I recently read an excellent book called ‘Retromania’ by the music journalist Simon Reynolds. In one chapter, Reynolds examines ‘The Twilight of Music as an Object’; the chapter suggests that in the digital era, music has become a simple commodity that anyone can access, whenever they want. This chapter made me think about my own experiences with photography and why analogue photography has certain special and unique qualities for me.
To begin with, it should be stressed that this article is not meant to be a tirade against digital photography. Like many others within the Lomography community, I still value digital photography for all kinds of reasons and offer this article only as an argument against the idea that digital photography is the only reasonable method for photographers in the 21st century. Before I discovered Lomography in 2010, besides some time experimenting in a darkroom at University, I had only limited experience with analogue photography; since then, there has been a complete shift and the vast majority of the photos I now take are analogue (I also am lucky enough to work at Lomography HQ in Vienna!). I want to try and explain how this change in perspective happened and why I believe analogue now offers certain unique advantages and motivations for me (just as digital undoubtedly has its own range of advantages too).
In the chapter ‘The Twilight as Music as an Object’ in his book Retromania, Simon Reynolds puts forward an argument as to why music has become a ‘devalued currency’ – That is, why it has lost something which once made it special and treasured in the past. Before the advent of IPods and the MP3 format, Reynolds describes how music was something that had to be searched for and debated over before being gained. The act of purchasing an album was a real decision that had to be mulled over. But with the dawn of the MP3 era, music became accessible in an unprecedented way. Now people can access the latest albums, sometimes before they have even been released, as well as huge archives of past music.
In a similar way, I believe there is a sense in which digital photography can (when valued as the supreme photographic medium) devalue the currency of the photograph. With digital, you can take a photograph whenever you want and are immediately gifted with the fruits of your labor on a screen. You snap and then you see. This means you can shoot thousands of photos without a second thought. The value of each photograph as a single, intrinsically valuable entity becomes lost when every photo is so easily taken (and deleted).
In contrast, by its very nature, analogue forces you to concentrate on the next photographic moment. You have no LCD screen through which to preview your results. This means you take a photo and are immediately ready again to shoot the next one; you’re freed from considerations about what that last photo looks like – All that matters is the here and now of the next shot. You are also limited by the number of exposures on your film roll and that adds a sense of importance to each snap – Every photo is of intrinsic worth because it takes up a space on the roll that can’t be deleted or replaced – What is done can’t be undone.
Reynolds makes several related points about the analogue/digital shift in music that also seem relevant to photography. Speaking of the shift from vinyl and CDs to MP3s, he writes: “It was easier to form an attachment to music when it was a thing”. When it was a physical entity that you held in your hand, music had something extra-special about it. You valued this vinyl because you had gone out and bought it; you’d browsed through the shelves of music, made your choice and now have it in your hand or spinning on the record player. In contrast, in the digital era of MP3s, music has taken on a ghostlike quality; you download or stream it from the internet and yet there is a sense in which it is never really yours – Without a physical presence, music has become reduced to an idea; something forever intangible.
Similarly, whilst we all love the fact that we can share digital copies of our analogue snaps online, there remains something special (for me at least) about holding prints in your hand after getting them back from the lab. Even when only a few shots on the roll come out how you were hoping, I love that feeling of excitement you get rummaging through the shots and deciding which to frame or stick in a photo album later.
Finally, Reynolds makes a very interesting comment on the shift from ‘Either/or’ analogue thinking to ‘Plus/and’ digital thinking. In terms of music, in the olden days you often had to make an either/or choice about which new vinyl or CD you wanted to own – Due to monetary restrictions, you couldn’t have everything and so had to make a decision about which new music you’d most like to take home. But with the introduction of digital music sites such as Napster and Spotify, there is really nothing stopping you from listening to album x, y and z right here, right now.
This contrast between analogue and digital in photography works in a similar way. Holding an analogue camera in your hand, you are faced with a choice – ‘Do I really want to take this subject x or should I save this frame for subject y?’. In contrast, with a digital camera, you can take photo x, y and z without a second thought. Of course, this fact is also one of the advantages of the digital medium. We often want to be able to snap away without having to worry about having only 5 or so shots left on a film roll. Undeniably this is part of the appeal of digital photography – That we have the choice to take photos of anything, whenever. But there is also a real sense in which something is lost when we can have everything, whenever we want – With digital photography, we are spoilt for choice and often end up not valuing the results of our work as deeply as if we had been limited by 36 exposures.
So what conclusions, if any, can we draw from this situation? Should it change the way we go about taking photos, analogue or digital? No, I don’t think so. As we’ve seen, the immediacy and instant gratification of digital photography is the very reason why we love it for certain occasions. But I do believe that digital offers a double-edged sword – Its advantages can also be viewed as its weaknesses. I believe it’s the unique nature of film photography that makes it remain special in the 21st century. I love analogue because of its limitations, imperfections and random results. I love analogue photography because it offers me something real, tangible and something I value for its own sake. So next time you’re out shooting with your analogue camera, why not ask yourself this same question – “What makes analogue photography special for me?”.
Check out Retromania on Amazon