Film Scans

In this accelerating digital age, working with film to create still photographs is becoming an act of defiance against the relentless progress of time and technology, just as quixotic as the conception of photography’s ambition to preserve a morsel of history against the erosion of temporal entropy. In an ontological-poetic perspective, if not a practical one, the act makes perfect sense. Photography has been since the first fading alchemical experiment, literally, a struggle to defy the corrosion of time against the diminishing moments of our lives, stuck, as we live them, on a one way road to oblivion, with no exit. The shadows of our visual perceptions, fixed in silver provide, if not a stoppage, then at least a radical slowing of our experience of times’ merciless brutality. Though I’ve been a photographer my entire adult life, sometimes I think about the wisdom of “primitive” tribes reputed to fear photography as an unnatural stealing of souls. There is always a cost to meddling with the natural order of things.

Maybe by attempting to capture our moments on film, we are doing the opposite: torturing a sweet infinitesimal moment into a frozen eternity, like Han Solo encased screaming in an endless Carbonite purgatory. Barthes mused upon photography’s unholy pact with Death, seeing it’s shadow behind every photograph. He didn’t live to see the digital age, but had he done so, he’d probably have seen the Grim Reaper oozing bit rot through the cracks between every pixel. As photographers we are all caught in the crossroads like Robert Johnson making his deal with the Devil, by heading neither right nor left, forward nor back, but suspended always in a vampiric moment that cheats death, but doesn’t live either.

Those of us photographic practitioners caught awkwardly between the Age of Silver and the Age of Silicon have our own version of horror even more chilling than the contemplation of the suspension of time’s acid corrosion of the soft flesh of our youth on the way to becoming the dust of the forgotten. I’m talking about the analog-digital hybrid information age ditch-digging labor of digitizing film with a scanner. In this silver paper cash poor age, the expediency of scanning film has for me, largely replaced the dark art of silver printing. Silver emulsion paper has become just too expensive for me to work with regularly any more, as well as the associated costs of maintaining a darkroom, considering that I have already invested in digital tools that can coexist in a space that I’d need for an office anyway. Beyond it’s superficial economy, however, an A/D workflow has its own cost. Whatever time I steal from the forces of Darkness, I know I’ll pay back a hundredfold in endless hours awaiting the bit by byte digitization of a split second notable perhaps only for the bad luck of being captured in the camera’s trap. As much as I’d love to release those moments back into the wild of careless oblivion, and my butt from its office chair prison, something that’s beginning to look more and more like a life’s work awaits in the twin black steel cabinets looming behind me- taller than me, wider than they are tall, stacked shelf after shelf, black three ring binder after black three ring binder filled with page upon page of moments frozen photographically in silver and dye. Even given a team of interns, a Macarthur Genius Grant, and gifted with the elixir of immortality, a bank of scanners, a chorus of angels, and a river of coffee, it would be a very long time before this body of work sees the light of day in its entirety. By that time, there will be no more elephants to remember the lives and times memorialized on those sheets and strips of film.

From my current point of view, unfortunately, no cavalry of angels or interns appear massed on the horizon to rescues my tired eyes from the task of contemplating and digitizing my filmy moments past. Nature would argue that these moments passed for a reason, but I’ve never been one to back down from a good argument, even if I know I’m on the losing end. I have no illusion that I’m going to win this one, either, but rather than wallow in nihilistic Sisyphean despair at a task of my own choosing, I’ve decided to just get down to work, and share with whomever cares to look, the slow and painful accumulation of pixels as they emerge from my scanner. This is a work that will be in progress as long as I am able. Please check back often, and feel free to leave a comment if you are so inspired, if only to shame me into carrying on. This task may well finish me before I finish it, and from here I have no certainty that it is even worth doing. Some encouragement might make the journey sweeter. Leonard Cohen, as usual, has something worth remembering to say on this subject:

Before I can discard the verse, I have to write it… I can’t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.

I don’t even know if I have any gems locked in my tower of film, or if they are just ordinary stones. I’ll leave that for you to decide. In any case, polishing to a shine will have to wait. Consider this a photographer’s sketch book, or a work in progress, rather than a final edit. I’m going to need some help for that part of the job. Now accepting applications…

This first set of pictures is from my first trip to India, taken sometime in the summer of 2002 on the road between someplace hot and someplace dry in a Rajasthani village named Bellamy. I have forgotten the names of many places I’ve photographed, and can’t find this one on a map, but for some reason the name stuck with me. It wasn’t a scheduled stop at all, not that I scheduled much of anything on that journey, just a spontaneous moment of curiosity that inspired me to badger our taxi driver to pull off the highway. Maybe because it wasn’t on the usual tourist circuit, the villagers were extra friendly, and seemed just as curious about the strange visitors to their quiet village as we were about them.

1 comment

Ann Chowdhury

I just discovered these pictures Neil. They are wonderful and so different from your big city ones. The people all look so friendly, so open but at the same time shy and obviously interested in you. I wonder how they would react to seeing these results. You have such an intimate rendering of their lives and I think they your pictures are so worthwhile. I just want to keep on looking at them. You have done a wonderful job and I’m glad you asked the taxi to stop! I think you bring to the rest of the world glimpses of our fellow travelers through life we would not otherwise be aware of and it’s enriching to know they are out there. They look pleased and interested to have had you for a short time in their lives and will probably always remember the day you passed by,

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