On Monday 22 May at 0810, I stepped on to a half-submerged concrete jetty in Lowestoft, Suffolk. Awash with seawater and slick with seaweed, this tiny walkway is the easternmost point in Great Britain – and journey’s end for my trip to the four extreme points of the mainland. I looked out to a glittering horizon beneath the blazing sun as my trusty OM-4Ti’s timer beeped behind me. At 0815 the shutter clicked, setting the seal on a personal project that has seen me travel nearly 2,200 miles by road, rail, foot and flight.
Many of the pictures I’ve posted about this project so far have been digital, but my chosen medium for the actual project was film – specifically Ilford PAN F, a low-speed, fine-grain black and white film. 35mm film was the dominant photographic medium for much of the 20th Century, and most readers will remember having used it for holiday snaps at some point. For a film enthusiast, though, the attachment to the medium runs a little deeper than holiday snaps, and it involves quite a bit more thought.
For me, there’s an intangible, almost magical quality to negatives in the way that they link me and my work to a place and time in an overtly physical way. When I look through my archive of negatives and contact sheets, I’m looking at strips of film that were actually exposed in the place and at the time that they record. So when I look at my street photos from New York, for example – or this week’s industrial landscape in Lowestoft – the film in my hand was there with me. That link to a place and time is something that simply doesn’t exist with ones and noughts on an SD card: film’s physicality serves to link it forever to a place and time.
This physical quality is invisible in the finished print and might mean little to most people who look at the image. But for me, it adds to the experience of looking at my own photographs: the print and the negative together pack a bigger punch than the image they represent. The philosopher Roland Barthes wrote about the representative component of a picture that grabs your attention (which he called the studium) and the emotional content that ‘pricks or bruises’ (the punctum). Maybe, when I look at film photographs, it’s the physical negative that gives the punctum some of its punch.
So much for the emotional appeal of film: what about the technical side? Your choice of film – and chemistry if, as I do, you develop your own film – fundamentally affects the way your picture looks. I chose PAN F for this project because it’s quite contrasty and I wanted my pictures to ‘pop’; and I developed the film in Rodinal, the oldest photographic developer still in use, because it tends to make pictures appear sharp (especially with slower films). There’s a bit more to it than that, of course – but you can learn by exploring the medium for yourself (or reading some of the posts on the Emulsive website).
As a professional photographer it’s rare that I’ll ever have a client content enough with the inherent disadvantages of film for me to use it for paid work. It takes time to develop, it’s harder to retouch (though not impossible), and mistakes in shooting and developing film can ruin a whole day’s work. But for my personal work – portraits of people I love, and landscapes linking me to amazing adventures – it’s almost always my medium of choice. In this instance it’s fitting way to add an emotional element to a personal project that has left me with memories, and pictures, that I’ll come to treasure.