I started off in photography many years ago with film. Lately, I’ve come back to it, but for very interesting reasons.
Film was not an alternative process when I started off- it was THE process. I learned how to shoot with an Exakta camera of my dad’s. If you’ve never used one they are “quirky” (left handed shutter release, film that loads backwards and a mirror that doesn’t rebound after shooting). Later I graduated to a Pentax K1000 and I learned how to develop black and white film from my friend John Aldrich. John’s dad was an electron microscopist and he had the coolest darkroom ever! In college I kept shooting film and gradually switched to color, mostly out of convenience since I could drop it off for someone else to develop. When digital rolled around, I was hooked- this was the ultimate in instant gratification and being busy in a post doc (and not having a dark room. or money) I was all about convenience and speed. Fast forward to now and I have an artistic process that pretty much depends on the dynamic range and instant feedback of digital.
But film still called. It was an old friend that I missed, but neither of us could ever make the time. I’d shoot a roll here, or a sheet of 4×5 there, but it just wasn’t easy. The guys at New55 changed all of that this year. They have been working to recreate the Polaroid Type 55 film. This was a single shot instant film that was unique in that you got both a print and a negative. It’s the stuff of legend, but has been out of production for years. I had been following their development and signed onto their Kickstarter when it came open. To support the production of the film, the group has been selling Oneshots- a version of the old Ready Load film that doesn’t require a film holder- and R3 monobath. Monobaths are a chemical concoction that combines developer and fix into a single solution, which is perfect for a
lazy time pressed person like me. Suddenly, with a set of Oneshots and the monobath, film was convenient again!
I’m “scanning” these by placing the negatives on a light table, taking several shots with a macro lens then stitching in Photoshop.
While working with the 4×5 I also found something else that had been missing- contemplation. Composing and focusing on the ground glass of a view camera is some work and it takes time to get into a flow. Interestingly, I found myself looking more closely at my subjects. Of course, when you only have a single shot (and it’s going to cost a few bucks for that one image!) you tend to examine all of the possibilities before hand, rather than blazing away with a dSLR. It can be a very “present” experience.
More recently, New55 has been releasing small runs of instant test film. You have to watch the store site closely as this stuff goes out of stock almost immediately, but I managed to lay my hands on some. It’s still an experimental product with lots of imperfections. The print gives overexposed images in my hands, (quite possibly operator error) but the negative is beautiful and dense. I’ve written about it previously (here) but recall that overexposure with negatives is OK, so long as they are not so dense that they cannot be scanned. I get scratches in the emulsion and streaks- more so than with the Oneshot and R3 combination- but the imperfections are part of the charm.
Zen has the concept wabi-sabi that loosely represents perfection in imperfection. The flaws in the film are gifts of serendipity that make each image a truly unique and un-copyable object. I could shoot a thousand more of the same scene and I would never get the same result. I personally find great value in the scratches and texture as they give the image some depth of personality, which I find far more valuable than a “perfect” mass produced object. Besides, if I wanted perfect, I’d shoot digital.
Lucas James is a fine art photographer based in Manchester, NH.