By Andrew J. Tonn
MONTERREY–The Civil War photographer Mathew Brady had to travel with a mobile darkroom in a wagon. The wet plate process with which he worked produced amazing negatives and an irreplaceable record of that bloody conflict. But the process was so slow, so fragile, and the cameras so large, that actual combat pictures were impossible. It is fascinating to read about the lengths that early wildlife, documentary, and expedition photographers Martin and Osa Johnson went to in order to bring back never-before-seen images and films from the South Seas, Africa, Borneo, and elsewhere. That Frank Hurley’s sublime images of Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated 1915 Antarctic expedition were even made, let alone survived, is nearly unbelievable. John Noel ‘s footage and photographs from the 1924 Everest attempt where Mallory and Irving lost their lives took a nearly inhuman effort to shoot and then develop in a high-altitude field darkroom. Taking photos with early cameras in what are still the most unforgiving, deadly, and difficult mountains, jungles, and ice fields of the world is scarcely believable. But the images exist to prove it was done and the more you learn about these feats of bravery, endurance, technical skill, and artistic genius the more you realize that as photographers and explorers we truly rest on the shoulders of giants.
“Stop worrying that you aren’t good enough because you’re not, none of us are. We should all be trying constantly to improve. But you are good enough to begin, good enough to learn more and to become better.”
Ever since Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took an eight-hour exposure from a window in Burgundy, photography equipment has been moving in a single direction. It would have been impossible for Niépce, Louis Daguerre, and Henry Fox Talbot to conceive of the specific technologies behind digital photography but the overall practical abilities of current cameras have been worked towards, without ceasing, since that first image was taken on a sunny day in France around 1826. Ever since then we have been developing smaller, lighter cameras able to take larger and larger numbers of faster, cleaner, more detailed images under a wider and wider range of circumstances. We may marvel at the low light ability of the Nikon D5 or the Sony A7 III, but they are nothing more than the descendants of those first image-making machines. The incredible Zeiss and Leica and Nikon optics of today are directly descended of the first telescopes and microscopes developed before Galileo ever looked to the heavens.
The idea that Mathew Brady might have chosen, out of some sense of authenticity, to make collodian wetplates and drag a wagon through the muck and blood of Antietam and Gettysburg, rather than carry a couple weather-sealed Nikon D5’s or Canon 5D Mark IV’s is laughable. The idea that Martin and Osa Johnson would have turned up their noses at the opportunity to take a Nikon D850 and a 600mm f/4 Nikkor to photograph lions in Africa is pure comedy. It is only in retrospect that we choose outdated technologies of lesser convenience to enjoy the process or aesthetic differences.
Because of and despite all of the above, if you want to be a better photographer, you should shoot some film. Ideally, you should not only shoot some film, you should learn how to develop and print it. Even if you don’t become an expert, even if you only do it a few times, you will know far more about photography and how it works than you did before. But don’t let the lack of a darkroom or a super hip and cool 1970s SLR stop you. Don’t put off for the imagined perfect what you can accomplish now. Shoot some consumer color print film from whatever point and shoot is lying on the shelf at your local Goodwill and get it developed at Wal-Mart. Or wherever is cheapest and most convenient. As with everything, stop making excuses, stop waiting for the time and money to do a thing perfectly and all at once. There is still a world of affordable, excellent vintage cameras out there for sale online and at your local camera shop. Be warned, however, the world has finally realized that these will never be made again, that what at the time were basic SLRs are, in fact, incredibly well made examples of mechanical near-perfection. The better ones are more and more scarce, commanding ever-higher prices.
“The Civil War photographer Mathew Brady had to travel with a mobile darkroom in a wagon. The wet plate process with which he worked produced amazing negatives and an irreplaceable record of that bloody conflict.”
There is magic in film. There was a cost to each frame and the knowledge of the art had a whiff of sorcery in the arcane terminology, the alchemical smells and precise rituals conducted in dark rooms under red light. There was a feeling that exposing a frame of film was a little like breaking a pane of glass, a thing that done could never be undone. Unlike breaking glass, however, the transmutation of film via light and time and chemical reactions is an act of creation and preservation, not destruction. The actual light reflecting from your subject forever changed the film into something else, burning a brief moment of time into another thing. What was dark and inert became a true record of the light of history.
If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing well and in order to know anything well you need to understand the process. People used to apprentice in order to learn an art or a craft. I have stated this before and I will undoubtedly say it again. Too many people enter photography because of laziness. They perceive it to be a less demanding entrée to the creative world than, say, blacksmithing, or sculpting marble, or being a novelist. They put down their money and then find themselves putting down more and more money and still producing images little to no better than the ones they made with their phones. They haunt online forums and sometimes become supercilious gear trolls, making pronouncements about what should or should not be done with this or that lens, and insulting others for a perceived lack of knowledge or talent. The problem is that photography is not easy. It is easier for everyone who isn’t dragging around wagon-mounted darkroom and preparing collodian wetplates with an occasional Confederate canon ball whizzing overhead but the more convenient equipment doesn’t a photographer make. There is an innate need in all of us to be better, to do a thing well, to create, and to attempt to explain why and how we are creating. We may not even consciously acknowledge this need but it is there and when we ignore it or deny it we are frustrated as both humans and as artists.
“The idea that Mathew Brady might have chosen, out of some sense of authenticity, to make collodian wetplates and drag a wagon through the muck and blood of Antietam and Gettysburg, rather than carry a couple weather-sealed Nikon D5’s or Canon 5D Mark IV’s is laughable. “
The state of being both a human and an artist is frustrating enough anyway, so I would suggest, propose, that if there is a thing you want to do, in this case photography, to stop taking short cuts. Set out methodically and with a desire to learn. Read everything you can find on the subject. Take your camera out into the world and experiment with it. Take long time exposures. Take a photo of something at every aperture and examine the difference. Start carrying a notebook and write in it, write everything, thoughts, hopes, short-stories, dreams, ideas, shopping lists, lists of people, destinations, photos you want to take, things you want to do. Take walks with your camera and a friend. Take a trip somewhere, anywhere, with the express intent of taking photos. Get the cheapest ticket you can find to a city you’ve never been and explore it, talk to people, take their pictures, and send those people their pictures. Print your photos and arrange them into stories. Think about how images tell stories and how you, in your way, would like to tell stories with them. Stop worrying that you don’t have this camera or that lens. Learn the process, shoot some film, and make something tangible. Stop worrying that you aren’t good enough because you’re not, none of us are. We should all be trying constantly to improve. But you are good enough to begin, good enough to learn more and to become better. There is no someday. There is only now. FP