By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS I WRITE THIS, I’M EXPERIENCING WHAT I CALL AN EXQUISITE TORTURE, a feeling I associate with my very first days as a photographer. The term recalls the period between when someone shoots with film and when that film comes back, and both words in the phrase are of equal power. Exquisite— because, as long as the film is in the hands of the processors, I may have made the greatest pictures of my life—and torture, because, in this waiting period, I no longer trust the choices in exposure and technique that I felt so strongly about just days ago. In short, until the mailman arrives, my little roll of film is teetering between Everything and Nothing. It’s a feeling I recall deeply, a feeling I no longer experience with regularity in the digital age.
And beyond a certain perverse nostalgia, I haven’t missed it.
Why do I even have a roll of film at the lab in 2020? Idle curiosity, mostly, sparked by the fact that, several years ago, Kodak decided to revive one of its old slide films, Ektachrome, an emulsion that accompanied me on many a key journey along the road to making pictures, and an event that intrigued me just because of its Quixotic hopelessness. I don’t miss the uncertain waiting for film because I frankly don’t miss film itself, as either a process or a tool. Of course, I can call forth specific memories of what it felt like to work that way. The mechanical moves and calculations. The limits, the frustrations. The rituals.
And the expense. Oy, the expense.
I can’t imagine teaching myself everything I’d need to learn with a new camera today, hamstrung by the economics of film. Every shot, hit or miss, costs you money. You actually pay three times for every shot; for the film itself, for making an attempt at a picture, and for paying to have your picture, hit or miss, processed. All to have the entire enterprise fail, which has happened more than a few times to many of us over a lifetime. Technology’s only essential role in the development of photography is to make processes reliable and invisible, to ensure that the machinery will get out of the way of making a picture, not ensure that a higher percentage of those pictures never get made.
Film in the hands of a master (which I sadly never was) is a crap shoot….a well-calculated, educated guess of a crapshoot, but a crapshoot nonetheless. So no, beyond the ache of memory (a phrase which is the linguistic origin of the word nostalgia), I don’t miss film, any more than I long for watering and shoeing my horse before climbing into the saddle to amble into town. It was necessary for us all to go through that evolutionary layer in order to get to where we are, with film occupying an honorable place in the same long time line that includes tintypes and glass plates. However, we don’t primarily use these formats anymore because we have learned better. I’m not disrespecting any part of that journey….but it is a journey, not a destination. You either move forward, or you nail one foot to the ground and forever walk in a circle. It’s fun to put your old Army uniform for five minutes, but you’re not going to wear it to dinner.
That said, I sure hope my slides come out good (damn you, inner child)….
Fiat Lux, Michael Perkins’ newest collection of images, is now available from NormalEye Books.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I AM TRULY THANKFUL FOR MY PHOTOGRAPHIC FAILURES. And it’s right that I have a benevolent attitude toward the pictures I’ve muffed, since there are so many of them. As a photographer, you pray for the kind of analytical ruthlessness that you need to separate wheat from chaff and label your duds as duds….no excuses, no explanations, no magical thinking that, left in a drawer long enough, these rotten seeds will someday bloom into roses. Once you can call your own stuff worthless, you’re truly on the road toward making something….well, less so.
I have just spent a week giving the (overdue) pink slip to my last and largest remaining archive of really, really bad pictures from the twilight of the film era, about 400 35mm slides that I have been hauling around the globe since the late ’90’s, and none of which, surprisingly, have blossomed into masterpieces since the last three times I pulled them out, shrieked, and sealed them back behind brick walls. Funny how that happens.
This errant tonnage represents my first attempts with 3D photography, which involves a huge learning curve, not to mention a pound and a half of heavy-duty study. At the time I began this journey, very few stereoscopic cameras were available for sale, and the ones that produced the effect the best were also the most technically limited. The Argus/Loreo 3D, my toy of choice, was, in fact, a point-and-shoot 35mm with only two apertures, since the additional depth of field at f/11 and f/18 produced the best stereo illusion. The Argus was produced to create 4 x 6 prints (which you actually had to pay to have printed, remember), each featuring two side-by-side images viewed through a prism holder. It was not intended for high-end art use, since the lenses were frozen at 1/100, there were no additional optics available, and a usable result could only be achieved outdoors, in full daylight.
Worse, I stubbornly decided to shoot slide film in the thing, thus creating a whole separate set of problems for myself. First, were processors supposed to produce both images in the same slide? Well, sure, yeah, they could do that, but how was I going to view them? No worries! Turns out that other fools like me had also shot so-called “half-frame” stereo slides over the decades, and some of the viewers made to serve them were still on Ebay. Of course, I was shooting daylight slide film at 100 ASA in all conditions, and I didn’t yet know enough (or have enough money) to instruct processors on how to “push” the slide film an extra stop or two just to make them a trice lighter, so most of my shots were murky mysteries even Sherlock Holmes couldn’t decipher.
Worse, anyone shooting stereo must learn to compose for the depth effect, something you can only master by taking lots of lousy pictures (I did) or agreeing to take pictures of boring garbage just to attain said effect (did that, too). Add to this that you only had half of a 35mm frame in which to compose and you start to see what a raging success the whole enterprise was destined to be. At one point, I even went so far as to slice the twin images apart, re-jigger them in super-wide slide mounts, find an antediluvian projector that projected those kinds of slides ($$$), then search the globe again for viewing glasses that would allow me to see the projected slides in 3-d. Getting tired yet?
So, farewell to scads of badly composed, boring and unviewable slides, a grim reminder of how expensive and unwieldy large projects were in the film era. Post-script: I eventually thrived by learning to make my own View-Master reels (still expensive and work-intensive, but there’s a reason the format has been around nearly seventy years). At least the entire fiasco finally made a real editor out of me, teaching me a most valuable mantra: bad is bad is bad is bad. Some seeds will never become roses.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
DURING THE GOLDEN AGE OF SLIDE FILM, I KNEW PLENTY OF PHOTOGRAPHERS who feared the unforgiving quality of the medium. The way that, with the educated guessing involved in many exposures, it was all or nothing. Prints. coming from a negative, could be created and re-created almost endlessly, but reversal film was, with few exceptions, a lot harder to massage. The processed slide was, for most shooters, the end of the argument. You either nailed it or….
Slide shooters became a kind of breed apart, since we had to work harder to coax good results out of our chosen medium. Slide film was, for the most part, a lot slower than daylight print film, so that, on some days, merely framing a shot in shade meant you could reduce your subject to a Dutch painting, mood-wise. A few of us played to that bias as well, deliberately under-lighting shots to boost color or isolate key subjects in the frame….making them “pop.” Others created strange effects by cross-processing, giving the lab instructions that ran counter to the recommended developing for a given film. And a lot of us became self-taught illumination geeks in a desperate attempt to get enough light to the film, causing our families to recoil at the approach of our monstrous flashguns. Their retinas died for our sins.
Now we’re at a place where the camera is really the film, and that film can be made immediately, accurately responsive to nearly any lighting situation. Digital sensors have all but eliminated the need for spot flashes at all, and, as for rendering mood, if you can visualize it, you can pretty much shoot it. At a recent visit to an apple orchard gift shop (hey, it’s autumn!) I came upon an immense table of green and red apple varieties arranged in ready-to-buy bags. The light in the place was pretty meager to start with, but there was still enough of it to over-crowd the shot with background clutter….jars of jams, counters of candies, jugs of cider, peeps, etc. I wanted the warm colors of the apples to carry the entire image, so I started to think like a slide photographer and deliberately under-exposed the shot. That didn’t mean shutting down the aperture beyond f/4, since the place was fairly dark already, but merely leaving my ISO at its lowest setting, thereby telling the sensor not to suck in any additional light. I didn’t have much depth of field, but the somewhat gauzy quality at the rear and sides actually added to the warm nostalgia of the shot, so I kept it.
Again, digital makes it possible to try a lot of approaches to a task within the space of a few minutes, while the moment is there to be seized. You don’t have to physically consume film, shooting twenty frames with different settings and bearing the cost of processing them all in the hope that “the one” is in there somewhere. Cause and effect are compressed into a shorter, workable space, and success increases. To an old slide man, this is salvation of the first order. Now we manipulate the medium instead of the other way around. Man.