Old Film, Old Cameras-What’s the Point?

I dunno.

Does there have to be a point?

The mainstream history of photography revolves around getting consistent, predictable results, that closely / accurately replicate on film what appears on camera.  There is nothing wrong with that it is perfectly admirable and a result that we can all enjoy.

Photographic film is essentially a light-sensitive coating – an emulsion – adhering to some kind of a base.  Usually, in modern film photography that is a flexible, strong, porous material like estar, polyester, acetate, or nitrate.  In modern, commercial films, those emulsions are many layers of different substances that react to light and color in a known way.  They are then developed with chemicals that are specifically chosen and combined to cause a particular, controlled effect within the emulsion layers.  The result is accurate, predictable, and consistent – what most customers and photographers would want.  Or should I say it is what every photographer wants, most of the time? 

Cameras are simple – a light-tight box with a way to let in light and probably a way to affix or hold the film emulsion to expose it to the light.  One can build a camera out of most anything that could be made light-tight – wood, metal, paper, canvas, plastic, you name it.  Controlling the amount of light is complicated unlike the box itself.  Consistent, accurate, predictable results mean that I can control how much light and for how long during every shot.  Thus we have a shutter and some kind of aperture and adjustable diaphragm or iris either between the lens and the body of the camera or within the lens.  Most complicated of all is the lens.  Carefully designed and manufactured glass (or plastic?), the lens accurately conveys a scene and focuses the image at a known distance allowing for the image to fall in focus on the emulsion.  Very similar to what happens inside of the eye. Centuries of different sciences coming together in a cool tool.

Film emulsions can only last so long and remain predictable.  The unwitting photographer wants to buy a roll of film and have to work perfectly to the manufacturer’s stated capabilities.  If you bought a roll of film knowing that you would get inconsistent results – or no results – you might chose to not participate in the hobby or business of photography.  So film has an expiration date and sets of storage and use expectations.  Likewise, camera parts are usually designed to work just one way and the rest will give unpredictable results.  For instance, loading the film backwards in your camera or putting the lens on backwards – or both!  This will offer some interesting results.  Some of these are even predictable.

But while science and experimentation are the core of photography’s history, certainly its sinew has been accidents and blind experimentation.   Often time the accidents of one person became the basis for experimentation and improvement by another.  Or other times actual innovation in one field is brought in to photography to solve a particular problem.  Often times these innovations and inventions were in the pursuit of money and a popular audience.  As soon as you can capture the image of a scene or a person – forever if you will – on paper or tin or glass, you will have an audience.  Humans crave this since before the time of cave painting. 

The nature of cameras, lens, time-sensitive / light-sensitive film, and commercial production means lots of opportunities for success and failure.  The nature of humans and photographs is usually that a good image or passable image or partial image usually beats no image.  Which leads us to – accidents.

Photography in the 20th century was always in a big way, an amateur event.  This results in mass-produced cameras which result in mistaken procedures, adverse conditions, and light leaks.  No to mention art.

So why expired film?  I dunno, but you will get inconsistent and unpredictable results that may interest the photographer.  Or you may be attempting to wring life out of something that should have long ago been dead.  Or even getting expired film because it is cheap and wanting any close representation of the image as cheaply as possible.  TO cause accidents or create or apply certain stylistic effects.

Why old/vintage cameras?  The exploitation of the old camera and the old film are often unrelated.  Older lenses can sometimes produce fantastic images at a deep discount.  Coatings and lack of coatings can produce tones and textures that are “vintage” or harken to a different era that are not so easy to replicate with modern means.  Another reason is just for cheap stuff – regardless of quality as long as it meets the expectation of the user.  And, yet another reason may be serendipity – the right light leak in the right place, the accidental – but sought out –  malfunctions such as frames crossing over or unpredictable double exposures.  Often these effects are done with modern “fresh” film to accurately and reliably capture the image as intended.

With expired / old / vintage / ancient films and emulsions, the effects might include damage that appears in the final picture, color shifts, emulsion shifts, and other effects that come with the ravages of time and the use of the wrong chemistry – mostly because the right chemistry no longer exists Or the chemistry itself is as old as the expired film, or the ancient photographer.

There is a thrill in recreating a lost formula or recipe and seeing results that are close to your expectations.  You may suddenly realize that you can see 70-year-old color instead of settling for B&W – or developing film exposed decades ago and capturing those lost shots.

Artistically you may discover and exploit things that no one else is able to create or replicate because all of the ingredients – camera, lens, film, chemistry, formula, and luck could never exist in another time and place. 

Does all of that make hacking vintage films, vintage cameras, and vintage chemicals worth the effort, even if the entire purpose is inexplicable? I dunno.

Does there have to be a point?

-Mike C22@filmhacker.photography

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *