Take a typical situation. I am talking to someone, usually another photographer. A quiet question what I take pictures with comes. in my case the answer is a bit complicated, because what matters is not only the camera (though even here the list is longish: various old cameras, shoe boxes and so on), but also what method I use. After all, a gumprint will have a different appearance than a platinum print and the camera may prove to be even more unimportant than usually.
I try to answer, without boring the listener to death and giving too much detail. He will usually listen for a while pretending to know what I am taking about and then ask: “Why bother?” I could get a nice little Canon or Nikon that does everything for me, that has so many programmes, dozens of sensors, quick focussing and so on and so forth. So, why bother?
First of all, I already have a nice Canon. The same one for a few years, befriended and a bit beat up, always faithful. It fits my hand perfectly and, first of all, has never failed me in need. But for me, a nice Canon is not all that photography can offer, it is only a small fragment of a huge world. A very small fragment indeed.
I like and appreciate digital photography. i like its apparent easiness and its apparent cheapness, though none is fully true. I like the speed with which images are taken and the immediate preview. I like it truly, but it doesn’t suffice for me.
Doesn’t suffice because it is not tangible. The image is not a physical object, only a collection of zeroes and ones, it doesn’t exist in the real world. I can’t touch it, I can’t put RAW in a bank deposit box. Because it is impermanent. But first of all because, for me, things are still lacking with digital imagining. They lack reality, tangibility, individuality. They are almost too perfect and yet too cold, empty
The last few years, ever since I realized the digital isn’t everything, meant research, finding, rediscovering another type of photography, other methods of creating photographic images, other ways of looking at the surrounding world. Other, not different or better. Quite to the contrary, they usually are methods that have been in existence for years, that were once used on a mass scale but got marginalized or forgotten on the way.
A large format camera slows me down wonderfully, gives a different rhythm, returns the ritual of creation. With all the deliberation, concentration and attention that used to be natural. If frees me from the ubiquitous computer, from the electronics of the modern camera, lets me look at the frame savouring it on the ground glass before I finally decide to photograph it. Then, I may also decide to fold the camera up choosing not to take the picture. Maybe the frame was not worth it after all?
A photographic film gives the image physicality, permanence. Makes it what it should be; delicate like the piece of celluloid on which it was created and permanent like the silver used to make the image. Photographic film pulls me back into the darkroom, restores the alchemy of the image created by joined effort of light and human mind expressed through chemistry. It restores the tension, anticipation with which I await the results of a session, the moment when I take the film out of the tank or finally switch the light on.
A silver gelatin emulsion of my own making spells independence of the concerns and their dictatorship, bankctrupcies and limited availability of materials. It is thanks to it that I don’t have to wonder what to do when another film disappears from the market or its price exceeds the reasonable level. But an emulsion means much more. It means getting back the magical imperfection of the early photographs, of flawed negatives with uneven, thick layer of gelatin. It means a material that perceives the world in a very different way than we do (or than the modern photographic materials). A material that is blind to many colours (either fully colour blind or orthochromatic), a negative covered with a thick layer of photographic emulsion in which the light gets dispersed in a magical way creating a unique effect; an image that is both real and physical and at the same time ethereal, as if not of this world. Finally, it also means the slight imperfections of all manual processes. Imperfections we may try to limit but we will never fully eliminate.
Collodion, or to be more precise ambrotype, making me travel across the country in an old Żuk van converted into a mobile darkroom spells return almost to the very sources of photography. The ambrotype, shining with pure silver as if it was actually covered with a thin silver plate. A magical glass plate covered with sensitized collodium turning, once put into a camera, into a unique, magical photograph. Ambrotype is magic.
Finally, the historical printing processes: materials prepared by hand where I am alone responsible for them. Prints that are both unique and permanent, where each and every process gives different visual effects with the matt, slightly foggy appearance of the saltprint, the gloss of albumen, the cool subtle blacks of platinum warmed up by the addition of palladium and so on. Each process is unique, perfectly imperfect.
Finally, the chromium based prints; the gum and oilprints and the carbon transfer. my beloved, absolute favourites, unique where no single print is identical. Created with my own hands at every stage, by means of a brush or brayer. Techniques that enable mi to get an emotional relationship with the picture like no other. Partly because of the time required, but first of all because of the manual and precise work, more like the work of a painter than of a photographer.
I am not sure if this answers the ‘why bother’ question for you. It does for me, as this type of photography gives me most satisfaction, most joy.