Lessons I’ve Learned from Shooting Film

5 May 2014

I’ve had this blog post in the works for way too long, and I need to get ‘er done. I’ve always loved shooting film (because, you know, that used to be all there was). Lately I’ve been doing it more, and I’ve noticed a movement within myself, an awareness and a learning process. I feel like as I’m doing this thing that I love, I’m learning a lot of profound life lessons. I thought I’d share some of them with you.

1. Take your time. b r e a t h e.

A woman that I regard in very high esteem (you know who you are S.M.!) recently told me:
“Your heart will break many times, Laurel, before you die, but you’ll still keep breathing. These are the only people, actually, that I’m drawn to because they’ve dared to live fully even though it hurts like hell. That’s you. … that means letting go and trusting again and breathing deep.”

That quote could also accompany #5 (be fearless), but I wanted it here. We all want so much so fast; we are aware of this problem, but we can’t seem to stop the worldwide epidemic. When you’re shooting digital, you can take 500 pictures and plan on 75 perfect ones. Film, however, is expensive and time-consuming. It’s unrealistic to take that many pictures and “bank” on one of them being the right one. Because of the nature of film – especially large format – I always take more time setting up a shot and preparing for it. Every one has to be perfect, or you’ve wasted a lot of good time and materials.

I always remind myself to breathe, to double or triple check the settings, to breathe again, and to take the shot.

It’s in my nature at times to make sporadic and anxious bursts of action or thought, riding a roller coaster of feeling. I need the reminder that the best shots come with patience, inner peace, and “just seeing how it turns out.”

I opened up the scriptures the other day to an unexpectedly appropriate droplet of wisdom: “But the Lord saith unto them, pluck not up the tares while the blade is yet tender (for verily your faith is weak), lest you destroy the wheat also.” (D&C 86:6) And that’s exactly it. Take your time and take the good with the bad, and see how things turn out.

2. Feel things (my life as a blind man).

Most people imagine a darkroom as a room with lots of trays of chemicals and low amber lighting. They’re exactly right… when you’re developing prints, that is. But when you’re loading and unloading film you have to be in complete darkness. Negative film is much more sensitive to light than photo paper. Most people haven’t actually spent much time in total darkness. Every action requires patience and tenderness, the care of the human touch.

20/20 in my right eye, 20/15 in my left (that’s sharper than 20/20) — I haven’t experienced much blindness in my life. There is something curious and inexplicable about opening your eyes and seeing nothing. Sometimes in the darkroom (or, at midnight in my closet, with blankets hung over the doorway and stuffed around the frame), I will sit there for five to ten minutes, waiting for my eyes to “adjust,” to make sure I am in total darkness. I’ll hold my hand in front of my face, and scan the door frame for even a ghost-line of starlight. Everything slows down. No matter how long I’m in there, I still “look around” expecting to see anything. Sometimes I close my eyes. What seems like twenty minutes becomes seventy.

I have to rely completely on touch. Beforehand, I carefully place things and memorize their position. I load sheet after sheet (or reel after reel), and feel a sense of pride at each one that goes smoothly–frustration with those that do not. Regardless, I am forced to be mature, careful and sensitive. I can’t really explain how much I love to work by touch alone. My hands learn abilities they never had before. My senses tighten and something in my soul swells with gratitude for my body and all of my senses. Every function of my body is a gift. When I emerge into the pale light, shapes take a new form, shades separate themselves into a new perspective. As with life, after a period of darkness. It’s easy to lose time in the dark… don’t stay there too long. Come out of it seeing through new eyes.

3. Have a vision, not equipment.

Over time I’ve realized that a true artist doesn’t need anything to create. Most of the creation happens in the mind. Some mediums, such as oil painting, are still generally stripped down to their roots; there are some modern developments to help with flow and drying, but generally, painting is painting and it’s a fine art. Photography has become tangled over the years, with thousands of new cameras, films, digital developments and technology. We are sold the idea that “if you have this camera, you will be a good photographer.” It’s not true. I know a man with a tripod big enough to hold a Smartcar, buys a new fancy camera bag every six months to hold all his fancy equipment, and guess what? He takes SLR snapshots.

It’s really easy to get caught up in the idea that film photography is more artistic than digital photography. It’s really not true.

Shooting film doesn’t make you a good photographer any more than listening to vinyl gives you good taste in music.

I have to remind myself of this too. Film creates something unique and special, but it doesn’t change your composition, or the purpose behind your shot.

4.The reality of time (there is no reality).

I thought of this in the darkroom as well. I literally thought I had been in there for twenty to thirty minutes, and when I got out, I realized that somehow an hour had passed. For some reason it really hit me at that moment that our concept of time is completely irrelevant. We’re in the middle of a long round of eternity, and that will [for]n[ever] change. It helps sometimes to have all the clocks disappear, to have not even the sun as a ruler.

5. Be fearless: try new things and don’t limit yourself.

“Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are. We are often like rivers: careless and forceful , timid and dangerous, lucid and muddied, eddying, gleaming, still. Lovers, farmers and artists, have one thing in common, at least — a fear of “dry spells,” dormant periods in which we do no blooming, internal droughts only the waters of imagination and psychic realize can civilize.” » Gretel Ehrlich

I live in this really strange spiderweb suspension between fearlessness and fear. I experience a fair amount of anxiety in trying to “get things right,” in whatever capacity that applies. But I do have a determination and a drive, and by extension an ability, to push past it and do things. To go places, to create, to revel in the discoveries and wonders of the world.

Recently I went to a Katie Herzig concert, and she told us a little bit about the music video below.
But before you walk through walls
You will leave all this behind
Before you walk through walls
You will look it in the eye
Before you walk through walls
You will learn to say goodbye
If you let your guard down long enough to try

Her family thought the music video was really weird (I loved hearing that, because sometimes I feel like my family really doesn’t “get” me, almost like I was sprouted from a different tree, but every artist faces that, I think). She explained to them (and us) that it’s about art — and leaving all of that behind. Leaving opinions and over-analysis (welcome to my life) behind, and creating something from the heart and spirit. Only you will ever completely understand the meaning and depth behind your work. And hopefully it will gain meaning (often completely unrelated) to the people that view it. I want this to be a philosophy of my life. To be fearless, to give from my heart and to leave behind anything that is holding me back.

P.S. ^ I am going there someday. Las Pozas.

6. Be knowledgeable and aware; avoid all mistakes, but don’t let them inhibit you.

Probably as a result of impatience, I tend to want do before I learn. And I’m actually okay with that. I learn best by trial and error. I was never able to sit and read a camera manual, or a book about photography techniques. I prefer to feel it, to try different techniques and to see how they work (especially when printing in the darkroom). I try to learn from my mistakes, and to avoid them if possible. But there are times that accidents make something more much more pleasing, much more “perfect” than could have been made otherwise.

7. Be true.

That’s all. True to your beliefs and your dreams, true to the landscapes and personalities you come across. I made a decision a few months back that in my work, I want to bring to light beautiful things that exist, but are unknown. In a portrait I will draw out something that lies inside, some potentiality of our existence. I want a person to feel known and seen. In a landscape I want to inspire a higher recognition and honor for precious and vast creations, and for our Father. Give give give.

8. You are standing on the shoulders of giants.

The real wonder of photography, I believe, lies in the magic of the chemicals, the discoveries that led to our ability to capture a moment in time. For this same reason, I will always hold instant photography in high esteem. The miracle of watching a frame develop before your eyes will never cease to amaze me. Learn from the “giants,” evolve and develop your individuality. Ever hold in your heart awe and appreciation, willingness and tenderness. Remember where your gifts come from, and the source of all inspiration; humbly ask for more.



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