Browse the hashtag #filmisnotdead on Instagram, a tag commonly used by analog photographers when uploading their work, and the message is clear enough – a format of photography practically wiped out in the early 2000s remains resilient and has found growth in a new platform to exhibit art.
When I first moved to Melbourne, I took my dad’s Pentax SLR, the first I’d ever used. The lens is scratched and fibres rest on the mirror, never failing to replicate themselves as peculiar markings on the final product. Nevertheless, I continue to use and adore it, the markings merely adding a distinct character and texture to the image. Uploading them to my second Instagram profile housing solely analog photos (posted with an admittedly obnoxious number of hashtags) they are briefly noticed with a like or follow from other photographers posting similar images. At the time of writing, the #35mm tag has been used on 9.9 million Instagram posts.
In many ways, the re-emergence of the vintage aesthetic on social media and in marketing campaigns has brought forth a new wave of interest in analog photography. Taking a look over at VICE Australia verticals i-D and Creators, showcasing the newest up-and-coming artists in Sydney and Melbourne, and analog-style photos are front and centre. Cheap disposable cameras are no longer seen only at the occasional wedding reception, but now find themselves in the hands of twenty-somethings at inner city house parties. The branding of American Apparel included washed out tones and harsh lighting well into the present decade.
Cheap disposable cameras are no longer seen only at the occasional wedding reception, but now find themselves at inner city house parties.
In 2016, an article in The Age reporting on the re-emergence of film photography suggested that unlike digital photography, which gives virtually endless chances to get the image right, film enforces a sense of careful and thoughtful composition with each frame. But take even a second too long contemplating the turnout of a film shot, and you can miss the window of opportunity for frank, untouched imagery. That which may be considered unflattering can be deleted on a digital camera, a characteristic that isn’t shared by film. These qualities of untouched, unaltered images are resonating with younger audiences through Instagram, evident in the online profiles of contemporary film photographers.
New York analog street photographer Daniel Arnold’s entire portfolio extols a belief in this candour, and his portfolio draws a striking similarity to the extraordinary subjects of Diane Arbus. Arbus is known for her brow-raising subjects, with books documenting American circus folk and cross-dressers in the 50s and 60s, people who were praised for their odd appearance. Arnold too has an eye for the absurd, publishing frank and sometimes unflattering photos, like a man sitting and facing an empty chair, or two short men in identical clothing holding hands. The 2D effect caused by a flash during daytime replicates that of a modern-day renaissance painting. Arnold’s work, a mixture of medium and matter, makes the viewer look for that second longer before scrolling on.
Take even a second too long contemplating the turnout of a film shot, and you can miss the window of opportunity for frank, untouched imagery.
In an interview with Creators, Arnold states that he believes asking permission before taking a photo ‘ruins the picture’ and makes it undesirably contrived. ‘They start thinking, they start lying,’ he says, in the sort of cadence you’d expect from a beanie-clad NYC hipster. The modern-day counterculture has certainly helped revive the analog camera, yet it was pulled from the grave with an unfortunate aura of snobbery, symptomatic of the greater 21st century indie movement. Similar to liking a band ‘before they were cool’, there can be an erroneous belief revelling in film photography is a means to a greater palate, either as a producer or consumer – as if all photography isn’t just chemicals and light. Nevertheless, Arnold’s work has earned him a following of nearly 170,000 on Instagram. Film photography is no longer confined to a physical medium. Instead, it flourishes on Instagram and piques the interests of digital natives who wouldn’t have considered picking up that bulky contraption tucked under their parents’ bed.
Its presence is clear in modern cultural spaces that would otherwise seek out a digital counterpart. In the 2017 Centre for Contemporary Photography’s exhibition ‘Salon’, a significant portion of entries were taken on film. In publications like longform music magazine Swampland, subjects that are up and coming in their relative fields are snapped and shrouded in an Agfa and Ilford graininess and sell themselves on.
In On Photography, Susan Sontag writes: ‘Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.’ Sontag’s words, in context, were referring to an audience’s perspective of photographs taken decades ago. However, this line can be applied to the mainstream cultural climate. The creaminess of a Kodak Portra or the sinister shadows from a twenty dollar disposable produce these ‘vintage’ overtones, commonly seen in the artificial knock-off filters available through Instagram and other photo-editing apps. And yet, it’s easy enough to distinguish the real from the fake, the valid from the Valencia. We’ve moved away from the regurgitated overlays Instagram offers, and have instead sought out the genuine product from those we follow or we do it ourselves. Sure, these photos can be coarse and visually offensive when done badly, but younger generations, via marketing-driven nostalgia or otherwise, are attracted to the past.
We’ve moved away from regurgitated Instagram overlays, and have instead sought out the genuine product.
When marketing their first cameras, Kodak used the slogan ‘You press the button, we do the rest’. Sontag interprets this as the guarantee of a perfect image each time, regardless of any possible fault in the subject matter. The photo may not turn out as intended, but it is nevertheless a unique image impossible to replicate. Light leaks and lo-fi effects are intriguing to young people because they are incongruent with digital technology. The mainstream aesthetic (ironically labelled as ‘hipster’) is consumed and artificially replicated through the online platforms we’ve grown up with, but people are returning to the natural source – and it’s starting to make an impact on the market.
In January 2017, Kodak announced they were bringing back Ektachrome, a 35mm slide film discontinued in 2012. When developed correctly, the colours in Ektachrome are vivid and border on oversaturated. When developed incorrectly (but intentionally), a wash of blues and greens unexpectedly rise up and demand your attention. Following this news, TIME reported film sales have been on the rise. Harman Technology, another major manufacturer, noted an annual film growth of five per cent. Polaroid-style instant film cameras, have seen a resurgence in electronics stores, and the vinyl resurgence is contributing significantly to the music industry. I can’t help but hope the re-emergence of an analog aesthetic, and a subsequent desire to replicate it, has led to this growth.
It’s simple and short-sighted to declare a form of art ‘dead’ – I know I mentally, and sometimes literally, roll my eyes whenever someone hands down the same sentence for print media. The ramifications of analog photography don’t exist in a bubble, but rather bleed through both mainstream and counter cultures. Using analog photography in a digital environment is merely a reinvented, nomadic form of expressing the self and others in a medium that demands as much patience as it does spontaneity. It’s an organic form of art that takes shape in the collective milieu of the moment.
I’m in the beginning of my twenties. That ‘moment’, for me, manifests in couch conversations at a house party or post-midnight walks home below the city lights. I wish to document the moment through a lens that perfectly reflects the imperfections. That’s what I want to remember when the moment has passed.