What is the worth behind each photograph you take? And no, this isn’t about how much they would go for in a gallery. The value of a photo, a sculpture, a painting or any other artistic image can be deeply rooted in how much it can say without speaking. The recent passing of one of the most era defining photographers, Robert Frank, caused me to evaluate why I picked up my 1970’s Nikon to begin with. Why bother shooting film?
Everywhere I’ve gone over the past several months, there has been a consistent amount of people asking about the camera slung over my shoulder. Whether it was a political rally getting asked if I wanted to interview anyone, or simply wondering if photography was my personal profession – I explained it simply as a hobby. In reality, I’m a bit shit at photography, but sometimes I get lucky. My own mother has grown with slight envy since I picked it up, recollecting her days as a photographic journalist, developing her pictures for free at the nearby military base. The reason I shoot film, though, is because of two people – one fictional, one passed.
The first of the two is the legendary Hollywood “bad boy” Sean Penn in his rather small yet critical role in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
It’s only towards the end of the film where we find the main character, Ben Stiller (Walter) for the first time meeting the character played by Sean (a character not too far from Sean’s actual persona, no doubt). In this scene much is unravelled about the plot, and without spoiling the ending, the attention is momentarily drawn back to the reason Sean O’Connell had his camera set up in the middle of an unknown mountainous region in Afghanistan.
The snow leopard.
Sean explains the rarity one is able to see the hidden predator in person, and capturing a photo of one is just as difficult. Within a few seconds, after the snow leopard appears in the camera frame, both characters grab a glimpse. Ben Stiller, opposite Sean Penn, notices a pause. Confused, he asks when he was going to take the shot. What Sean Penn’s character said in response stuck with me:
“If I like a moment… I mean…me, personally…I don’t like to have the distraction of a camera… So I stay in it.”
He doesn’t take the shot, but relishes in the rare moment. The scene passes quickly and presents as a necessary summarization of the films overarching theme. The film is loosely based off the short story by James Thurber from 1939, originally published in The New Yorker. The story reveals a man, Walter Mitty, as one who has a longing for adventure as he lives day-to-day in his not-so-adventurous life. Daydreams take over real world moments with friends and family. He’s lost in battle between that of where he wants to be versus where he should be.
Now… who gave the final nudge? For a long time I’ve admired Heath Ledger and his ability to bring life into the characters on screen. After his passing, it took many years until the documentary I Am Heath Ledger came out where everyone was able to understand deeper components of someone so loved (if you have never heard nor seen it, you should). It was through this documentary I felt some inspirational push.
The documentary interviews those that knew him best, each expressing how much joy he brought into the world. It wasn’t long though until the film broke open Heath’s love for filmmaking and photography. It was through the shared footage and photographs taken by (as well as of) Heath where I saw someone simply enjoying every bit of this world as much as he could through his personal passion to express. While it showed a variety of content he captured – including film footage of him sneaking through hotel halls trying to avoid being captured by the super villain, and videos taken by friends of him taking pictures with camera’s from the likes of Polaroid, Leica, and even the Rolleiflex 3.5f twin lens reflex – it was during the interview of Trevor Dicarlo where Heath as a human being felt more clear. Trevor, Heath’s childhood friend, described Heath’s eagerness to create, stating:
“He got this camera and he didn’t know what to do other than to make something. It wasn’t just to film us and to film what we were doing. He was…creating something straight away.”
For the first, we have the sentiment of never to take yourself out of what is happening right in front of you. I have friends on both sides of the fence – both at the same concert, yet one watching it through their phone as they record for instagram, and the other just watching the moment. Screens distract us from what’s happening, and this problem is only exacerbated through our incessant need to share everything for the likes and views. In a recent TED talk by (the almost forgotten) Joseph Gorden-Levitt, he separates “creative” people into two types. Those who crave attention versus those who pay attention. When someone say’s “look at me, look at me”, and people start looking, what they create is, at its core, what the audience wants, not something of the creator themself. The more you pay attention – the more you listen, the more you place yourself in the moment before you – the more attuned you become in your own creative process.
Which brings me to the second point. We don’t need to have an audience in order to be creative. Do as Monsieur Ledger did and create something you want to create, not what the viewers on Tik Tok demand for. Do it for yourself, and if someone catches a glimpse at what you’ve done, they’ll be looking at your truth and how you see this world.
What does this have to do with shooting film? It demands for a pause. Evaluate every bit within the frame. Rather than tapping away to get the shot, the moment needs to be analyzed and understood as quickly as possible for the justification of documentation. Each shot has a cost. They can’t be wasted on the likes of a stylish plate of food. The more practice looking through the viewfinder though, the sharper the eye.
In the end, it didn’t take long to begin researching and looking for the right camera. Soon enough, a mint Nikon FM2 for a pretty penny with an additional purchase of a light meter were the regular tools I began using. Since then, piles of processed negatives, through trial and error, reveal the occasional decent photo amidst the rubbish that engulfed them. What has also taken place is the genuine connection I still hold when capturing a subject. After the photo is taken, that’s it. There’s no reviewing the photo, showing the person how they look, deleting it, and then trying to capture something you believe could be better. We continue living, and that’s that.
If it hasn’t been made clear, the reason to shoot film is to bring us back to life. The ability to capture anything and everything without much of a cost has driven down the value of the cherished moment. If more money is printed by the government, its value decreases. The same idea can be applied toward the unlimited data space for pictures on our phone. Everyone shares how they are living life yet the irony is they aren’t actually in the real part of living. When we look a bit harder at what’s standing in front of us, we realize what we’ve been missing. It’s fantastic what shooting film can provide. Its therapeutic. People’s willingness or desire to jump into frame, allowing a raw moment of life to be captured – it’s worth the world to me.
All photo’s taken by Matthew Johnson, excluding those previously given credits