When I was small, my parents documented our lives with a camera called the Olympus OM-1. This camera captured images of hikes, birthdays, Christmases, and life’s minutiae, rendering our experiences somehow permanent, now that they’d been properly photographed. As time went on and SLR cameras gave way to automatic, this little OM-1 sat on our shelf, with its bag of lenses beside it gathering dust.
I entered into the tumultuous years of middle school only to discover that photography was in fact a way to escape; standing behind a lens was much easier than standing in front. I dusted off that little OM-1 and began a relationship built on adjusting the aperture, the shutter speed, and focusing in on life events that I deemed “precious” enough to warrant a real camera.
I have a digital SLR that takes fine photographs. I have a cell phone that takes pretty decent photos, too. But, to me at least, there is something about film. There is something about connecting with the camera while the film is being loaded, while adjusting the light, while focusing, while depressing the button to take the photograph, and while advancing the film so the camera is ready for the next image. There are only so many exposures, which increases the deliberateness of each moment, the importance of each photograph. Without reviewing at that moment, unflattering, imperfect photos are retained, which can, at times, increase the power of the image.
With the slow disappearance of film, I’ve come to look back on the photographs by the greats with a deep sense of nostalgia. Albert Watson’s photo Jagger/Leopard took immense skill, thought, and hands on craft. Now yes, the same image could be created by manipulating images on a screen, but the idea of working with film, a photographer’s mind, and the camera together as a triad to craft the perfect image seems special. About his famous photo, Watson wrote,
“The original idea for the shooting was to have Mick Jagger driving a Corvette, with the leopard in the passenger seat. The big cat, a wild animal, seemed to suit Jagger, who likes to jump around a lot onstage, of course. However, putting the leopard in the car with him ended up being so dangerous that we had to build a partition. So, while we were waiting, I thought, “Let me try a quick double exposure with the leopard.” I shot the leopard first and drew its eyes and nose on the viewfinder of the camera. Then I rewound the film and photographed Jagger, fitting his eyes and nose over the eyes and nose of the leopard on the viewfinder so they matched. I didn’t think it would work, and I almost threw out the film. But of the twelve shots, four of them matched, and this was the best of the four that worked.”
Lately, I have found myself wandering into camera shops around New York with my little old OM-1, stocking up on film and waxing eloquent with camera lovers over my quickly departing friend. Robert Burley, has documented this shift away from film through stunning photographs of the factories of Kodak and Poloroid as well as plants throughout the world. His book, DISAPPEARANCE OF DARKNESS: PHOTOGRAPHY AT THE END OF THE ANALOG ERA is currently in its second reprinting. He’ll be at the New York Public Library on April 3rd in conversation with Alison Nordström as part of the Artist Dialogue Series.
For now, and as long as I can buy film, I will continue to document life’s most special moments with my trusty friend, my OM-1. I will keep getting it fixed, keep winding the film, and will keep my fingers crossed that there will always be, somehow, a place for this deeply loved art.