Old things

A little over a year ago I wrote about film photography on my photography blog (here). I made three points why film is the photographic medium I (still) prefer:

While it does take some technical skills to fiddle with film, let alone develop them yourself, I have noticed that it does not take more skill to press the shutter release when using film. Nor does using film slow you down. If my memory card could only take 39 images, I would shoot just as slow as I do with a roll of film. The more confident you get with using film and the film camera, the more film you expose.

I do not use film because in some respect it provides a challenge that digital does not. Nor do I use film because in some respect it may even be easier and more versatile than digital. There are more profound reasons for that. There are basically three things about film I think make it the more “solid” and “meaningful” medium:

1. Materiality. With film I get real, material frames of images. Film persists in the world in a way digital files never do. They are tangible. The need for tangible material objects is one of the basic tenets of human nature. An interesting point concerning human being in the modern world of material mass production and mechanical reproduction is made by philosopher Hannah Arendt. According to Arendt (1958: 95-96) “the reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors”. Digital files are too abstract and they leave a void, a need for an authentic image.

2. Authenticity. The modern man craves what is authentic. Walter Benjamin (2008) addressed this question in his essay The work of art in the age of its technical reproducibility in the 1930’s. According to Benjamin, what distinguishes an authentic artifact (in this case a film image) from a reproduction (a reproduced digital image if you like) is its aura, a certain authoritative element that is obtained by identifying with a unique place and time. What is compromised or eliminated in reproducing authentic objects is aura. Reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition and history. While one may oppose to the concept of aura as too ambiguous, the debate between painting and photography (what Benjamin discussed) and film and digital is somewhat similar. It is hard to reproduce the image once shot on film. With digital files you loose the original.

3. Historicity. Part of the human condition is the need for history. It’s no wonder Leica is such a big name in photography, and it’s no wonder film photography still is considered the authentic and original form of photography. There is no tangible original negative and therefore not enough history in a digital file. This is where it is easy to realize that there is more to the image than just the image. We are not only assessing the image. The image can not be detached from the equipment it was produced with. Nor is it detachable from its author. The image can not be denied its material and historical value. When comparing two similar images taken with film and digital, the film photo – once we find out it was taken on film – will acquire more meaning for the above mentioned reasons.

These are also some of the reasons why we find old things interesting and important. They provide a sense of continuity that exceeds the lifetime of the human individual. I find things that are older than me particularly interesting. They act as evidence of what happened when I was not around to see it with my own eyes. All in all old things can be said to have evidential significance (Lucas 2012). Their evidential power, however, is result of the impartial and fragmentary nature of the material record (ibid.). Things do not give themselves away the second we encounter them, and that makes them interesting.

Things like old images provide glimpses into times that are unknown to us. Images owe their fragmentary nature to the fact that they are only excerpts of a scene and as such spark our imagination and make us speculate about what would have been found outside of the frames, what was left outside of the image. The same fragmentary nature of the past material evidence can be seen on any thing. Old guitars (another example of the type of old things that I love) for example often have hundreds of dings on them and they similarly make us wonder what caused those markings. One sign of wear on a thing makes us want to look for the thing that caused that mark. That’s how continuity works. But we can never be sure that the thing we think that caused the marking really was responsible for doing so. The gaps in the fragmentary record, then, are what we try to fill in with what we call theories of the past. Some theories are more accurate and more closely connected to the material under study. Other theories are more speculative, but still serve an important purpose in providing us with possible explanation for the way things happened in the past. We often tend to dismiss the clearly speculative theories as too far out because they seem to have no scientific value at this particular moment. I would argue that we need more speculative theories because they are what often drive us forward into studying the things more closely and prepare us for new and unexpected discoveries, however distant in the future they may seem to be. We need theories even about the things we can never find out.

Old things are not simply interesting because they are old and we can find out stuff about the past by studying them. Old things are interesting because they are alien (Bogost 2012) to us, and more importantly, old things are interesting to us because they stay alien to us no matter how much we study them.

References

  • Arendt, Hannah 1958. The human condition. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  • Benjamin, Walter 2008. The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility. The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility and other writings in media: 19-55. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
  • Bogost, Ian 2012. Alien Phenomenology, or what it’s like to be a thing. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  • Lucas, Gavin 2012. Understanding the archaeological record. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
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