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Monday, November 3

Bloody Hipsters!

The nearest I've ever come to using a Holga - a software plug-in that could mess
with your digital images.

Before anyone takes offence, this is a tongue-firmly-in-cheek post that's not meant to be taken too seriously - although there is a wee point in there somewhere. It was inspired by an online interview I read involving a Munich photographer who likes film because of its "imperfections" and "unpredictability". As soon as I saw that, I knew what was coming next.

People who grew up in the digital age and then decided to try their hand at film are doing a lot to maintain an interest in the medium, particularly amongst younger photographers. But, sadly, they are often drawn to Lomo/Holga-type machines that are, basically, the Moskvich (or Trabant if you want an East German reference although I can't think why you might) of the camera world. They often leak light, have blurry lenses, over-lapping frames, etc, and many are prized for just those "attributes"!

Since more mainstream publications tend to favour the hipster crew if they're speaking to photographers, the impression many people might get is that this is what film photography is really like: a bunch of people in skinny jeans wandering about with toy cameras, developing ancient, fogged film and shouting "Wow!" when one of the frames actually has an image on it.

As a film photographer all my life, I've got to the stage where, although there's no LCD confirmation, I know more or less what's going to be on any negative I expose. It's not difficult being able to do this: it just requires a sound technique and a repeatable working method. That's it. Lots of film photographers around the world work in this manner expecting and getting highly predictable results.

A likely suspect… 
So, when I develop a roll of film there are hardly ever any real surprises on it beyond, I suppose, seeing how I fared with a particularly tricky metering situation. Sometimes a shot will turn out better than I expected or often enough won't live up to the expectations I had for it but that's just to do with my inability to effectively pre-visualise every scene.

However, our Munich photographer gives the impression that she really doesn't know what "imperfections" she's going to find when she develops her film. It sounds like a real shot in the dark if a picture turns out as she thought it might. Here's what she had to say:
"Munich is a city where image is everything; it has a culture of perfection, where everyone thrives for excellence, in terms of body size, style, and general appearance. I turned to photography at the age of fifteen, as I never agreed with society’s ideals and wanted instead to seek out my own interpretation of beauty.
"The medium of analogue allows me to rebel against the so-called ‘perfection’ society forced upon me and recreate a world I deem to be beautiful by all it’s mistakes, grains and imperfections. I explore my ideas through cultures that society sees as ‘less fortunate’, as for me the commercial ideas of perfection are irrelevant.
"For me, film photography is about imperfection. Whether it may be with discontinued or expired film, or finding a camera at a flea market that has a sentimental value to the owner who previously used it. The authenticity of the photo I take using this camera adds a further level of depth to the image taken.
"Unpredictability and flawed outcomes are two intrinsic elements when it comes to shooting in film; I love the excitement and satisfaction this brings when I develop the images."
Now, I get it. I know what she's saying and I agree that some Lomo-type photographs have a lot of charm but any digital photographer thinking of having a bash at analogue might come away with the idea after reading the interview that all film photography is a hit or miss affair - and that's a trifle annoying for those snappers who have worked on their technique with a view to achieving "perfection" and "predictability" in their photography!

As I said at the start, this isn't an anti-hipster rant. In fact, Cath implied there's something of the hipster about me (she actually said I had an arse like a kale pot* but I think I know what she really meant). But please, hipsters, if you want to say that you like film because of its imperfections, unpredictability and for all the surprises it gives you then at least acknowledge that the more anal among us tend to see things a little differently!

* A large, round pot used for making vast quantities of soup.


David M said...

Unpredictability and flawed outcomes are intrinsic elements when it comes to not knowing what you're doing. Presumably she hugs her incompetence closely to her bosom.
To be fair, she prefaces her heresy with "For me..." so we can allow that this is her own way of being "creative" and not a general statement of principle.
We might, if we're thinking positive, look on this as an example of the extreme versatility of film. And even more positively, this might be the bottom rung of a very long ladder. Once film gets into her hands, it might well stay there. Who knows, her next "find" might be a Sinar.

Joe Iannandrea said...

"Imperfection" has emerged as the unfortunate buzz word but I think "character" is more to the mark and something more of us can relate to. It may just be that railing against society's reverence for perfection like the quoted interviewee makes it easier to combine the joys of shooting with a plastic-lensed camera with making a socio-political statement. I'm a liberal minded guy and all for that, especially if it brings more people to using film. What may be lost though is a general appreciation for the fact that, if making this sort of statement isn't your intent, there are still reasons to shoot film.

Steve Barnett said...

Who am I to say, but it seems like there is a vast difference between not knowing what 'you' are doing, and not knowing what the 'camera' or your complicated technique is doing.

And that is the point about knowledgeable people who use flawed cameras or a process like wet plate (etc.) and accept the imperfections as a way to diffuse expectations of perfection and make the viewer think 'into' the image, and not just look for the classic virtues as espoused by camera clubs. Just a thought.

Steve Barnett said...

I think we have to accept that a knowledgeable photographer can use the imperfections of the process to remove the 'shock and awe' of a perfect rendition and encourage the viewer to delve into their souls for meaning. Where would the modern wet plate photographer be, such as Sally Mann, without imperfections?

So why shouldn't it be so with using a Holga? True there are a generation of photographers who don't know what perfection is, but for those that do knowing the rules is the reason to break the rules, and if you don't know how, when, or why, to break the rules that is a reason to worry.

Bruce Robbins said...

Good points Steve and definitely food for thought.

Donato Chirulli said...

When I was nine years old I painted like Raffaello ....
It took me a lifetime to paint like a 9 years old child.
(Pablo Picasso)

I.E. Rules are made ​​to be broken .. But first we need to know them :-)

Nick Jardine said...

Her work is poor.

The projects she has posted are weak, ill thought out and poorly executed. They are little more than a few snaps taken while travelling, a few photos of her grandmother, some images of the 'poor' on the street, a few nature shots taken in 'Infrared'. Thats it.

There is no explanation or thought process given to the viewer as an aid for understanding her aims.

The classic tell is of 'poor people on the street images'. The vast majority show people walking away from camera or if they are facing, they are a good distance away. You see it time and again, I call it the 'shooting in the back' mode.

Only one image shows a portrait of a man actually facing the camera, the rest, at best, are amateur voyeurism.

So forget the rubbish about 'imperfections', because frankly, her imperfection amount to a few scratches and something slightly out of focus. This was fashionable when I was a student some 22 years ago.

They are not the imperfections of Sally Mann's wetplate work, in which we often only see partial images, nor are they the visual mysteries of true surrealist photographers and abstractionists.

My advice, look at her work without the rubbish talk and assess these images for what they represent, anything else is mere diversion.

I see no long term project here. I see no development of ideas and I see poor images that should never have made it through any critical editing process. I see at most a photographer who spends a couple of days here and there taking images who thinks that's enough to produce a coherent body of work for public display.

My advice to her would be to put down the camera and spend six months thinking, looking and reading about photographers and not photography.

Bruce Robbins said...

"Shooting in the back". Like it, Nick. Have to say I thought pretty much about her photographs as you do.

Bill said...

Photography, if one is to truly call it art, must be mastered. Yes, there might be flaws in the camera or the film that can be exploited but they should be intentionally exploited.

I am still have a lot to learn about film photography, but I know this, film requires discipline. When you only have 12, 24 or 36 exposures to work with before you have to reload, you need to be more disciplined in how you use them. Taking 25 pics of the same subject is just wasteful. As a result, my approach to film photography is very different than when I am shooting digital; a lot more time is taken to frame the shot, and waiting for just the right moment. I would say that the result is I actually get more decent shots with film than I do with digital.

Kenny Wood said...

To redress the balance, it perhaps might be nice if someone had asked Elena for a response to the well meaning suggestions and advice given here to improve her art. Who knows she may well accept the helpful advice proffered here. She can be contacted by email at or on her Facebook page, here I'm sure she might appreciate a few 'likes'!

I'm not sure that the imperfections that Elena refers to regarding film are the scratches and marks on the film. Perhaps she means that compared to the high resolution clinical look one gets from digital, film looks imperfect by comparison. Hence this might be what she is railing against as wells her belief that Munich's people and culture etc are too perfect. As she's German so perhaps her meaning of imperfections regarding film is lost in translation.

Not sure how Sally Mann and wet plate photography came into the discussion but sloppy technique whether in wet plate or dry plate photography will result in imperfections of one sort or another.

Is her work really so poor or is it somehow she sees at the world slightly differently from some of us with our copy of 'The Decisive Moment' tucked tightly under our arm! Or is it the case that she's a fairly young photographer who hasn't fully developed her style yet, see 'About' on her website.

As for her quote on liking the unpredictability of film and it's flawed outcome, this is true depending on the type of film, it's age, ISO and storage conditions. This is particularly true of colour film which if stored badly or is very old will barely yield an image. then this begs the question 'Why use it?'. For the very reason that it will very likely produce a unique flawed, interesting or different image to what one would achieve on new film. The sense of experimentation in making an image that cannot be repeated. There are legions of photographers on Flickr who 'torture' film both old and new to many different processes to get that flawed look. Search cross processing, caffenol, movie film in C41, developing film in wine! Ok I draw the line there, what a waste of good wine or for that matter bad wine! You might also like to try some of the more bazaar these as Matthew Cetta states in his opinion 'Perfection is BORING!'

As for Nick Jardine's advice to put down the camera and spend time thinking, looking and reading about photographers and not photography. Nope, not very helpful, unless your interests are the photographers techniques. See Bruce's links to the Ralph Gibson Sagas and Herman Sheephouses blog on the Ralph Gibson Experiment. So if I shoot everything at 1/250th of a second at f16 on Kodak Tri-X and develop the film for 11mins at 20oC using 10ml of Rodinal per film, I'm just as good as Gibson! Been there, done that, bought the T shirt, no, I'm not and to be honest I don't want to be. There I've thought about that!

I do agree with Joe Iannandrea that there are still reasons to shoot film. I now use film almost exclusively for my own 'art', good or bad! Hmm does that make me a hipster?

Perhaps we should all just let Elena get on with her photography in her own way without interfering and be glad that she's shooting film, Hipster or not. She's helping keep film sales up so it's available for all of us.

As for me, I'll continue to make and appreciate all of my imperfect art as it is after all 'Art for Art's sake' and not for my critics!

Nick Jardine said...

Kenny, you've mis-understood my advice, possibly I wasn't clear.

The idea of looking at photographers work, rather than photography is about looking what people photograph - what images they take, edit and then put on public display. It's the narrative of photography, not the technique.

Her work consists of maybe half a dozen project pages that consist of a few images under each heading. There is absolutely no sign that any great length of time has been spent on any of her projects.

Where is the thinking ? where is the process ? Where is the journey ? - Where is the project ?

I have a problem with finding a coherent link between what she says in her article and the work she produces.

I also find this phrase odd - ' her belief that Munich's people and culture etc are too perfect.' when clearly the majority of her photographs have nothing to do with Munich, it's people or indeed, culture.

The reason for mentioning Sally Mann's work is as a comparison to the imperfections that film can sometimes produce. Her wetplate images are, in comparison to this work, truly imperfect.

In the history of manipulating film, from Man Ray, to Ray Harryhausen and everyone in between, these images have to rank amongst some of the dullest I have ever seen.

It also seems slightly odd that you allow this photographer the generosity to make mistakes, (completely fair) yet when it comes to someone like Mann, you call it 'sloppy technique' ?

Finally you make a few assumptions - so just to let you know, the following really don't mean anything to me:

'the decisive moment'

'Ralph Gibson'

'1/250th of a second at f16 on Kodak Tri-X and develop the film for 11mins at 20oC using 10ml of Rodinal per film'

What I would appreciate is you telling me why this work is good, valuable, interesting and worthy of our attention. Maybe you can see something I can't ?

And in finding those words of encouragement, I'm sure you'll be the first to fire off an e-mail of support to Elena.