Maverick Life

MATTERS OF OBSESSION

Past lens: Film photography makes a comeback

Past lens: Film photography makes a comeback
Home, Johannesburg, 2019. Photograph © Kgomotso Neto. (Image supplied)

Before the quick-and-easy world of picture taking and sharing that is digital photography, there was analogue.  

“Photography became this observation of time and memory for me; an artefact from our lives, proof that we lived, that I was here and all this sh*t happened. This negotiation of life and death still plays a major role in my practice and how I see,” says Durban artist and film photographer Saaiqa. She’s been interested in documenting on film since childhood.

“I started photographing with my grandfather’s point-and-shoot camera when I was 11 or 12. I remember taking it on excursions and camps. At that young age I remember comprehending that all this experience is fleeting; I will never be this age again, live this moment, see these things within this specific context ever again,” she says.

The Fourth Wall Series 2015, Photography by Saaiqa (Image supplied)

Barkly West, Northern Cape, South Africa, 2015, Photography by Saaiqa (Image supplied)

The Performance of the Mind, The Fourth Wall Series, Photography by Saaiqa (Image supplied)

Before the quick-and-easy world of picture taking and sharing that comes with digital photography and smartphones, there was analogue photography – a medium that relied on attention to detail, developing and working with low-megapixel cameras (depending on the format). Now it has made a comeback with young, emerging and experienced photographers.

Like the return of vinyl and typewriters, shooting on film is steeped in nostalgia. But film cameras also are often less onerous than their digital counterparts. One could easily find a compact point-and-shoot for under R1,000 at a small film shop. And their relative affordability means photographers often collect them – their elegant and antique style makes people want to own a few, with some becoming objects of design to exhibit and show off.

Digital cameras don’t have the look and feel of a culture or particular time, and you could also argue that the aesthetic of modern cameras is more homogeneous, with more attention to technical details than the body (the exceptions are the Fujifilm X100F and Olympus PEN E-PL6 with their retro looks).

Analogue vs digital

Film photography is more time consuming and challenging than digital photography. For example, a digital camera sets the correct ISO and shutter speed, which must be done manually on an analogue camera. And while you’re only limited by the size of the SD card on digital, film allows for only a few shots, forcing the photographer to slow down and think about each one.

The room for error is also a lot smaller with film – if you take a bad picture on a digital camera you can simply delete it and try again, but shooting on film doesn’t give you that freedom.

Then there’s manual focus, which can make capturing images harder and cumbersome. This also applies to digital film cameras, which aren’t as efficient as digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras.

“Shooting on film, you learn from your mistake, you have to put the time and effort to know where you went wrong and how to not do that again,” says Durban film photographer and cultural programmer Mitchell Harper.

Makoko transport. 2019. A local of Makoko neighbourhood of Lagos transverses the Lagos Lagoon on his daily tasks. Photograph by Mitchell Harper (Image supplied)

Hong Kong Gaze. 2018. This photo was taken on a return from Vietnam at Hong Kong International Airport. Photograph by Mitchell Harper (Image supplied)

No Fun. 2016. Beach goers ignore dangerous obstacles while swimming on Durban’s Beachfront. Photograph by Mitchell Harper (Image supplied)

Child’s Play. 2018. Kids making use of the summer with some fun at the local beach. Photograph by Mitchell Harper (Image supplied)

Sutton Park. 2016. Young swimmers seek relief from Durban summer at a municipal pool. Photograph by Mitchell Harper (Image supplied)

“Every shot really counts when shooting on film, as there literally is a limited count on each roll. And the cost, in time and money, of developing makes it a lot more challenging.”

But Harper enjoys the thrill and the unpredictability of shooting on film. “It’s really exciting and quite exhilarating… That sense of the unknown and trust in your own instincts when taking the shots, but also the sense of accomplishment when you do get the shot, are incomparable.

“Then there are the qualities that come with shooting on film, such as tones, textures and other intangibles. The patience required is another aspect – in this era of instant gratification there’s something to be [said for it]. It’s really down to the photographer and the audience’s sensibilities and tastes,” says Harper, who bought his first camera at a secondhand boot market about a decade ago.

Developing film can be complicated, but there are places that do it, such as Cameraland in Cape Town, which offers 35mm prints and up to 36 exposures (the number on a roll for a 35mm camera).

Or you can do it yourself, following the advice of professionals. Visual and creative art magazine Format has tips, including using black-and-white developer, fixer and stop bath, organising the developing tank and reel, using a digital thermometer “to ensure your chemistry is at the right temperature”, and using a timer “to ensure correct development times”.

“I’m generally a trigger-happy guy and I love how the medium has slowed me down. The process itself is slow but well worth it when you get good results. Film has a way of making you be more present in your work compared with digital. You appreciate the photographs a little more than you would with digital,” says Johannesburg photographer Kgomotso Neto Tleane.

Sho Madjozi for her Ep “What a life”, Soweto, 2020. Photograph © Kgomotso Neto. (Image supplied)

Untitled. Johannesburg CBD, 2020. Photograph © Kgomotso Neto. (Image supplied)

A smoke at De Peak. Johannesburg CBD, 2019. Photograph © Kgomotso Neto. (Image supplied)

A test shoot with Filah. Johannesburg, 2020. Photograph © Kgomotso Neto. (Image supplied)

Tleane too feels the return to film photography was inevitable. “It’s interesting to see because of the time we live in, with a saturation of images. But also, film is that good compared with digital.

“There’s some kind of satisfaction that comes with it. Also, I think the more things change the more they stay the same… Vinyl has made a comeback too – we always go back to analogue.”

Saaiqa concurs: “Digital photography definitely has its place in the world and I am appreciative of that. It has certainly changed everything though — we are living in an extremely image-saturated society where we are not only bombarded with imagery but everyone is also a photographer and is capable of taking photographs on their phones.”

And, like Tleane, Saaiqa appreciates the slower pace of film photography.

“A big thing for me is that it forces you to really consider what you are photographing and why. You operate from a more present state, as opposed to being trigger happy with any digital image-making device. I believe there is value in that.

“But, obviously for many, including myself, the aesthetic integrity of shooting film is unique and valuable – digital images sometimes fall short in capturing our world. It’s the reason some movies are still shot on film stock.”

Is a career as a film photographer sustainable in South Africa?

“Like most things it depends on various factors. First, for amateur photographers it can be pretty cheap initially, as the cameras can cost less than a modern DSLR or mirrorless camera. However, in the long run issues around developing and acquiring film or gear can eventually add up. In the end it can be an expensive hobby,” says Harper, who cites Briton Olivia Rose, London- and Amsterdam-based Dennis Branko and American hip hop and culture photographer Jonathan Simmons, aka Gunner Stahl, as successful film photographers.

“Quality film, scanning and developing can cost a little more depending on access. Take Durban… there aren’t many places that stock film but even fewer involved in processing. To my knowledge there were only two, and one has closed down due to demand and other economic challenges. The growth of companies such as Cape Film Supply, who provide not only a great range of films but also high-quality processing, is making it more sustainable for South African photographers,” he says.

Harper adds: “If you are a working photographer you have to factor all aspects of shooting film into your budget. There’s more of an understanding and appreciation from corporate clients nowadays but they still take some convincing because they don’t have the control and instant gratification that digital offers.”

Saaiqa echoes Harper’s sentiments: “To be honest it is very expensive in terms of buying film and getting it developed and scanned and/or printed… it is not sustainable for most.

“On top of that, for those not in Johannesburg or Cape Town, developing labs are hard to come by, if not impossible. For the past few years in Durban I have been struggling to regularly develop film because of the added cost of sending it to Cape Town.”

Tleane feels it’s not sustainable to solely shoot on film in South Africa: “Some people do but it’s not easy for a lot of reasons. The cost of it, clients trusting your process – we are in a world where people want to post seconds after the photograph has been taken, so film is a much slower process. You need to get clients who understand that process.” DM/ML

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