A 4-day escape to the big city of Seattle with an old manual camera and a bag of expired film doesn’t sound like the type of excursion choice one might spy in some slick brochure. But as the universe was rearranging my world with added stresses at work and not enough real pleasure in my usual play, I’d felt the strong need for some time to get back to the basics of my craft. A bare bones, walk the streets and smell the salty air type of adventure is what I was looking for – a creative splash in the face. I’ve made a living with my camera for about 15 years now, and the first half was done with film.
For most of us today, unless you’re an Annie Leibovitz or some avant-garde artist with a lot of financial padding, the odds of film being used as an essential tool during your daily routine is almost unheard of anymore. If you’re a working photographer today, you’re either shooting digital, or you’re doing what I was doing on this trip: not working at all! For the first time in way too long, I was just playing with a camera, not wielding it as a hammer, pounding out another batch of files to be processed to the machine called work.
Actually, there was some old-fashioned “work” to this shoot, in the sense that I had to do basic inverse-square-law calculations, keep the highlights in mind with my manual exposures, search for 18% grey in every shot and hope that I got something recorded on this film which had exceeded its expiration date more than six years ago. Turned out it was the most relaxing few days I’ve had since sipping tropical cocktails in my buddy’s hot tub in Kona six months ago.
Despite walking a few miles every day and avoiding the typical perils of big city traffic and muggings, I felt invigorated by the brisk, wet, February air. I found a certain calm, a reverence in the subtle, banal puddles that reflected at times, nothing more than the upside-down, backward beckonings of neon beer signs. One minute they were solid refections, mirrors lain along the sidewalks and alleys showing us what lay up our pant legs as we might step past. Then the next second, a crashing of feet or rubber tires would turn them into a thousand wet splinters of the former, calm portal to the heavens I was staring at. I found, just a few seconds later, the “glass” was back in place, firm and filled with brilliant reflections, framed by the cobbled, mossy road.
I searched for those isolated scenes in which a busy corner might finally become devoid of bodies and autos buzzing in and around it. Where one might finally see how the light was ticking off the top of each step of a concrete staircase, the diffused sunlight silently glowing and warming something which was being stepped on all day long and likely never viewed as anything other than a pain in the ass to climb.
Photographs help remind us what we can sometimes miss if we blink. Making a photograph with film teaches us the value of timing those blinks so we’re more mindful of what we’re actually looking at. It’s too easy, with the instant gratification digital offers today, to simply shoot “more” in hopes of getting the “right” shot faster and in abundance. With film, however, I find the real reward to be in savoring each composition, waiting for the right moment to press the shutter and trying not to shutter too much while you’re waiting for the lab to return your film to you a week later. I suppose anything worth having is worth waiting for, before and after you press your finger on the shutter.
Working with old film, a square format and a slightly skewed soul, I finally found my center.