Of Film and Freedom: My Personal Digital Revolution

I learned the alchemy of the photographic darkroom when I was 10. It was then that I began turning light into images, watching and waiting as they slowly materialized under an orange light. My school, a pilot magnet school and rare gem in the burgeoning suburban south, offered ballet, sign language, journalism and photography as electives to kids in grades K-5. The courses that I took at that elementary school shaped my future more than anything academic that came before or after.

Soon, my dad gave me my first SLR, a Canon AE-1, which I still have. It’s an amazing camera. I smuggled the Canon into hair band concerts, concealed in a faux compartment in my purse that would defy the compulsory searches and frisks; I used it in my living room to do midnight fashion shoots with my friends when they came to sleep over; but most of all, I took pictures of animals. I wish I knew what happened to all of those rolls of film shot over almost a decade of my life. Things that seem airy and easily discarded when you’re 20, often take on the desirable melancholy weight of memory when you’re 30 and 40.

It was at the end of college, when faced with a very promising career in commercial radio, that I took a glance into the abyss and didn't like what I saw. I decided to pack it all in and become a photographer. At 20, I was enthusiastic, hopeful, confused and very angry.  In retrospect, I made a lot of questionable decisions, so I am very grateful to my young self for having the perhaps brief, but none the less real, presence of mind to make the right career decision. I moved from North Carolina to New England, settling in Providence while attending an applied photography program in Boston.

There I learned how to create beautiful, masterful prints in the darkroom. I became very good at printing and enjoyed the long hours in the cool darkness where no one spoke and time stopped while emulsion developed. Film and paper and chemicals took every bit of my money. I often had to choose between buying lunch or film. Every shoot I did was reigned in by financial concerns. I picked my moments very carefully. I shot 5 images when I would have liked to shoot 50, but the process cost too much to be decadent with experimentation. I truly believe that my work and growth as artist suffered for this, but I didn’t know it then.

Later, my husband built me a beautiful darkroom in our spare bedroom. I began doing master printing for other photographers, both local and regional. The thing I remember most about my years in the darkroom, other than the constant smell of chemicals on my hands, was the anticipation. The waiting, patience and expense that was often required in order to get one perfect print was astounding. Good paper often cost me $1-2 per sheet and I would throw away 15 to get one that was IT. Some would argue that this makes the finished product more precious, but it also puts a lot of emotional and financial stress on you. Stress is the enemy of creativity.

Within a few years, digital photography began to rear its head. I ignored it and kept on working in the darkness. But soon, it became unavoidable. I bought my first little digital camera second-hand off of a friend and began to try and learn the completely foreign language that was digital photography. I stumbled a lot and resented being drug away from the beautiful silver world of traditional photography. But I also became a much stronger and more focused artist very quickly.

Suddenly I was able to shoot anything I wanted, not just things that paid. I could shoot hundreds (later thousands) of pictures in one day and instead of costing hundreds of dollars to process the film, it cost nothing.  I could see the mistakes I was making as they were happening and correct them before the moment passed. Without the anxious delay between pushing the shutter and seeing the image, it was like time finally let me catch up to it and I was seeing and creating in real time, for the first time.

I shot my first book Shelter Dogs with that first 5 MB digital camera. It launched my career and enabled me to then make the six books since I have created since 2006. In making my second book Street Dogs, I shot up to 700 images every day. If I had been made to shoot that book with film, it never would have happened. I had 1,400 images on my camera the other day and I took a moment to stop to think about how much that would have cost me ‘back in the day’. It would have been about $2000 just to get to the post-production point I am at when I download onto my Mac, that is: film, processing and contact sheets. It’s probably a lot more now.

Like many people of the “last film generation”, I do feel nostalgic about film, but as a working artist, I have to choose the best tools for the job, and for me, that is a digital camera. There are many photographers who need to use to film to make their art, the medium is crucial to their vision. I wish I could be one of them, but I’m not. I do not believe that to be a great photographer, you must work with traditional materials, but I am very saddened by the fact that many modern photography students no longer learn darkroom or film technique at all. I have had so many students who have never focused an enlarger, threaded film onto a reel or breathed in the acrid smell of darkroom chemicals. They have never gotten their hands dirty in genesis of their medium.

To me, it’s kind of like the philosophy classes you take in college. You’re probably not going to “use” what you learn in your career, but learning about philosophy and about great thinkers helps you learn about the basis of all thought, and teaches you how to think- which is perhaps the most useful thing of all. Likewise, if your goal is to become a professional image maker, you should understand the basis of all image making, which is light. You simply can not learn this by purely studying digital technology. Photoshop teaches you how to manipulate images, not light. To some extent, digital cameras teach you how to control light, but not how to listen to it and translate it. Without this most basic instruction, only a fraction of photographer's artistic potential is revealed.

Unfortunately, darkrooms are few and far between these days. Many schools have reduced or reallocated their darkroom space, making room for more digital labs and printing stations. Obviously times have changed, and students need to learn the skills that will make them relevant in the modern photographic world, but for those wishing to be artists, not just photographers, it is essential that they get their hands a little dirty.

Bridgette and Harry, 2004, Tri-X film

Bridgette and Harry, 2004, Tri-X film