The Permanence of the Analog Kit - “Why use film?”

Written by Katt Janson Merilo


Since the creation of the digital image, those who choose film have been asked this question. The question itself strikes us as a little bit odd, simply because it’d be unusual to imagine other artists get drilled on their choice of a common, tactile medium in casual settings by artists and non-artists alike. If you met a painter at a dinner party you probably wouldn’t ask why they don’t just use a tablet and Microsoft Word. And yet we as film photographers get the question – at dinner parties, in the middle of a shoot, through email inquiries on our website, at gallery openings – pretty much all the time. It’s basically the expected response to telling someone you choose film as your photographic medium; there’s the crinkle of the forehead, the pondering look, and then it rolls off of tongues like a well known call-and-respond routine. “Marco”/”Polo” – “It was SO big.”/”How big was it?” – “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?”/”Spongebob Squarepants.” –  “These images were all made on medium format film.”/”Why use film?”

We all have an answer to this question. After a few dozen times of fielding it, our response becomes more and more polished and rehearsed, but never less genuine. It’s a common thread on film-centered blogs to discuss the “why” for many a film user, and so we thought we’d add our own “why” to the mix. Like several of you, we have more than one “why”, but we’ll still try to keep it brief.

1. Archivability in a transient world. 

As film techs, we’re very archivability-focused, and we can’t help but wonder if our grandchildren will have any use for a .jpg?  Or just what they mean when they say “stable” and “electronic” in the same sentence?  Perhaps we’re all just suffering from EMP paranoia. In any case, using film makes us remember that one hundred years from now, if the sun is still burning in the sky, we’ll be able to hold up our film and see images.  Try that with a CD.

2. Resistance against planned obsolescence. 

As camera store workers, we understand the cost of feeding a photography habit. We get people pointing out the cost of film to us all the time, but then turn around and spend $1,000 on a camera that may be irrelevant in 3 years. The cameras on our shelves are decades old, and still some of the best you can buy. The cure for modern machine angst resides, for us, in film. The progressively disposable culture of modern photography leaves us worried and fed up with squandering hard-earned equipment budgets on devices rendered obsolete before they are even broken in. At the end of the day, we’d rather have a companion machine with which we might actually have time to become intimately familiar. When you’re comparing a few years to a few decades, it’s obvious to us which one wins out.

3. Tactile sensations in a time of virtual reality.


As artists, we love to touch the art. Holding a digital camera and producing work through a screen feels a bit like walking through an art museum of our own work, but the glowering security guard in the corner still won’t let us reach out and agitate our images. We crave physical contact with the work that we produce, because how else are you supposed to get just the right balance of blood, sweat, and tears mixed into your developing? Tactile photography is easy: all you have to do is get behind your camera, tank, or enlarger and bleed (with apologies to Hemingway) – and you can believe us when we say that bleeding all over your computer is nowhere near as rewarding. There is a sort of magic in the slap of a shutter, the crank of an advance wheel, the slow appearance of an image in a developing tray; this just can’t be replicated digitally.

Those are some of our reasons we use film. What are yours?