My occasional history with film

I’m still thinking about film a lot, maybe too much. I’ve ended up buying two 35mm cameras on eBay this week, a Canonet QL17 rangefinder and an Olympus Trip 35 point/shoot.  I ran the first roll of film through the Trip (see attached picture) and I love it.  I need to take more pictures, figure out a good workflow for developing, scanning, and posting things, and determine what I’m really doing with photography. Mostly, I need to learn, and I feel like there’s a deep rabbit-hole of things out there to master. And the whole thing has me falling down a deep nostalgia hole, thinking about previous experiences with analog film.

A couple of years ago, I bought a photo book by the parents of Christopher McCandless, the guy that died in Alaska, described in the book and movie Into the Wild. His parents self-pubbed Back Into the Wild, which contained his journals, letters, and snapshots.  The book had a strong impact on me, not because I particularly admire his story and plight, but because it was a strong link to a nostalgic period of the recent past.

All of the guy’s photos were taken with cheap 35mm cameras, the point-and-shoot variety now largely forgotten.  The book also included copies of post cards and envelopes, with old stamps and cancellation/postmarkings that also reminded me of the early 90s.  I did so much mail for the zine around that time, and the look of those old 22-cent stamps and the cancellations, with their little public-service messages (“end breast cancer!” or whatever) draw me back instantly.  I still have old paper mail in storage, pieces in their well-creased envelopes, and it all reminds me of that period so much.

But the film, the cameras – they mentioned a few of the makes and models, and I googled these, wanting to see what gear he brought along on his adventures.  In the 80s and 90s, there were so many junk cameras, so many different brands.  it was like that with any electronics, too. Today, if you wanted a CD player, you’d have a choice of maybe three or four brands (Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, and some no-name Chinese thing) and maybe three or four models for each brand, and each one would be very similar to the other, aside from a differentiating feature like Surround Sound or digital output.  But back in the 80s, if you wanted, say, a VCR, there were dozens of brands, all of these different major Asian players shelling out radically different versions, competing with a dozen different American firms, with factories in San Jose or Dallas, plus all of the no-name Korean brands imported and given an American label, like the JC Penney brands or Sears versions.  And they were all so completely different, not identical in any way.

I remember I used to go through a lot of jam box tape players, because for a long period, I didn’t have a good car stereo, and would instead go to a pawn shop and buy a $50 jam box and then wire a 12-volt adapter in the car and use that until it got stolen a few months later.  And at the pawn shop, that $50 would buy so many different types, with removable speakers, various space-age plastic chrome finishes and grilles, fabric-covered woofers, and mystical buttons that offered hi-fi settings or switched on LCD power meters that measured nothing from a scientific standpoint, but would light and rise and fall with the volume of the music.  And they all had different EQ types and tone knobs or “boost” switches and different tape counters and ejection mechanisms, and the feel of the mechanical buttons was always different.

Cameras were the same way.  There were the high-end SLRs, which were all too expensive for my blood, but I had a friend or two, usually working for the yearbook club, who would learn how to work a good Canon or Nikon, and maybe borrow one from the school. SLRs all looked similar, but had weird differences, and there were the usual Pepsi/Coke religious wars about which one was best, although it was a ten-front war back then, not just Nikon/Canon.  There were also the low-end things, the Kodak 110s and disc cameras, and cheap Polaroid one-shots with no controls at all, just a dust cover, a trigger button, and a place to plug in the flip-flash with the exploding bulbs that would cost a fortune and smell of burning plastic after they ignited.  My parents liked these cameras, the ones with no settings, the Brownie or the 126, with nothing but maybe a film advance lever to manually crank through the roll after each shot.  And there were also a wide variety of cameras between the two, with some advanced features, some things missing, and some fully automated.

When I was a kid, I won one of the cheap-o cameras at the company picnic for my dad’s job.  It was a Kodak 110 kit, a little rectangle with the lid that pivoted open and worked as a sort of handle, hanging off to one side.  It was as thick as one of the plastic film cartridges, and had a little eyehole to look through, to frame shots.  This model had a “zoom” lens, a glass piece that slid back and forth on a track, so you could snap it into place and increase the range by a small factor.  Everything else was manual, with no focus, no aperture setting, just a film advance lever and a shutter button.  It would take me a year to take a dozen shots, carefully framing them, snapping a picture, and then not knowing for months if it turned out or not.  As a ten-year-old, I never had money for a flash, and would shoot everything in daylight with fingers crossed.  When done, the exposed film got thrown in a junk drawer, with pens and checkbooks and broken calculators and instruction books to appliances.  If we were lucky, a third of the film I shot as a kid was developed.  It always looked bad, with faded colors, grainy prints, and half of the shots underexposed or dark.  Everyone had red eyes, and all of the macro photography I attempted with Star Wars models never looked anything like the films.  It was disappointing, and not a hobby for me to get into, so I didn’t.

In high school, on a lark, I bought another 110 camera.  This was a small “spy” camera, a tiny piece of plastic that clipped over a 110 cartridge, leaving most of the film case exposed on the outside, not much more than a lens and advancing mechanism that clipped over the film cart.  I don’t remember if it had a flash, but I do remember it had no viewfinder, just a small plastic rectangle that clicked up on the top.  I bought this in October of my senior year, right before visiting Canada for the first time.  I took a few rolls of shots with this, and paid to develop them myself, since the $3.45/hour wages at my job afforded me this luxury.  The quality wasn’t much better, but there was more immediacy, and I took a lot of pictures of things.  I knew I’d leave town in a year, and want to remember old friends and my old car and my old house, so I captured it all to film.  And that Canada trip yielded a few good shots, too.  The film quality was still bad, lots of reds to the color mix, and the plastic-lens camera was total garbage.  But the small size, the novelty, and the budget to actually develop photos made it a decent experience.

In my freshman year of college, I had a few bucks of christmas money to blow on the after-holiday sales, and bought a 35mm camera at an Osco drug store.  It was some semi-known name, like Vivitar, but was a low-end, all-manual affair, similar to the ones McCandless used.  This was my first foray into a middle ground that existed, with the pro film format (35mm) but the cheap and easy to use camera that offered not settings or adjustments.  It did have a cheap flash, and it maybe had an aperture setting (a little lever with an icon of the sun and another of a cloud).  And it may have had a similar focus (picture of a mountain, picture of a person’s head.)  But it had no zoom, no focus ring, no tripod mount, none of that.  It also had a manual film advance, and you had to load the film by hand, stretching the first flap out of the film canister across a set of sprockets before closing the back door.

This camera only lasted a few weeks, before the film spool broke, the cheap plastic splitting apart, in an unrepairable way that instantly let in the light, making the $25 gadget useless.  But I got two rolls of film through it; one while I was still home, and one at school.  The school roll had some great shots on it.  I walked a loop of the campus during the day, and the January sun and blue sky made for some great shots of the old limestone buildings, a perfect capture of the 1990 glory of Indiana University.  The home set of snaps had a couple of good pictures of Tom Sample at New Year’s, and the only picture of first college girlfriend Angie I still have.  (A horrible picture of her in my mom’s car.)

I did not have another camera until the middle of 1993, when I was home for the summer  I don’t know what compelled me to dip back into photography, but I think it was from working on the zine, the idea that I would take pictures at shows.  I spent close to $100 on another 35mm camera, once again one of those fixed-focus things.  This one was closer to a DSLR in its general shape, and it did have a motorized zoom lens, along with a better flash, and a motorized auto-load, the kind where you would put in a can of film and it would quickly suck up the end after you closed the back door.  And then at the end of the roll, it would suck the film back into the canister for you, instead of spending minutes cranking on a small dial or lever manually.

I got really into the idea of becoming “a photographer” even though it was a cheap and cheesy all-plastic camera.  I’d buy expensive film, like 1600 ISO Fujifilm or Kodachrome, and keep it in the fridge and get it developed at the one-hour place, always asking for matte prints.  I went to a lot of shows that summer for the zine, getting in for free by talking to record labels, and I’d always ask for a “photo pass” to try and get better access.  I never got any good pictures at shows, just blurry, poorly-lit snaps of Glen Benton or Cannibal Corpse, completely unusable stuff. I took some decent snapshots though, artsy pictures of Goshen College, some pictures of friends, along with a roll or two of the Milwaukee Metalfest, although none that were actually of the bands, just the booths and the drive there and back.  I also got the last few shots of the Mitchell House before I moved out, the only pictures I have of that place.

The camera went into “occasional mode” after that, only getting pulled out on a whim here and there, for parties or trips.  I wish I would have taken far more photos back then, many more shots of people and places, images capturing the Bloomington of 1994 and 1995.  I never knew the importance of these things, that I’d want to write about them, and I got a few good shots, but not enough.  I did a little more later, but I’ve taken more digital pictures in the last three months than the grand total of every frame I ran through that cheap 35mm.

That camera followed me to Seattle, chronicling that voyage.  I didn’t travel much when I was living in Jet City, but it made a few trips down to California. And then after K and I broke up, there was a period where I wanted to be a “photographer” again and went around taking pictures of cemeteries and airplanes and lakes.  It also went with on my long trip from Seattle to New York in 99. Once I got to NY, maybe a roll or two went through it, shots of my apartment, or maybe Times Square.  I’d switched to video for the most part by then, which is bad because the quality is so low, and the camcorder was bulky enough, I didn’t shoot as much.    By the time I started to take vacations, like my first trips to Vegas, it was 2000, and I had my first digital camera, so the film went away forever.

Anyway, the McCandless book reminded me of this, because he took these shots of the desert, the wide open spaces of Alaska, the plains states, and everywhere else off the beaten path of the early 1990s America.  And his pictures, the feel of film going through the low-end optics of a cheap import camera, I could feel the places he visited, much more so than if he’d just snapped some Instagram pics with his iPhone.  That particular type of shot, the lenses or the grain of the film or whatever else, just screamed 1990, the same way my dad’s old slide film 135 shots from when he was in the service are easily IDed as being from the late 1960s.  They just had a certain feel to them.

I made that journey across the desert in 1999, driving through New Mexico and Arizona and Nevada and Texas, on some of the same roads as him, and pulled over many times to walk across the flats and look at dry riverbeds and take a few shots with my cheap camera.  And his pictures remind me of my pictures.  And my pictures remind me of standing there alone, feeling the nature and lack of mankind around me, in a way that a hundred snaps from a camphone would not.  That era is so close to us now, only a few years ago, but it seems like a lifetime away.  And when I pick up a film print I took from them, or look at the copies of his, it makes me jump from my life back to that one.

Anyway, enough rambling.  More film will be shot.  And I have a huge project I dread, involving scans and restoration of these giant tupperware storage bins of negatives and prints, before they all rot into rancid chemicals and fade into nothing.  I should get on that.

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Why I love analog

Real film. Not an instagram filter.

After shooting some 25,000 digital photos in the last decade and a half, I finally did something I never thought I would: I started shooting film again.

In a fit of boredom, I bought a Lomography Diana F+ camera. It’s a 40-buck plastic toy camera that shoots 120 roll film, with manual everything and a plastic lens that takes hipster-esque Instagram-y pictures. I took it out and ran three rolls through it, just to see what it would be like. It was tough, clunky, and awkward, but I loved it.

I haven’t shot film since 2000.  I got my first digital camera, a 1-MP Olympus point/shoot, at J&R Electronics in New York at the very end of that year.  I remember this well, because I had to take a bunch of use-it-or-lose-it vacation and essentially split work very early in the month of December for the rest of the year, and I got really sick on the first day off. I spent the whole vacation in a NyQuil daze, sleeping for 30 hours, waking up in the middle of the night to order hot and sour soup by the gallon from the crap Chinese place down the street, then going back to bed.  I eventually got ambulatory enough on the day after Christmas to brave a snowstorm that dumped a few feet of fluffy white snow over the island. I took the N train down to the City Hall stop to go into the electronics superstore that stood near the foot of the mighty twin towers of the World Trade Center.  I bought the camera, stumbled home, and took a bunch of shots of my kitchen and bathroom, amazed at how they instantly showed up in the tiny LCD screen.

Digital changed my life.  I didn’t have to go to labs, didn’t have to wait to see if a shot worked, and didn’t have the nagging self-censorship that a flunkie working the film counter at Osco’s would be looking at my prints. I took a ton of pictures with that little junk camera, and then moved on to a series of better point/shoots through the 00s before graduating to a DSLR in 2010.  I love shooting with the big Canon, but I still take more pictures with my iPhone. Both are fast, easy, and cheap.

But, there’s a disconnect. I average a few hundred shots a month, although it’s in fits and spurts; I will take out the DSLR for vacation or a baseball game and run a few thousand shots, but then it goes back to the shelf; the iPhone grabs a funny picture or something interesting maybe a few times a week, mostly snapshots of the cats or stupid products in stores. Sometimes these go to flickr, endless galleries of vacation shots that nobody looks at. Hell, I don’t look at them half the time.  I enjoy going back to remember something from ten years ago, but my least favorite part about vacation is trimming a thousand pictures down to a hundred and trying to caption them.  I wish there was a program that would do it automatically, as I’ve said before, but that’s a ways off.

I think that disconnect between us and what we capture, the intermediary of the digital screen and the promise of quick/easy/cheap causes us to produce things we don’t care about.  I don’t give a shit about most of those 25,000 shots I have in Aperture. Maybe 100 are really good works of art, and maybe 1000 of them are things I want to remember. And everyone is that way. Everyone with a digital camera has a million shots and nowhere to put them.  And nobody likes looking at them, except people you don’t want prying into them, like stalkers and annoying relatives. Nobody creates with a camera anymore; we capture, hoping it will help us remember what we quickly forget in our fast-paced world, but we never go back to look at it, and none of it matters. It’s something we feel we should do, like when people take a thousand pictures an hour when they have kids, but nobody’s going to cherish those pictures. They’re probably going to be gone in a dozen years, from a dead hard drive or some new change to formats that will make them all obsolete.

So the first reaction from anyone I told about this new camera is “why the hell are you shooting film?  Don’t you have an iPhone?”  And the answer is that the lack of immediacy, the fact that I need to think because each shot is costing me a buck and I won’t see it for two weeks, makes me more cognizant of what I’m doing. It gives me more of a relationship with what I’m creating. I mean, my iPhone is still taking better pictures, but there’s something about the process of going to the photo shop and talking to the clerk and being handed that envelope of prints and negatives, and then the surprise of opening it and going through to see what worked and what didn’t. I enjoy the process, even if it takes longer.

It reminds me of the days of going to a real record store, talking to the people there about what’s new and what’s cool, flipping through the stacks, looking at the artwork, smelling the vinyl in the air and seeing the other people there.  The whole ritual of going there is something I painfully miss, and buying albums made me more aware of them.  It’s damn convenient to go to iTunes, listen to a few samples, and click the buy button to instantly have it on your computer. But I buy stuff and don’t even listen to it, forget about it, and have to force myself to use playlists and rate things to find them and get into them.  I’m not aware of the music I have anymore.

It’s also the same with books.  Everyone is into the Kindle, and I sell more ebooks than paper these days.  But I download Kindle books that go free, or things I see online, and I never, ever read them.  I have hundreds of Kindle books I will never in a million years open. I read 100% of everything on paper, and I love collecting books. I cherish the print copies of things I really dig, and nothing beats the hypnotic experience of holding a dead tree in your hands and flipping through the pages.  Yes, it’s easier to search through a tech manual or textbook and find what you need on a Kindle or in a PDF. But the relationship between the reader and the work is much more solid on paper.  Will the Kindle disrupt publishing?  Sure.  The CD disrupted the production of vinyl. But people who love music are back to buying it.  Books are the same thing.

Anyway, the first film came out okay.  It’s going to take some practice to get into it, and I probably need a cheaper 35mm to do some learning. Here are the first shots. It’s a fun distraction, so I’m going to keep at it. I’m still shooting as much or even more digital, but there’s just something about analog I can’t shake.

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Review: Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography by John Gruen

I’ve been on a modern art trip lately, trying to learn more about art and artists. I never learned anything in school about art, and other than maybe Jackson Pollock and a bit of Damien Hirst, I don’t know anything.  But I enjoy modern art in the sense that I want to figure out how the artists get famous, how their personas develop, and how they go from throwing paint at a wall to being a part of history.

I recently read Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography, which I picked up used for a couple of bucks on Amazon.  I know next to nothing about Haring, but I found the book fascinating.  First, it was a real slice-of-life thing, because the book came out I think in 1991, but right after Haring died.  It’s got that 1991 feel to it, the cover and design that makes it look like a rushed-to-print book by a division of MTV made to cash in on the GenX craze, or maybe a Douglas Coupland cash grab of a bunch of Polaroids (I guess he really did do that, though.)  I’m not saying the book was bad from that aspect; it’s just very interesting how book design can become extremely dated, and looking at a book from 1991 or 1992 can immediately pull you back to that era.

My big takeaway from the book was the vision of late 1970s New York.  I’ve discussed this before, but living in Indiana with no connections to NYC meant I had a very specific and jaded view of the city.  When I finally visited for the first time in 1998, it completely changed that vision for me, but I was never sure if this was the Giuliani cleaned-up-Manhattan image and I missed that old New York, or if my vision of the city was completely wrong.  (It’s probably a bit of both.)  Either way, this mythical city still knocks around in my brain, an island sculpted in my head from images in Ghostbusters and Taxi Driver, peppered with horror stories from my stepmother, who grew up there.  I envisioned a post-apocalyptic city with burned-out buildings, crazed murderers high on PCP roaming the subways, and mad Wall Street executives always wearing suits and making millions.

When I moved to New York in 1999, it was completely different, but little things reminded me of this alternate universe. Like I’d be in a subway, and find an old sign in a forgotten passageway that hadn’t been changed, one of the white background ceramic signs with the old school font in black letters, and it would make me think of the French Connection-era BMT tunnels, the low-rise turnstiles that people jumped over when they didn’t have a token.  Or they’d tear down a storefront in Times Square to install some new Disney-Time-Warner-Viacom monstrosity, and for a brief period, the ancient, worn signage from the 60s or the 40s would appear, a labelscar of the long-missing sign for an automat that later became a heroin dealer mecca, and then got boarded up and later turned into a place that sold Statue of Liberty t-shirts.  Even on a hot summer day, when the smell of an ancient New York would waft up from a broken underground transformer or air shaft, I’d briefly get transported to this ancient Manhattan in my mind, the city of The Ramones and Son of Sam and Bernard Goetz.

Haring’s book reminded me of this from his beginning, the guerrilla art projects where he used chalk to draw murals on the subways, in those black portals set in the ceramic-tiled walls, the place where they normally pasted up ads.  He’d get out of a train, rush to one of those, and draw an intricate image, something he could dash off quickly, but that looked so right in the train tunnel, the images of UFOs and babies and dogs.  I love those old drawings of his, but even more, I love the mental image of the old graffiti-covered trains pulling into the station, the ones with real straps to hang onto, and Haring jumping out with a stick of chalk to swim through the river of New Yorkers and etch out the image.

Another thing I liked was that Haring, right when he appeared in NY for art school, stumbled upon William S. Burroughs and his Nova Express conference.  He attended, and later befriended Burroughs.  But one of his big takeaways from the conference was the memetic quality of cut-ups, and that’s when he started using common, repetitive imagery in his street art.  He came up with the baby and the dog, and repeated these symbols, much in the same way Burroughs did with images within his cut-up trilogy.

I also like how Haring would often get approached in the subways when drawing, by people wondering if he worked for the MTA, or had an art grant, or if the drawings were ads for something.  And to cement that artist-patron relationship, and take the memetic thing a step further, he got some buttons made of the little baby drawing, and later the dog, and when someone stopped to talk to him, he’d give them a button.  These became extremely collectible in the art world, a badge proving a meeting with the artist.  It makes me think I really need to print up some buttons.

The end of the book, and the death of Haring, was sad.  But it was a fun read, and still has me thinking of that old New York.

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