The Analogue Revival: Memory, Nostalgia and Error in Contemporary Film Photography
Film photography, one would say, is seemingly at the peak of a cultural and aesthetic revival in fashion and fine art. Yes, arguably, it has always had its place in pop culture: from the iconic raw aesthetics of Juergen Teller’s Celine and Marc Jacobs campaigns of the early 2000s, to the haze of Neil Krug’s nostalgia laden imagery (think every picture of Lana Del Rey you’ve ever seen), film in its essence invokes a visceral response that has always solidified its relevance vis a vis digital photography. However, the dominance of digital since the millennium can hardly be overlooked, and the increasing permeation of film photography in the mainstream since then is a noteworthy and uncanny moment, a reactionary one which deserves a bit of thought.
In 2017, photographers such as Petra Collins (a Toronto native) who shoot exclusively in film are being picked up by major brands like Gucci, Adidas and Nordstrom and are being commissioned to photograph the likes of Kim Kardashian and Gigi Hadid. Just last May, Calvin Klein showcased a raw new ad campaign shot by photographer Harley Weir entirely on film. Colin Dodgson has photographed major campaigns for Zara, Carven, Vivienne Westwood Red Label, DKNY and Simone Rocha exclusively on film and Jamie Hawksworthe has done the same for Alexander Mcqueen, Miu Miu and Tiffany & Co. So the question is how and why is film reaching a distinct cultural apex?
In an era of digital modernity which has rendered error as a dirty word, we have come to be surrounded by perfection. Glossy imagery, photo-shopped to perfection bombards society day in and day out. Just as “Glitch Art” utilizes technological error, both intentional and unintentional, as a means of creative expression, film photography utilizes the chemical errors and imperfections of the of the celluloid to produce texture and colour without the precise manipulation of the digital. The film photography revival with this in mind starts to look more like a reactionary trend against the habitual and the predictable. The unpredictability of film as a medium gives the artist and their audience a chance to suspend expectation, and for a moment, to allow “nature” to take its course.
One must first look at the characteristics of film photography in relation to digital, in order to gain an understanding of the reasons for a film photography revival. The aesthetic dichotomy that reveals itself between digital and film points to a certain cultural moment we as a society are experiencing in the midst of the saturated digital landscape. Film photography is foremost a physical process: it’s tactility and texturization are something that cannot be organically produced in digital photography. The physicality of film photography engenders a more human quality to the process and the product. Film photography in its physicality is at the mercy of human and chemical error, and therefore is often imperfect. Grain, dust, light leaks and discolouration are all intrinsic to the medium. Just as the Dadaists of the early 20th century used “chance” as a method of artistic expression, so do today’s film photographers.
Olivier Zah, Editor in Chief of Purple Mag, comments on the film revival, “It is similar to what happened in music, with the resurgence of vinyl. Digital photography is sharper and cleaner; it captures a lot of information but it’s cold. Film gives you less information but it’s emotional information. And what do we care about, information or emotion? We care for the emotion. Film is very emotional. You can cry looking at a contact sheet, it is incredible.”
Film photography has an intrinsically nostalgic aesthetic and thus its revival can also be linked to a generational transformation that has taken place in the past 20 years. Millennials (many of which are spearheading the film revival) having firsthand experienced the switch from analogue to digital are revisiting the medium from their past. We spoke with Jenny Bukuroshi, a Toronto native and avid film photographer who echoes these sentiments on the analogue revival, “Film is experiencing a large come back based on the idea that millennials are the generation that experienced both pre and post internet lifestyles… we are advancing so quickly that film is something tangible and still that our generation craves.” She goes on to argue, “film photography has always projected a heightened sense of nostalgia. The graininess and aesthetic of the colours have a certain type of character that digital lacks.” In this sense, film generates memory in its very existence. Family photo albums with grainy disposables from childhood are very much the inspiration for a new generation of film photographers, who see a return to the medium as a means of preserving authenticity and memory.
So what draws us to film photography in 2017? One would say it might be simply the human factor. Film photography in its grainy imperfection recalls a candor that we seldom experience in modern life. An embodiment of memory itself, it is ephemeral and momentary, existing in a process that is immune to our tendency towards the perfect. It cannot be doctored or changed, just simply admired for what it is, in its disorderly imperfection it reminds us that we are, in fact, simply human.
Cody Rooney is a Glossi Mag contributor.
He is a photography aficionado, theatre school alumni, fashion enthusiast, avid Ariana Grande fan and lover of all things aesthetically pleasing.