Documenting today

20090720 TMax3200 Zoneplate and Megan Pinhole experiments14mgs

I commented on Colin Jago’s blog the other day on the possible inappropriateness of using film – or my thoughts are more specifically about specifically 35mm black and white film – to document the world today. Although I haven’t settled this yet, my thoughts were triggered by the launch of the Olympus EP-1, which I thought might be a perfect camera for a coupl of documentary projects I have in mind. Now having tried one briefly I’m not so sure, but some things have crossed my mind as I think about the project ideas:

– Our view of earlier times is very strongly coloured (sorry) by the nature of any images and particularly photographs that remain from those eras. Up until the 50s the world was grainy and black and white – see Robert Franks ‘The Americans’. The 70s are said to have been the Kodachrome era, again the look dates the era and inflences our view the world then.

– Although film has changed and improved, grain remains. If I use film to document lives aorund me now, it immediately takes the viewer back in time when they view prints. If I use black and white, again there is a message about the era and subject, reflecting the way black and white film has beenn used.

– Our view of now is influenced by images of the world as well as the world itself, and most of these images are digital. Many in fact are never even seen on paper, but on screens. If we want people to see what we see as contemporary, and people in the future to see us as we see ourselves, we need to use images that are consistent with this. If we choose not to use digital images then we are in danger of presenting a view of our world that will be interpreted as being from an earlier time. Two of my potential projects, being centred on the lives of an allotment association and a church, could very easily be turned into something that appears to come, nostalgically, from the past rather than being about the lives of people now.

These are just a  few thoughts, and may not stop me using some film at least for the projects. At the very least, though, they act as a warning to consider very carefully how the medium will impact on the message. A couple of examples that spring to mind are the work of James Ravilious and Kate Bellis. Kate Bellis’ project, ‘Gathering‘, in particular was undertaken at a time when digital was a viable alternative to film. Yet both of these photographers were documenting old ways of life that appear, from the outside at least, to be under threat. Again, this has become a part of 35mm black and white films message.

Some thoughts for contemplation.



3 Responses to “Documenting today”

  1. Good thoughts. I think of B&W as a timeless medium that “levels the playing” for photographs where subjects from different times can be compared more equally – it removes the “color of the era” from the comparison. However, heavy GRAIN in B&W images can lend a sense of era. There are many B&W photos that don’t carry heavy grain and therefore can lend themselves to timeless comparisons – even with digital I think.

  2. Hi Ed

    Just back from holiday and settling back to work.

    I keep wondering about this subject, in part because of the relationship to some tings I am wanting to do and am doing. For the last two weeks holiday I have only used a 35mm film rangefinder and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed having a small light camera with manual controls. That in itself is perhaps enough to persuade me to simply use ‘what I like and am comfortable with’ to quote a good friend.

    Whilst I agree to some extent that B&W can be timeles, the tonality of silver halide and look of prints has an immediate old fashioned look to my wife – even if she doesn’t know where the source image is from.


  3. […] about the use of black and white in contemporary documentary work. This is a question that I have considered repeatedly over the last couple of years. For information, the above image is simply a colour version of the […]

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