Thursday, May 14, 2009

Film nostalgia

Earlier this month, I talked about digital versions of cross processing, and introduced the post with the question "When is the wrong color the right choice?" This led to some interesting comments about darkroom processing vs. digital processing and about the manipulation of color in either case. As a sort of experiment, before I left work today, I took a photo of my son, Lucas, silhouetted against a colorful art installation, and digitally altered it according to various film types and/or processes. I "processed" the original photo with NIK Color Efex Pro because the program faithfully emulates the contrast, grain, and color properties of a few dozen beloved film stocks—a digital approximation based on careful study (actual grain sampling, for example) of the analog originals. Strange, how I find myself learning more about the variation of film types now that I no longer use them. I had my favorite films, but I never took the same photo with a dozen different types for the sake of comparison. To do so now is really an exercise in nostalgia—especially as more and more films are discontinued.

A closer look at Velvia (#4 on grid)

Homage or Death Knell? Is that really the question?
Last August, I did a post about the disappearance of local orchards and the things that have replaced them: "Orchard" Elementary, "The Orchards" Shopping plaza, and so on. I begin to wonder if the digital reproduction of film isn't the same type of dual-edged homage—respect + replacement.

The faux polaroid version

But I have seen enough media hype to be wary of "the death of...." narratives. The number of hyperbolic photo magazine articles about digital replacing or not replacing film rivals the frequency of "get great abs" covers on men's magazines. The digital vs. film debate evokes strong opinions, but like the ab routines, it gets monotonous and tiresome pretty fast.

The grainy and gritty Superia 800

So what is the question?
In the context of this month's theme, the digital replication of different films made me appreciate the number of "right" answers possible to the question of color. The variations in color film emulation made me think about other color/contrast/grain (or any other selection of variables) recipes for digital color. The Color Efex software is largely based on darkroom techniques, but it also includes purely invented digital effects with names like "Duplex" and "Monday Morning." Similarly, Photoshop actions with names such as "Lord of the Rings" and "Daily Multi Vitamin" might be the digital equivalent of film stocks. I am quite surprised, in fact, that Fuji, Kodak, and the like have not got into the business of marketing digital "film" in the form of actions. Some have viewed memory cards as digital film, but the comparison ignores the identity of film types. Some memory cards may be faster than others, but the card won't change the look of the photo. Digital cameras offer "effects" and digital processing allows for infinite variations, but memory cards have no real identity. If film nostalgia stays strong among those shooting digital, maybe film companies will manufacture memory cards with unique in-card processing characteristics. Maybe one day people will have strong feelings about the saturation and contrast they get with a certain brand of memory card...

The unretouched original
I don't have many (other than I really should start going to be before 3 a.m.), but thinking about film nostalgia has led me to some ideas:
  • As a big fan of "The Five Obstructions," I like the idea of creating sets of actions as a self-imposed creative constraint.
  • I love the devotion to film emulation that I see in ColorEfex, but I also like the idea of creating fixed digital variations that have nothing to do with the darkroom.
  • Current digital effects tend toward the dramatic or trendy, but I wonder if subtle effects will become equally important as digital matures.
  • I don't know what "the question" is, but I am pretty sure that it is not "film or digital?"