How I started shooting film

8 Oct 2018

 

Up until a few decades ago, everybody was shooting film, simply because it was more or less the only option. But as we now live in the age of digital photography, there are still people who stayed loyal to the photochemical process. There are even some people, who have chosen film over digital photography, after being digital disciples for years. But why would anybody start shooting film, you may ask. Film is expensive, the quality is often lacking, and the quantity of shots is limited. Well, there are about as many reasons why to shoot film, as there are film shooters, but I can only speak for myself. So why did I start shooting film? I’m glad you asked!

To paint you the whole picture, I have to start in the year 2016. I recently graduated from school, I turned nineteen, got my first working experience in a call centre and was called to do the military service, like any other boy my age in my country. Being the peace-loving guy that I am, I wanted to be a soldier who does less of the killing and more of the saving. So, with a little luck, I was to be a medic.

To put it mildly, military service wasn’t quite my cup of tea, but I won’t get into that now. What is important, though, is that as a medic, I had to go through training to become a carer. This training involved an internship at a civilian institution. I was elated to be able to spend some time away from the barracks and was really looking forward to the internship. The institution, as it turned out to be, was a rather high-end old age home in the middle of the city with view on the river. Other than one sergeant, I was the only soldier there.

 

The internship was of course challenging, but I loved every second of it, because I was no longer a soldier, but a carer. As I was a total newbie there, I usually got the time-consuming work, like making the beds or cleaning the wheelchairs. Sometimes, however, I got to spend time with the residents of the institution, and that was the best. I could go shopping with them, go on extended walks or just talk to them and learn about their lives. The people were very happy to have me around, since usually nobody had the time to do these things with them. There was this one quiet lady. Although she was in a wheelchair, she was very independent. She didn’t talk much with us carers or with the other residents. She seldom took part in social events. To be honest, she looked grumpy all the time, but I guess she just had a resting grumpy-face. I didn’t have much to do with her, so I didn’t really know her that well.

 

 

One day during my internship, after we finished cleaning up lunch, one carer suggested I could ask this lady, if she would show me some of her photos. So I went and asked her, and suddenly her grumpy face turned into a smile. She said she would do it gladly and invited me to her room. I was amazed to see that she had a bookshelf that was filled to the brim with photo albums. They were all neatly organized by year.

We started by looking at the very first album. It was from the 30s. There she was, as a teenage girl on holidays in the mountains. Somewhat to my surprise, she looked very beautiful. I had never really thought about how old people would have looked like once, so this caught me off guard. All photos were in top-notch quality and labelled with the place and the approximate date. It looked like she worked extraordinarily diligently on these albums.

After we had finished looking at the first book, I noticed that the years from 1939 to 1945 were missing. This made me remember, that she really did live through history. There were times, when taking photos wasn’t her main concern. Times weren’t always as idyllic as it looked on her pictures. I didn’t want to ask her about those years, although I was very interested in learning about that period in time, but I was there to learn about her, not the war.

The next album was a great one: The conclusion of the 40s and the early 50s. She got married and had her first and only son. Her husband looked very elegant in those pictures and her baby boy was incredibly cute. Of course, her son is now a grown man and probably about to retire. One image of him particularly stuck with me: He was about four years old, wearing a swallow-tailed coat and a top hat and holding the hand of the little girl from next door. They were about to go to the children’s parade of the local spring festival.

 

The lady, who usually was very quiet, just kept on talking and talking. She told me about absolutely everything in great detail. No triviality was omitted. I was impressed by how well she remembered everything. It was as if she was talking about something that happened yesterday, while I could hardly remember what I had for lunch. I couldn’t help but to suspect that having neatly organized photos of more or less all your life helps you remember things more vividly. One thing I knew for certain: I wanted this too! Seeing how she used photos to document her life influenced the way I take photos today very much.

The internship ended and I returned to the military, without getting the chance to look at more of her photos. My time in service eventually came to an end (for now) and full hope I started my first semester at university, studying chemistry.

 

One cold autumn evening in the middle of my first semester, I got the sudden urge to reorganize my hard disk, as one does. I came across old phone-photos I took with my previous mobile phone. That instantly reminded me of the lady in the wheelchair, who liked to look at her old photographs. I was delighted to see these goofy, badly made photos of my friends who looked way younger. However, most of the photos were of sunsets and random views. In that moment I realised that I would want to take pictures that I want to look at in many years. And what was important to me, were the images that depicted memories and friends, rather than photos of a meal I had five years ago. Everybody takes photos of sunsets, and there will always be a photographer who can make it look even better than I ever could. But only I can capture the moments that mean most to me. That day I realized that meaning is more important to me than aesthetics. But this doesn’t mean that I won’t try my best to make a picture look as beautiful as possible. This philosophy of photography has persisted in my style, I guess.

 

A few weeks later I came across an article about a man, who took a Polaroid photo every single day for almost twenty years. His story is very interesting. You can read about it here and you can look at his photos here. I've decided to do the same with my phone camera, but I wasn’t that pleased with the results. Most of the days I was studying, so the photos were pretty boring, I thought.

By the end of my first year at university, film photography started to pique my interest. I’m not sure how it started. I had this friend I met in the army who shoots film, but other than him, I didn’t really know anybody who did it. I guess it was a mix of my chemical interest in the film photographic process, my desire to document some aspects of my life, and my overly romanticized mental image of vintage knick-knacks that led me to buy two disposable cameras before going on vacation.

After my exams had ended, I had three weeks to travel. Two of those I would spend working on a farm in rural France, doing Workaway For the third week I had rented a small villa on the countryside of Mallorca with a few friends. One disposable camera per location. That would be a fine way to see if film was suitable for me.

 

I found these cheap wedding cameras here and I had the camera with me all the time. I had no idea how any of it worked. Furthermore, I did not have a clue about what makes a photograph look good. You see, I don’t really have a talent for visual arts. I always got bad grades in arts class, I wear rather thick glasses, and I identify myself much more as an auditory art aficionado than as a visual artist. I always was more of a musician than a painter. But as my primary objective wasn’t to be artistic, I didn’t care as much, I just shot. I wanted to capture the memories, as raw and true as possible, so that I could reflect on them many years later.

 

As I saw the photographs for the first time after developing, I was instantly hooked. They looked special and they felt special too, because there were so few in comparison to the many photos my friends took on their phones. The only problem was that it was extremely expensive to buy a camera, bring it to develop, and pay for digitization and printing every time I wanted to take photos.

The solution came at the start of my second year at university. All student clubs presented themselves at a fair at the beginning of the semester. As luck would have it, my university has a photography-lab-club, upon whose booth I stumbled. They had these beautiful vintage cameras and stunning silver prints displayed. They told me that if a wanted to start shooting film and develop myself, I would be welcome to join. With this option, film photography seemed very affordable to me, because all I needed to pay was a small fee to join, the equipment and chemicals were free to use. After a one-day introduction into the lab and the process, I was free to develop as much as I wanted (provided it is black and white).

 

I immediately started to look on the Internet for film cameras and came across a very promising ad. A photography shop nearby just closed down and was selling a box of 18 cameras for about $100. I was lucky, that nobody got to that offer before me and went to pick up my loot. Most of the cameras looked pretty beat up, but almost all of them worked. Probably the most interesting camera of that bunch was a Minolta SRT 101. It was in perfect working condition, albeit a bit grimy. It had a beautiful MC Rokkor 50mm f1.7 lens on it, with aperture blades that were stuck. It took me quite a while to figure out how to fix it, but I eventually got it to work. Besides that, everything on the camera worked perfectly. It was the first real film camera I shot with and basically all I learned about shooting film, I learned on that camera.

 

The next step for me was medium format. As I became more and more interested in old, mechanical cameras, medium format cameras became very intriguing to me. A quick search online revealed a collector, who lived nearby and wanted to sell some of his gear. I contacted him and set out to meet him at his apartment. When I arrived there, it was nothing like I expected. It was a small apartment, inhabited by an even smaller man, of a rather senior age. He was already in his pyjamas and had a neat moustache. His abode smelled of an unidentifiable chicken dish. He welcomed me with a thick Italian accent and I could immediately picture him as somebody’s Italian nonno. By gesticulation he lead me into the living room, where his gigantic collection of cameras was revealed to me. He had lenses and cameras displayed in a meticulously organized arrangement. There must have been hundreds, if not even thousands of lenses, cameras, and other accessories just lying around.

Anyway, he led me to his collection of medium format cameras. I got to snoop around his collection and asked the price for three cameras that were especially enchanting. For about $150 he sold me an Elioflex 2, a foldable Agfa Isolette V, and a Seagull 4B twin lens reflex. I gave him the money and started to pack my things, when I noticed something from the corner of my eye. On his bookshelf stood a little framed portrait. It didn’t show a relative or friend of his. I knew the person who was pictured from my history books: It was Benito Mussolini, the fascist leader of Italy during the Second World War. But wait, there was more! Next to it there were books about Mussolini and a pile of cassettes with “Hymns of Fascism” written on them.

In the first moment, I didn’t know how to react. For one, I was shocked, because I was in the home of a fascist. He didn’t look like a fascist to me. Instead of a shaved head and leather boots he sported a moustache and comfy slippers. At the same time, I was a bit fascinated, to be frank. He was a real fascist, not one of those neo-fascistoid idiots. I didn’t know those still existed! He was there when fascism rose and fell in Italy, a witness of the times. However, I started to feel a bit uncomfortable, made some excuses about having to leave and made my way to the door with my newly purchased cameras. Before he closed the door after me, he told me to call him, if I ever needed more cameras. How can I justify doing “business” with a fascist? Honestly, I can’t. I like to imagine, that I offer a better home to the cameras I bought from him. The Seagull twin lens reflex became my main medium format camera. I had to take it apart and put it back together a few times to make it work properly. In the process I learned a few things about getting an old camera to work. Protip: Molybdenum sulphide works even if WD-40 fails. It does miracles to stuck shutter blades. I also bought a separate light meter for the seagull, but I’m in the process of learning to shoot unmetered now

 

I am very much a product of my story. The things I learned when started shooting film influence the way I shoot today. And I’m not done learning. There is still so much to explore, so much to do. So what’s next for me? The only logical next step would be to try out large format photography, it seems to me. If I ever get my hands on a large format camera, you can certainly expect a blog post about it.

 

What do I answer if somebody asks me, why I shoot film? Of course, the cliché points come up: The process is beautiful, you get better cameras for better prices, one thinks about each photo more, etc. But the best part about shooting film is honestly the community. In the lab where I develop my film, once a month there is a C-41 development party. We come together, bring film to develop, and nerd-out about what films are better and what camera is cooler. I have met so many kind and helpful people while shooting film, who love to share their experience and expertise.

In conclusion, I appeal to you, fellow film shooters. Look out for film photography beginners, share your knowledge, and just be friendly to other film-geeks. Reach out to others. It’s the best thing about shooting film. In that spirit: Be sure to write me an email, if you have any question, or even just to say hi. Oh, and you could also tell me: Why do you shoot film?

 

You can take a look at more of Jonathan's photos here.

You can also follow him on instagram - @jonathan_held

 

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