I stopped at the Greensboro newspaper office this afternoon to have my picture taken for a column I wrote that they’re going to use. While the photographer was setting up the lights and I was resisting the urge to fidget with my hair again, I asked her if she ever used film anymore. “Oh, no,” she laughed. “We haven’t for a long time. That’s a thing of the past.” I suddenly felt very old, even though she’d just told me she’d worked for the paper for 20 years.
I read an article last week about the very last roll of Kodachrome film. Kodak stopped making it in 2009, and photographer Steve McCurry – who took the famous photo of the Afghan girl in 1984 – had the responsibility of shooting the final roll. You can still buy regular 35 mm film (amateurs didn’t really use Kodachrome, anyway), but its hard to find and there’s no doubt that it’s a dying art.
I miss it. Or rather, I miss the darkroom. My grandfather had a darkroom in his basement, and though I didn’t really get interested in photography until much later, I remember how he would disappear into the tiny closet pantry to pry the film out of the canister, and I remember the strips of negatives hanging in the middle of the room, clipped to a clothesline that also held the day’s laundry. I thought of him often during those years that when I was learning how to print pictures, before the whole hobby became obsolete.
I’m having fun with my new digital camera, but it’s really just not the same. With digital, there’s hardly any mystery; either it’s a good shot or it’s not, and you know as soon as you push the shutter and glance at the LCD screen. And even if it isn’t such a good shot, you can always touch it up once you get back to the computer
A computer screen doesn’t smell like a dark room; you don’t get your hands dirty. When you edit a photo on the computer, you’re sitting in the same position you’ve sat in all day, hunched over the computer screen, hand on the mouse… Gone is the smell and feel the photo paper, the anxious anticipation while you wait for the chemicals to work their magic. On screen, there are infinite possibilities for each picture, the results are instantaneous, and you can always go back and fix something. There’s no “undo” button in the darkroom.
And maybe I’m wrong about this, but the thing I miss most is the metaphor of film photography. Many a sermon of mine has been built around the images of light and shadow, or creating something out of nothing, or waiting for an image to emerge. There’s something about the shades of light that appear on that page that speak so much more eloquently than pictures reduced to digital code. The pictures are lovely; it’s the language I miss.