Some use poetry, for others, movies, or even music and painting, but no matter which medium, art has been a testimony of history, a means of self-expression, but also a form of therapy. For 21-year-old New Zealand based photographer Isobel, photography helped her ground herself in her experiences. “In my day-to-day life photography helps me to feel more real,” she says, “I disassociate from reality on bad days and having moments captured of my life helps me to remember that I am not living in a mirage and that the love and pain I have experienced ground me and mold me into a unique person.”
Isobel, like many other visual artists, uses photography as a medium to express herself. Today, as technology constantly becomes more accessible and democratized, photography became available at the fingertips of any smartphone holder. But the more sophisticated the cameras evolved to be, the more megapixels phones could hold, the more films were being sold by big names of the analogue industry.
Parallel to this increasing “citizen photographer” phenomenon where everyone and anyone with a competent camera would be dubbed a photographer, another phenomenon appeared, or rather, reappeared:
The analogue wave came back, boosting sales of film, darkroom equipment, and instant photography. With the industry reporting a considerable increase in sales in the past years. Some studies indicate that the renewed interest in analogue photography in an age where high-resolution digital cameras are even present in our smartphones is purely aesthetic, that film's grainy and vintage look is the main reason for film's comeback. But for Isobel, and a multitude of other photographers, analogue “feels more like taking a breath, to be in the moment and concise about the settings and intentions.”
Instagram, albeit a purely digital platform, has also been a way to quantitatively measure the increased interest in film photography. The hashtag #filmisnotdead has 15million posts whereas #filmphotography has a staggering 21 million post. Youtube has also been a vehicle for the film renaissance, with an exponential number of Youtubers reviewing films, or bringing their viewers on an analogue photo walk. Film never left, it picked up again.
Besides its aesthetics, analogue photography, more than digital photography even, has been chosen by many as a healing process. For Lomographer Mark Prestage, aka markie, a 58 year-old photographer who works in computer-aided design, photography was a way to deal with mental health. "I got into photography about 5 years ago," he explains, "I was looking to do something creative to help me with my mental health. I went straight into analogue photography, I enjoy the way it slows you down when taking a picture, the fact that there are many different aspects that affect the final outcome, as you take the picture you are just one thing in the final picture."
As an assistant professor at NYU and the ICP teaching dark room courses mainly to teenagers, for Wesley Ham, analogue photography enables him to disconnect, in an absolute way. In a dark room where a single small light can have a tremendous impact, digital has no place. "I think slowing down and disconnecting from the world during the analogue process is good for anyone. When I have the opportunity to be in the darkroom alone it is almost a form of meditation for me," he says. "Also, the process of analogue requires much from the artist/photographer. There is not much that is automatic about it. So when you make a successful image or set of images you know that you created it, it wasn’t a digital process that just anyone can do with a phone… that gives you a sense of self-worth."
Giving value to each photograph taken, a weight, and a personality to it through analogue comes in contrast with the somewhat impersonal almost infinite way of shooting with digital, where a memory card can hold up to 10,000 pictures. "Shooting digital also doesn’t allow me to have time to forget a bit of what I shot as it’s so instant," Ham says. "In that way, digital photography is always a let down as the memories are too fresh and the representation that photographs give us of the world are never exact(analogue or digital). But with film, I have time to forget in my mind exactly what the scene was like and the photographs become better representations than my memory can supply. They become my memories."
The process of analogue photography itself, from the moment photographers choose the film, to shooting each frame and advancing the lever, and finally holding the negatives against the light has a natural and expected process to it.
When all other constants seem to be thrown out of the window, the traditional 9-to-5 office routine, physically holding a loved one close or the almost formalistic subway ride to work, these brief linear processes or routines come as comfort. At a time where screens took over the professional, personal, and even replaced the social relationships humans have, analogue processes are welcomed arms wide open by anyone in need of a digital detox.
As opposed to uploading a picture on social media with filters or shooting, analogue photography falls into an almost sacred category. The same ritualistic analogy goes for other analogue media, such as vinyl, where the routine of picking a record, placing the needle, and changing sides compare to that of picking a film to shoot with, or leafing through a book, turning the pages, and adding a bookmark.
The processes of focus and ritual are proven to be capital to mindfulness and a way to alleviate anxiety or other mental illnesses. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the “structure, regularity and predictability” of linear structure helps center and provide security, explained Roger D. Fallot in Spirituality and Religion in Recovery from Mental Illness, as quoted in NAMI’s study. “Many recovery narratives describe the important capacity of such rites to organize experience, provide meaning, offer trustworthy and safe social engagement, and express core beliefs.”
At a relatively cheaper cost than digital cameras, a grainy aesthetic appealing to many, and possessing a tangibility that social media lacks, are amongst the many reasons said to have contributed to this revival and interest in analogue photography.
A decade after Instagram launched, the platform counts 4.5 billion users, and more than 10 million posts uploaded every day. This, combined with other social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and the now-viral Tik Tok, people spend 2 hours and 23 minutes per day on average on a screen, excluding work hours according to Broadband search data, a service that analyzes data from governmental sources. Although more research is needed to scientifically link the cause-and-effect relationship between social media and mental health, it has been proven that the considerable increase in mental health issues does coincide with the rise of social media, and increased screen time. This phenomenon is called "Digital Fatigue." The term is scarcely used and often addresses professionals in the workplace that require multiple apps or software, but the growing place digital platforms and social media occupy in our daily lives increases the risk for digital fatigue.
According to the National Mental Health Association (NAMH), the increase in "adolescent Mental Depressive Episodes began after 2011, concurrent with the increased ownership of smartphones indicates an increase in prevalence."
As a response to this influx and gigantic amount of digital information ingested per day, more people have been turning to analogue photography and other analogue means as a way to pay attention to the physical, visual, and tangible sensations digital doesn’t offer, in addition to learning how to pay attention to one task at a time. In a time when memory cards offer tens of thousands of pictures to be taken without compromising, choosing to step back and have only 36, 24, 12, or 10 or even just 1 shot at a time is a new experience, that comes as an exercise in mindfulness and a response to the amount of information bombarded on a daily basis. A means to "unplug" from the digital reality we are faced with everyday.
Analogue Photography isn't the only medium experiencing a comeback. For instance, In 2018, more than 10 million individual vinyls were sold. In 2018 as well, the University of Arizona published a study that showed why millennials were less likely to favor e-books over physical, paper printed books. The reason? Holding a book, or a record and a negative for that matter, provides a sense of ownership that digital media cannot provide. Not only can the reader physically turn a page, but they can also place the book in a bookshelf, pin an Instant picture to a wall, or place a record as a decorative piece of art. The sale of records also experienced an incredible increase for the 14th year in a row, according to Statista, a data analysis platform. Between 2018 and 2019, vinyls saw a whooping 14 percent increase in the US, an incredibly high number in a time where streaming is the main release platform for most musicians.
Tangible art allows the brain to physically feel a process. The hand-eye coordination developed by sculpting clay, for example, helps in problem resolution development in children. The intention of buying a record with only four songs, looking through racks of vinyls, and getting dirty and dusty to find a specific song, is the same as the purpose and patience of analogue photography, weighing each shot: they can both be compared to meditation, forcing to slowdown, and focus on the here and now.
Besides the near-ritualistic act behind analogue media, the intentionality of them appeals to an audience that is fed everything at the tip of their fingers. Streaming music and editing apps cost virtually nothing, and most users don't think twice before picking a filter or a playlist. But with analogue, many photographers emphasize the limited number of shots per film, which gives a purpose to each photograph and requires intentionality. Listening to a record requires proper turntables and the setting to hold the material. This approach gives purpose to both the creator or consumer and the result or medium, producing a feeling of fulfillment.
For Isobel, the intentionality of a moment she captures enables her to weigh a moment before capturing, enjoying both the moment, the process of taking the picture, and the picture itself. "When I was only taking photos on my digital camera I would move around very quickly and take 100 or so photos on a day spent out," she says. "With film, I love the slower pace of it to capture a photo with meaning, it feels more like taking a breath, to be in the moment and concise about the settings and intentions."
But analogue and digital don't need to live in opposition to each other in today's world. Like everything else, consuming both media in moderation and complementary to each other can increase and stimulate the creative mind. Today, in addition to the traditional darkroom process of bathing, fixing, and developing pictures, photographers can scan their films, reducing the carbon footprint of already very heavy chemicals. Instead of hunting down a gramophone, records can be played on speakerphones and transformed in mixes shared online. Books can be previewed online and ordered physically. The advancement in today's technologies made it possible for analogue and digital to exist and balance out each other's pros and cons.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan, historian and mass communication theorist, coined the expression "The Medium is the Message." Well before the dichotomy of digital against analogue, the choice between CDs or streaming, McLuhan identified the importance of the medium used to convey a message. More than the message itself, the medium carries a weight and a meaning that cannot be reproduced. A link to a song and a physical record of the same song result in the same notes, melody, and lyrics being played out, but the intentions behind it carry the weight. A portrait taken with a smartphone and one captured on a 4x5" negative show the same face, expression, and subject, but while one will get buried between screenshots, selfies, and snaps, the other was produced, stored, and would be shared with intention.
"There is not much that is automatic about analogue photography," says Wesley. "So when you make a successful image or set of images you know that you created it, it wasn’t a digital process that just anyone can do with a phone… that gives you a sense of self-worth."
Thank you, Wesley Ham, Mark Prestage, and Isobel for sharing with us your thoughts on analogue photography!