As world goes digital, photography club keeps focus on film.
There are those among us who aren’t that interested in the easy way. They drive vehicles with manual transmissions, make their own salsa, grow their own vegetables, listen to vinyl records and remodel their kitchens themselves.
With this same do-ityourself brio, there are photographers who pass on the convenience of digital images for the challenges and resulting moments of beauty found by working with film.
“I have six or seven people doing black-andwhite seriously,” says Rita Henry, in the comfortably cluttered Stifft’s Station home where she and her Blue-Eyed Doorknocker Photography Club meet.
Henry has fashioned a darkroom out of donated materials, including three enlargers used to make photographic prints, in what was once the home’s kitchen.
“This is stuff that was going to be thrown away,” she says, a bundle of energy as she shows off the various timers, special paper and other darkroom gadgetry.
A Dermott native, Henry worked in advertising for years in Little Rock and for a spell in Dallas. She has also taught photography at the Arkansas Arts Center Museum School and in the Little Rock School District.
She’d been interested in photography since the early ’80s, and finally started taking courses at the Arts Center. She worked for a while in the darkroom at the former Peerless Photography in downtown Little Rock, “one of the last big photo houses in town,” she says, and now does Photoshop work for Little Rock photographer George Chambers and his Chambers Studio.
Henry takes her own
pictures on digital and film and uses Leica, Nikon, Pentax and Polaroid cameras.
Yes, she and many of her film-loving fellow shutterbugs happily use digital photography, but the wonders of the darkroom and making prints from film are hard to ignore.
“Every term we’re talking about,” Henry says, referring to the capabilities of analog photography, “it’s all in Photoshop. Photoshop tries to do our creative stuff. It even goes into the painterly arts. But it’s not the same. It’s so mechanical and inhuman.”
Of course, purists in 1839 probably thought the daguerreotype, an early form of film using a copper plate coated with silver iodide, wasn’t as soulful as an oil painting.
Daguerreotypes were replaced with thin glass plates by the 1850s, and the Eastman Kodak company introduced the first flexible film in 1885. A century later, there were film-developing shops on practically every other street corner and in department stores and drugstores, promising photos in an hour or less.
By the late 1990s, convenient and handy digital photography would begin to elbow film out of the market. Now smartphones and social media make photography not only instantly available but able to be shown to a potentially worldwide audience. It’s head-spinning stuff, an impressive and wide-reaching technological march.
But for some, film offers an outlet not comprised of pixels but that is subject to imperfections and whose images must be conjured through the alchemy of the darkroom before its results can be fully seen.
Little Rock photographer Brandon Markin, 42, got interested in taking images with film on a trip to his wife’s native Ecuador.
“We went with a friend who had always been a photographer and worked in labs,” Markin says. He’s wearing a T-shirt from punk rock band Bad Brains and sitting at a table in the photography club’s home. “He showed me some stuff he had printed, and I was just enthralled.”
Markin, who primarily takes digital photos in his professional work, says he badgered Henry long enough to get her to let him use the darkroom, and things took off from there.
It’s the freedom offered in film, despite its restrictions, that he finds intriguing.
“When I’m picking up my digital camera, I’m trying to get the perfect shot — the perfect exposure, perfect composition, all of the elements of what is a good photograph. With my film camera, it frees me up even though there are more constraints. There’s a strange freedom within the constraints.”
These can range from aging film, film speed, light, the developing process and, most obviously, the limited number of exposures.
“We’ve all had that experience with our digital cameras where you get a little trigger happy and you’re just snapping away,” says Markin, who shoots with an old camera from Sears. In analog, every shot counts when you have a limited supply of film.
“[Film] slows down the process so much,” says photographer Robbie Brindley of Hot Springs. “I’ll shoot a wedding and have 600 photos, but if I was doing it on film, you can’t machine-gun it. You have to slow down and think about it. I like the fact that you have to think a lot more about what you’re doing.”
Brindley, 26, uses a 120 Medium Format camera in which he holds the viewfinder at waist level to get his pictures.
He develops film in a makeshift darkroom in his storm cellar, though he has to keep an eye out for the occasional copperhead.
“It’s a little janky,” he says.
THERE WILL BE DUDS
“You never know what you’re going to get with film,” says Rachel Worthen, another Blue-Eyed Doorknocker and a Pentax user who has been shooting with film for 18 years. “It gives you the option to be a little more free. It’s more hands-on.”
Little Rock graphic designer Vince Griffin, who has two photographs in the 59th Delta Exhibition at the Arkansas Arts Center, found photography intimidating at first.
“I was sheltered in an area of thinking photography could only be one thing,” he says. “Once I realized it’s not confined to these certain parameters, I came back to it.”
He’d also discovered the work of New York street photographer Ryan McGinley and dove headfirst into using film. Now, Griffin takes his Leica everywhere with him, documenting the people he sees and whatever else catches his eye.
“I’ve shot everywhere from my father’s funeral to the State Fair,” he says.
It’s a process that rewards patience, says the 36-year-old.
“Something that wasn’t really expressed to me early on,” Griffin says, “is this idea that everything you take has to be perfect, that everything you do is going to be relevant, that’s just not the case. You’re going to take a lot of photos that are duds. A majority of them are duds.”
Getting two photos that are keepers out of three rolls of film, “that’s success,” he says, and it makes the process worth the effort.
“You’re going to hit these really beautiful photos that come together and speak to you and it’s just so rewarding to work that hard at something and then have those moments where you look at the film and you’re like, ‘Wow.’”
There’s also the lure of the darkroom.
“Every time I would talk to an older photographer, they would say, ‘The darkroom was my favorite part, even more than taking the photos,’ so I was always curious,” says Savanna Mitchell of Little Rock, who works as an administrative technician at the Little Rock Police Department and who began developing film with Henry about a year ago.
In the analog darkroom, a sheet of light-sensitive paper is briefly exposed to a beam directed through the negative film. An image gradually emerges, as though unfading, on the white paper as it is immersed in a tray of developing fluid.
“When you see the image for the first time, you’ve created something,” Mitchell, 26, says. “You’ve captured a moment in time that would have been gone otherwise, and there it is, in the physical, tangible form.”
“If it’s Wednesday night, I’m here in the darkroom,” says Worthen, who prefers taking shots of nature and animals with her Pentax K-1000 and Nikon cameras. “This is my hobby. It’s my artistic outlet.”
And it’s not an anachronistic, ironic hipster pursuit, at least not for the 26-year-old Mitchell.
“I used to [worry that] people would think I’m snobby, that I think this is better just because it’s old,” she says. “But really, I’m just not with-it enough to do digital. I’m overwhelmed by it.”
Adrienne Taylor of Little Rock, 62, another Blue-Eyed Knocker, has been taking photos since she was 17 and just never got the hang of digital.
“I can’t wrap my head around that stuff at all,” she says. “I’m real hesitant to enter the tech world. I guess I’m a purist. I love the magic of the darkroom.”
NEGATIVES = POSITIVE
In 2005, Chicago real estate broker and writer John Maloof bought at auction a box he hoped would contain research material for a book he was writing about a Chicago neighborhood.
The box had belonged to a longtime nanny named Vivian Maier who died in 2009, and among the items was a cache of negatives she had taken that chronicled her life — the people around her and the places she lived.
Maloof became obsessed, and eventually rounded up more than 100,000 negatives and 3,000 prints from Maier, whose photography was largely unknown while she was alive but has since been compared to the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Diane Arbus.
This kind of history, Worthen says, can be lost in the digital age when people can click and delete images they don’t like that are then gone forever.
“There’s something about having the negative,” she says. “Looking back at some of the most important things about our culture, about our lives and how we lived as people will only be shown through negatives. The digital would have been deleted.”
Tracking down film isn’t too big of a hassle — stores like Bedford Camera & Video in Little Rock still carry it — but film windfalls are always welcome.
When Finger Lakes Community College in Canandaigua, N.Y., was selling film online from a cancelled photography class, Mitchell pounced. “They were so nice. I bought 30 rolls of their film and they sent me 170,” she says. “They said, ‘We love that you’re doing this. Send us a picture.’”
Brindley, who often shoots instant Polaroids, says film for those cameras can be hard to come by, especially after the company discontinued its once near ubiquitous Integral film line in 2008.
A New York-based company called the Impossible Project is making a similar film now, but it’s expensive, Brindley says.
Those old Polaroid cameras and film, though, were his gateway into photography.
“You could get a camera for $20 and the film was $10,” he says. “I just couldn’t afford the digital stuff at the time.”
Working with Polaroids and their instant gratification appealed to him.
“They have a different meaning. It’s almost like a painting.”
The painterly effects that show up on his haunting Polaroids, splotches of color and odd mistakes, are a direct result of using film that has gone out of date, he says.
Polaroid film, like wine, has certain vintages that are preferred, Brindley says. “Between 2002 and 2008, 2009, that stuff is really good film,” he says. “But every year that goes by, the quality gets worse and worse.”
Despite such hurdles, film still calls to that certain soul who isn’t daunted by taking the long way around.
“It never went away,” Markin says. “It went down, but now it’s coming back, like vinyl records. I see more younger kids shooting with film cameras. They’re going back to it because there’s obviously something they recognize as different and special about the process and about having a physical result of your work.”
Last Day of Summer by Little Rock photographer Brandon Markin
Polaroid photo from the “Hiatus” series by Robbie Brindley of Hot Springs
by Rita D. Henry
Vince Griffin holds a Petri Flex V camera, the sort of thing seen whenever the Blue-Eyed Knocker Photography Club meets.
Trans Rally by Vince Griffin of Little Rock
Untitled photograph by Adrienne Taylor of Little Rock
Floor Window by Savannah Mitchell of Little Rock