my neck, sometimes skidded along the enormous boulders we clambered across. After embarrassingly many rests and water breaks, we reached the summit. Save for the hikers who crowded there gulping water and eating granola bars, the top of the mountain was completely barren. Not even insects crawled along the gray rocks.

At the time, I thought that it must be that the climate there was so inhospitable, so cold and windy that not even shrubs could find traction among the rocks. But after we had hiked down into the warm embrace of cell service, I learned that the environment was perfectly hospitable to trees; in fact the summit was once lush with flora. In the early 1800s, settlers set fire to the mountain hoping the blaze would create pastures for their sheep. Only a decade later, suspecting that the wolves that terrorized their herds had made dens in the uprooted trees left by the blaze, they once again ignited the mountain, reducing what was left of vegetation to ash, driving away the wolves along with their dreams of soft green pastures.

In middle school life sciences, we were taught about the stages of ecological succession. After a catastrophe such as a wildfire or volcano, the first to venture out onto the alien earth are bacteria, who slowly wear away at the bare minerals. Next come algae and moss, against all odds turning lifeless rock into dirt. A bird, on its way home, deposits a seed into this dirt, and out springs a low shrub, which becomes a multitude of shrubs, and with them come insects, rodents, more birds. Finally saplings arrive, which become red spruce trees, towering waxy-needled in the snow.

And yet, two hundred years after the blaze, after countless elections, civil wars, and brushes with atomic annihilation, not even moss had dared to creep across the rock of Monadnock. What does Monadnock remember so vividly, that its trauma centuries past still haunts it?

From the summit, my friend tried to point out to me the skyline of Boston. I smiled and nodded, but no matter how hard I squinted, I couldn’t make out its angular forms amongst the blowing of wind, the sloping of mountainsides, the wreathing of mists, the coloring of trees. Then it started to hail.

//

Say you wind up the film advance, meter carefully (for the shadows, not the highlights!), hold your breath and work up the courage to press the shutter release. How does the scene in framed in your viewfinder (the forested base of a mountain perhaps) become the digital ephemera to be launched into the stratosphere of your (barely followed) Instagram page?

The plastic film stock is coated in a layer of silver halide ions. When the shutter opens its eye, photons stream in and strike the ions, exciting their electrons to higher orbitals. These areas of excitation join together to form metastable networks, transforming the continuous energies of the Outside into discrete areas of chemistry.

The shutter closes, and these metastable networks are sealed away into darkness. To the naked eye (with the aid of a safelight perhaps), the film would look no different than it had before being exposed. But beneath the placid silver lake there is a great teeming of ghosts – electrons spinning and leaping to the echoes of past intensities.

These ghosts are fixed in place by the addition of developer fluid. A mild reducing agent, developer converts silver ions to their stable form. The more excited a molecule, the faster it converts; the areas of film exposed to brighter light are transfigured into silver, while areas of darkness remain in their ionic form. Thus, the film has become immune to the light of the present.

But yet the haunting is not over; even now no image is formed on the blank metallic face of the film. To exorcise these ghosts requires an act of selective forgetting. The film is finally submerged into a fixer solution, which washes away the silver that remains in ionic form. The lowest intensities of light that once existed in your viewfinder vanish without a trace. Funguses peeking out from the corners of leaves, the half decomposed bones of squirrels buried in loam, the insects in shadow but nonetheless vital all swirling down your sink…

And what is left is a negative image, a chemically rendered graph of the events that you, through your wielding of developer solution, chose to remain. If remembrance is the creation of images, then to remember is to forget, to create a history of the world as you wish to know it.

//

Gilles Deleuze modified Bergson’s notion of time so that the past does not exist hierarchically inscribed within moments. Time is not in the image of film passing between reels: all moments of the past coexist in virtuality, side by side as rolls of film sitting in the back of a drawer. All of the past (including what in the “future” will be regarded as “past”) has always-ever existed as the virtual; the present is simply the physical actualization of a subset of the virtual past.

In this scheme, the present is unchained from comparison. Difference in the virtual plane is qualitative, not quantitative. The difference between moments in time is not a difference-in-degree, but instead a difference-in-kind; moments simply cannot be held up for comparison. Happiness cannot have an inflection point, because happiness simply cannot be graphed. Today is no better nor worse than yesterday, it is only different.

Remembering, according to Deleuze, becomes an active, productive process that actualizes the virtual past into the physical present. Physical changes are produced in neurons, chemical changes occur in silver halide, the rock of the mountaintop remains stubbornly, physically and chemically inhospitable to life. Remembering is not living in the past; on the contrary, remembering is creating the present. To remember is to express an agency in selecting which moments of the past contribute to the world.

//

Lately I find that I am often immersed in memory. Perhaps this is due to my attempts to become a regular writer. Or maybe it’s because getting from one place to another in Boston often requires long walks where your mind is free to wander into places it usually avoids. The acrid smell of bus exhaust pulls me into childhood summers in Taipei. The hush of the first snow reminds me of the rare times when class was cancelled for winter weather. Strangers look like people I’ll never see again.

Sometimes I’m troubled by how flawed my memory seems. What was it that I had for lunch yesterday? Who was the first person to greet me in the morning? At night, at the edge of sleep, I’m gripped by a solipsistic terror that I never existed until the present moment. What guarantee is there that my personal history is not just a fiction, that the people I remember loving are not just a figment of imagination? Thankfully, these Cartesian fears always evaporate with the chirp of my alarm clock.

In the basement of Lamont Library at Harvard, there’s two film scanners that always seem to be unused. A few days after arriving back in Boston, I had an overpriced coffee in Harvard Square with a friend, then headed to Lamont to finally scan my old negatives.

Scanning negatives is more an art than a science. You’d think that there must be some way of calibrating the scanner’s sensor to extract the true colors of the film. But despite endless flame wars on photography forums, no one can seem to agree upon what the true colors of a given film stock really are. Ultimately, it’s a judgement call. It’s up to you whether you want to remember things as being slightly bluer or slightly redder.

One of the best photos in those rolls was of my ex-girlfriend. It’s mid-October, and we’re at the Carolina State Fair. The sun has already set, so the only sources of light are garish blobs of color from the rickety rides and greasy food stands. She’s looking slightly behind and to the left of the lens, caught halfway in a smile. The cast of the lights make her hair appear redder than it ever really was.

I sent the photo to her, and she told me that she doesn’t like how she looks in it. But she assures me that nevertheless, she thinks that it’s a cool photo.