I got a link. “Dan, you are going to love this.” And then I saw the title “X…on film.” The name of what was “on film,” will remain mysterious as it would be far too easy to find the film I am referring to, and my goal isn’t to hurt someone’s feelings. My goal is to make you think. When I see anything listed as “on film,” I always wonder one thing. Why? Why is the means mentioned in the story other than it attracts fellow film users. Maybe that is enough now, maybe the traffic born from “on film,” is the entire goal because when you look at the actual work being produced, well, it leaves a lot to desired.
When I seem films “on film,” the film itself is always better than the actual film being showcased. There are snappy titles and transitions, great sound, beautiful color grading and all the right cuts and chops and spins and twirls. But when the films slow and the stills are shown I always find myself saying “That’s it?” Landscapes, old buildings, random street, cars on street, someone at a cafe, sunset, sunrise, a twilight carnival. I know you know what I am referring to. Content.
These films remind me how lucky I am. I went to photography school. Photography school itself is a widely misunderstood endeavor in the DIY, learn via Youtube, modern era. Many people associate photography school with the technical side of photography. Wow, four years learning f-stops and shutter speeds. Who needs that? I have tons of followers, so I must be really good. And my comment section tells me how great I am. “Sick capture.”
Let me hit the reset button. My degree in photojournalism was a four-year degree, but the entire extent of technical learning was reserved for the first two weeks. Two weeks. That’s it. And it went something like this. Wet darkroom, 4×5, newspaper deadline processing and printing, color transparency. Done.
The rest of the years were spent in LEARNING about photography, photo-history, and perhaps most importantly, learning context in regard to what’s good and what’s not. The rest of the time was also about being on assignment, working with deadlines and being under pressure. At the center of this last nugget is the critique. And this is where these “on film” photographers would be greatly served.
A critique is basically you putting your work on a wall in front of both faculty and your peers. Remember the film school scene in the movie “The Doors?” Morrison shows his film and his fellow students say “You suck, the film sucks, that’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” And then his future bandmate leans forward says something along the lines of “gutsy film man.” Ya, critique can be kind of like that.
But here is where good faculty comes in. The faculty steers the critique back to the truth of what lives or dies on that wall. For me, both positive and negative criticism come with the feeling of a bee sting. Shoot, edit, sequence, make darkroom prints then tack them on the wall and wait for the feeling of those tiny legs on your arm.
The faculty has both training and context because they know their history and have been looking at good and bad photography for decades. And they know all the tricks. Remember, a roll of E6 plus processing was more than a meal at Uncle Han’s Kitchen. So, when hungry enough I could convince myself that my already exposed film had some hidden treasure I could resurrect and pawn off as a good image. That way I could enjoy that delicious egg roll. The faculty was there to ask “How hungry were you?” Followed by “This isn’t there yet.”
Also remember, this was decades before the “Snowflake Generations,” of today that can’t seem to handle confrontational feedback. The term “snowflake generation” was one of Collins English Dictionary‘s 2016 words of the year. Collins defines the term as “the young adults of the 2010s, viewed as being less resilient and more prone to taking offense than previous generations”
There were plenty of times the feedback came in violent fashion, especially when one moved outside the education system and into the real-world of working photographers. “If you don’t get this picture, don’t bother coming back,” came across my pager more than once. “I don’t care about you or your stories,” an old editor spit into my face as I tried to get my first internship. Another photographer threw a bag of gear at my head. It goes on and on and on. We either grew thick skin or we left the business. And ultimately, I don’t fault these folks, not at all. Why? Because they were attempting to do something impossible in the age of “good enough.” They were attempting to maintain a certain level of quality. (They failed.)
The Internet killed that idea. And then social media peed on the grave. But the critique remains one of the only things we have left to combat the malaise of the content world. I’m amazed how many young photographers I meet who have never had their work examined by someone with knowledge of photography and photo history. Internet comments don’t serve as a meaningful sounding board. Post something direct and face the ban, the block, the castigation.
So when I see these “on film” films I consistently find myself thinking “This work would have been culled out during the first critique session.” It’s not to say the work wouldn’t lead to something else, something better. Most likely, it would have, but presenting the first take as the final product only diminishes the impact of photography in general. As does Instagram, but that’s not stopping anyone. Also, focusing on the technique of “on film” perpetuates one reality that has held photography back since its inception. “Photographers are just a bunch of geeks.” We’ve all heard the cliche about “Nobody talks about what paint a painter uses.” Well, it’s true. So why do we continue to do it?
Albania on the Fuji XH2? Why on Earth would I do that? Especially considering that most Americans seem to think Albania is in Russia. There are MUCH larger fish to fry than what medium I used to make the pictures. And speaking of Albania, I’m there to teach, so my personal work isn’t top of the list. The ONLY reason I’ll show what I produce is because I can use the work to help others learn about self-publishing.
Getting your work critiqued isn’t that difficult. Numerous organizations hold portfolio reviews throughout the year. You can also do this online. I entered a Lensculture contest a few years back just to see what the review was like. It was legit. Seriously legit. The person who reviewed my work and provided feedback was a high-level professional who drilled down and didn’t pull punches. But my guess is that a lot of folks don’t want to know the quality of their work. Why “suffer” when you can just bask in the glow of online comments. Why learn your work is derivative or a flat out copy of someone who already exists? That might suck.
All of us want to be original. Few of us are. Few of us ever will be. (I’m not in case you were wondering.) But there are ways to better understand the level of what we produce. Knowing where we are, knowing what’s good or bad, is how we ultimately protect what’s left of photography. I’ve had some of the most memorable moments of my entire photographic life at reviews. Real breakthroughs. Real insight that showed me my own work in ways I would have never seen on my own. Don’t be afraid. Just watch Gallipoli and know that at some point you have to leave the trench.