Au revoir 35mm?

9 August 2005

So Dixon’s, the UK-based consumer electronics retailer, have announced that they will no longer be selling  35 mm film-based cameras. As irrelevant as this piece of news may seem to some, it’s an important landmark in the history of photography. Is this the final nail in the coffin for film and a confirmation that the digital era has arrived and is here to stay?

So what? Some might say, the digital format is progress. Digital images are cheaper, more convenient and nearly equal in quality. In an age when we can sit at our computers and, at the press of a button, launch an image to a thousand different destinations for free, what need is there for that cumbersome dinosaur?

In fact, 35mm film first brought photography to the masses, precisely because it was so user-friendly and so uncumbersome. George Eastman’s  desire to “to make the camera as convenient as the pencil” freed photography from its restrictions as a pastime for the rich or something to be left to the professionals. No longer was it necessary to hire porters to carry your camera up that mountain for a scenic shot; likewise you didn’t need a personal studio or dark room to take your family portraits.

Some would argue that that this is all very well: digital photography can do all the above and more. There are many photojournalists who would concur with this, and most have already converted to digital and carry their portable darkroom / telegram office (the laptop) with them while out on the frontlines. Advertising and fashion photography are also moving in the same direction: why take the risk with film (results you will not see until the next day) when you can show your client the finished product then and there?

As a keen amateur photographer, all this would logically tell me that I should also ditch my 35mm and join the revolution. Yet something holds me back.

I think that it’s precisely the convenience that puts me off. Digital photography is too easy. It’s too easy to erase the images you think you don’t like and then regret their absence from your life forever more; so often I find that the photographs I’m initially ambivalent about end up becoming my favourites.

I like the inconveniences tossed up by film – the dash to the developers and the first anxious glimpse. I like finding a forgotten roll of film at the bottom of my bag and being reminded of lost weekends and holidays. I like the piles of photographs lying in my room aching to be organised into albums; each time I sit down to the task I am transported back to a different time and place, and a memory of how I felt at that moment. I notice a different nuance, an expression, the shapes and colours in the background, the mistakes and double exposures and I get a thrill from looking at them in another way. The album might not get done but a hundred memories have been rekindled.

Digital photography is too efficient, too precise, too intangible. You are not confronted by stacks of prints cluttering up your home, or a solid photo album that can be pulled from shelves. Too often digital images and the memories imprinted within them remain buried in the depths of laptops and PC’s, forever to be lost in a maze of files and folders.

I have made a concession and bought a digital camera, but unlike Dixon’s I won’t be throwing away my 35mm just yet.

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