“Why do you only photograph in film?”
This succinct, but super relevant question is one that I encounter frequently but have an unusually difficult time answering. I recently found myself in this predicament once again after I told a photo-friend that I was heading out to East Texas for a few days to photograph small towns over the holiday. Their response was an underwhelming one, after I told them I’d be shooting exclusively in film -- “Oh, that’s right. You only shoot film.”
To set the record straight, I don’t only shoot my photographs in film, but it has been my unwavering medium of choice by far, since all the way back to my junior high school days. With all things film, vinyl, & vintage at an unprecedented high in popularity, people are curious and skeptical of the avid film photographer’s motives in an age where digital is cheap and instantly gratifying.
So why then? Is it because shooting film is hip? Is it because it’s trendy?
Instinctively I want to go with a cop-out answer. Something like, “Well, I did it first, way before it was cool,” which is a total bullshit answer - completely unremarkable at best. No one should exceptionally care that I learned to shoot pictures on film, and that my current projects are all made using a 4x5 view camera. In all honesty, it took me years to actualize a truthful answer to “Why film?” Beyond discovering the technical and artistic advantages of shooting medium and large-format film over digital, I finally landed on the one-word, million dollar answer to shut up all the skeptics, the scrutinizers, & the haters - it’s ritual.
It’s a weighty, loaded word that means something entirely differently for every person under the burning sun. We dunk our babies in holy water, pop corks and say cheers. We hold hands before eating meals, and bring food during times of grief and suffering.
The ritual of shooting film is tedious and often unpragmatic. It’s risky and expensive, delicate and finicky. But most importantly, above all that jumble, it is romantic, nostalgic, and extremely tangible. It’s the whole thing.
You buy the film, and you load the film. You take care in each shot because you are limited to a roll rather than the endless abyss of a memory card. You listen, engage, and interact, rather than fire rapidly and move on. You are left with the allure and mystery of the images to come. Your film sits undeveloped for sometimes weeks at a time, until - ahh yeah, that’s right! That little roll, perfectly sealed, shot, and corked up. It comes back to the forefront of your focus, and it’s finally time to develop that little unassuming nugget, filled with the images of I can’t even remember exactly what now, but I know it must be something great otherwise I would not have made it a point to take a picture.
And then there is the anticipation of picking up the film, and then scanning the film. And after that it’s sitting in a coffee shop for endless hours, tweaking colors and cleaning thick coats of dust and debris in Photoshop as the negatives finally start coming to life.
And this lil’ rant wasn’t meant to sound as full of cheese or drama as it might come across to some. This is my slightly sugarcoated love affair with the ritual of shooting film. It is a very lengthy and intensely personal experience for me, and I just love it all.
That's Liz, on Christmas Eve.
So that being said, how strange it is that a person with such an apparent respect for ritual should find themselves disregarding it almost entirely on Christmas Day - one of the most celebrated, ritualistic, & holy days of the year.
This year on Christmas morning, I found myself in a very peculiar and unexpected place. I was walking through a small cemetery in Athens, Texas with my good friend Liz Moskowitz - a place where we have no friends or relatives buried, or any connection to the city at all really. We were driving around the deserted Athens town square when we passed by this grassy patch of earth, speckled with tombstones and several limply waving confederate flags pressed into the dirt. At the beginning of this trip, I made a half-hearted request to stop at small-town cemeteries but I didn’t expect us to actually drive up to one so conveniently. I guess when you’re visiting a town with a population of less than 13,000, the possibilities of coming across things are inevitable - not if, but rather when.
We started to wander around the mostly empty gravesites, and I came across an older woman who was knee-deep in dirt kneeling beside a grave. She was digging holes and planting a bounty of artificial flowers in every bright hue and shade imaginable. I said hello to her. “No english,” she hastily replied. And then I made a picture-taking motion because the bird’s eye image of her surrounded by artificial flora was just screaming to be photographed. But she shook her head vigorously and I quickly walked away, embarrassed and ashamed that I had bothered her during a time of intense grief.
I started to scold myself for seeping my insensitive voyeurism into the energy of this memorial site - and on top of that, on Christmas Day. I never visit cemeteries mainly because my immediate family is buried in Poland, and because for the most part, no one very close to me has died yet. But Christmas just seemed like such a powerful day of the year to pay respects to loved ones and I was curious to see what kind of people it brought out to a place of memory.
It was at that point that we met Gary - an older man in a tucked-in shirt and cowboy hat. He was lingering by one of the more elaborate tombstones - one with a sitting bench, and a decorative cast of a saddle and set of cowboy boots. We sparked a conversation with Gary almost immediately. We learned he was visiting his wife Freda’s gravesite. It is also the spot where Gary will eventually be buried too. Gary tells us that Freda died two years ago from breast cancer, that she was beloved by people in city of Athens, and that he mostly visits her grave alone. Gary tells us she was his soulmate. His demeanor was kind and calm, and I think he mostly just wanted to talk to somebody about his wife.
He agreed to be photographed, and I agreed to email him his photographs. I did just that the other day but still haven’t heard back yet from Gary. I am anxious to hear if he likes the pictures. Most of all I hope that they bring him some type of comfort in memory.
Gary Lee Baker, b. August 17, 1955 -
Nick and Tanya, Christmas morning