Made to Last

My journey down the rabbit hole started with one lovely vintage Polaroid camera. Over the months, two more Polaroids, a Canonet rangefinder, and a Pentax SLR joined the party. Then—the pièce de résistance—a Hasselblad 500C/M. Yes, I have fallen madly in love with film.

Confessedly, the first Polaroid was acquired on a whim and as a novelty, but it didn’t take long for it to become about process and philosophy. It’s about creating something immediate and physical, and thinking about the shot before I take it because there is no trash can button.

It’s also about the cameras—the tools. They’re all between 20 and 40 years old, and with one exception, they all still work much as I imagine they did the day they rolled off the assembly line because I am obsessively picky about the condition my vintage acquisitions (though I haven’t given up on that pesky Canonet yet…). Sadly, I have a hard time imagining what modern picture-taking implements I currently have in my life that will still be usable a few decades down the road. And even if they are miraculously functional, still having a machine with USB ports to plug them into might be the bigger problem.

I’m certainly no anti-technologist—probably couldn’t be further from it. (I don’t know many Luddites who stand in lines to buy shiny new iOS devices the day they’re released.) But these cameras have left me unexpectedly nostalgic for time when planned obsolesce wasn’t baked in to the objects and gadgets we spend our hard-earned dollars on.

Compounding that issue, we also buy things are harder and more costly to fix, not just ourselves, but by trained professionals as well. Computing devices used to be hackable, now they’re hermetically sealed. Ever needed to replace the glass on iPad? You may as well buy a new device altogether. Yet, armed with only minimal knowledge of vintage camera mechanics, I’ve managed to clean, repair, or hack a few of these cameras myself using little more than a set of jeweler’s screwdrivers, toothpicks, and an exacto knife.

But that’s the trade-off between mechanical and digital, I suppose. Not that this is any kind of groundbreaking revelation, nor is it any insinuation of the superiority of one format over the other because they each have their advantages, in photography and many other domains. Based on my own experience, I can say that learning how to take a decent photo using film exclusively would have been much slower (instantaneous feedback obviously makes it a lot easier to fiddle with exposure settings until you get them just right), and much more costly (film and processing ain’t cheap!). Indeed, digital can be more forgiving in these regards.

However, there is a relatively predictable relationship between the fanciness of a tool, the ease with which a person can figure out how to use it, and the degree of complexity under its hood. Simply put:

Fancy tools that are easy to use on the surface are usually impossibly complex underneath. Simpler tools tend to be less user-friendly or intuitive, but much easier to hack.

Just think of the internals of MacBook Air versus a pile of punched cards. And yes, I realize that vintage cameras aren’t that difficult to figure out, but I did manage to make one critical (and in my defence, common) error loading the first roll of film in my Hasselblad. I unknowingly took twelve photos without actually advancing the film once. Try making that mistake with a DSLR.

As consequence it would also seem that the things we create with modern tools—for better or worse—are easier to discard as well. Take a picture, delete it, try again. But believe you me, I put some thought into how I use each $25 pack of TIP film. And for some reason I still have shoeboxes full of not-quite-perfectly exposed photos in my spare bedroom closet. Why can’t a bring myself to get rid of them? Because they have physical form? Because I’m a sentimental packrat? Who knows. But there they sit in the closet, as I feverishly delete any less than perfect, recently imported digital photos to spare bytes on my hard drive.

Does that mean we ultimatley end up creating and keeping better things with digital? Or does it mean that we spend more time creating mediocre things until we get lucky because the cost of minor failures is negligble? And if so, is something inherent to the craft lost? I don’t think the answers to these questions are obvious, and again, I must reiterate that I don’t think one format is superior to the other. Each has its advantages, and digital may end up with the only advantage that matters if film ever disappears. But there’s something to be said about things that are made to last—be it the tools, or their creative outputs.

Update

Coincidentally, I was catching up on episodes of On Taking Pictures shortly after publishing this post, and I think that hosts Bill Wadman and Jeffery Saddoris do an even better job articulating what I have attempted to explore above. Of note, episodes #003 (The Future of Film) and #008 (The Amateur Professional). To really see what I mean, skip to about 40:00 of #008.

Let's talk this out, shall we?

*