At the moment, the aesthetics I find scrolling through my Instagram feed aren’t that different from flipping through my parent’s photo albums. Grainy film photography, Super 8 footage, and glossy polaroids fill my home page. Though I’m flicking my thumb over an impossibly clear touch screen, it feels like those snaps could be from Summer 2022 or Summer 1987. I can even recognise my Dad’s dusty mullet in a few of those pics. Everything really does roll back around.
‘Roll back around’ may even be too conservative a description for this resurgence. #35mm now returns 35.8 million results on Instagram, and the more assertive tag #FilmIsNotDead returns 22.4 million. Kodak Alaris has noted the increasing demand for analog photography forms, and started to reproduce the once beloved Ektachrome film in 2018, in both 35mm and Super 8 formats. The products had originally been discontinued in 2013, due to declining sales.
In the past few months, that growing demand has become especially apparent in Aotearoa. With a nationwide film shortage, photography enthusiasts and professionals alike were left to scrounge over a few remaining rolls while shipments were massively delayed. Thankfully, our local film shop, Junktion on Karangahape Road, proclaimed that the “NZ film shortage is finally over” on the 23rd March. Finally, edgy hipsters will fill K’ Road again, snapping blurry pics of pasta (it’s me, I’m edgy hipsters).
However, that film photography hobby does not come cheap. Some relatively unremarkable point and shoot models go for $200 or $300 dollars on TradeMe. Please note, that does not include the time investment or stress factor; the two hours spent cursing out the bidder you’re rallying against, and tearing your hair out over every dollar the auction racks up. The costs don’t stop there—an average 35mm roll goes for about $20 at Junktion, and developing that film can cost $10-30 each time (Toi Tumara and Red Dragon Film Lab, both with drop-off points on K’Road, are about the cheapest around).
So, at that high cost, why is this business booming? Why might we be keen to return to analog formats of photography, when the average smartphone or digital camera can capture shiny, bright, high quality images at lightspeed?
UoA professor Dr. Allan Cameron researches a variety of subjects relating to time, technology and media aesthetics, and considers the resurgence of this analog photographic format. He notes that there’s an “interesting phenomenon, this kind of afterlife of technology, that things we’d assumed had gone, or were going, like the vinyl record or film photography, through this cyclical process keep coming back.” He explains that though we may see technological developments that could make these analog methods ‘obsolete’, the “technologies are enmeshed with the culture and with cultural memory… the place it holds culturally that leads people to want to bring things back.”
So, in a time where university students, for example, are studying online for eight hours a day, deeply immersed in a digital space, there might be a cultural context and memory around the analog camera that’s attractive. Perhaps the film camera makes us think about a time with slower, more deliberate engagements with technology. Dr. Cameron highlights that there’s a “general sense that everything is dissolving into the Cloud, because so many of our experiences are coming to us through the same screens… you lose the distinctive experience around a particular cultural object.” Instead of requiring us to engage with yet another glaringly bright screen, film photography allows for a more direct, tangible experience. Dr. Cameron explains that we engage with analog technologies “in a really direct, embodied way, it’s about picking up the object… and actually having a tactile experience with it as well.”
Tasman Clark, a UoA alumnus, describes having an intensely tactile experience with his polaroid camera, which resulted in one of his favourite shots. He explains that the polaroid was “ripped out of [his] camera and the chemicals kinda screwed up to look like that! I really like it. looks like a beach, or an avalanche, or something. Weird art.” Obviously, there’s something specific about the colours, and aesthetics that attracts Tasman to this photo, but he highlights his physical engagement with the technology.
Rachel Sung, another student photographer, explains her experience trialling a new analog medium, creating the header image for this article. She explains “I visited a friend in Ann Arbor Michigan in the fall and borrowed a medium format film camera to experiment with. We visited an arcade and I was enraptured by the aesthetics of the different gaming machines there; I spent a large portion of time taking long exposure photographs as opposed to playing the actual games.” Again, Rachel’s interaction with the camera emphasises her direct, physical engagement with the technology, as well as an appreciation for vintage aesthetics.
Film photography is a mode of production so separate from the hyper-digital activities that we engage with in our everyday studies and work life. It’s pulling on a specific cultural frame, context, and physical actions that might be refreshing or even enviable in our contemporary times.
The aesthetic appreciations that Tasman and Rachel have both mentioned here, as well as the general longing after film grain throughout these communities, is something Dr. Cameron also highlights. He explains that people not only engage with the cultural or social frames around the analog technologies, but will also “make arguments based on aesthetics. They’ll say ‘It looks different on film.’ Famously, people talk about analog technologies as having a warmth to them, being more human.”
The fondness for this aesthetic ‘warmth’, the graininess of film, the distinct depth of field, it’s all tied to an appreciation and longing for some mysterious other time. Dr. Cameron explains that this warmth “is a value that we attach to analog technology retrospectively, so our view of media technologies is always changing with each generation, and the meaning that we attach to analog technology is a meaning that we construct specifically in relation to the digital. It’s absolutely to do with context.” The fervour for film is also about reflecting on the time period before digitisation, and that warmth exists due to the distance we now have to those analog technologies (and from the time period itself).
The longing for simpler times, however, isn’t really a nostalgia that’s qualified by the actual existence of those times—it’s more a mode of escapism based on contemporary dissatisfaction. We have to be careful that we remain critical while approaching aesthetics with a nostalgic longing. Dr. Cameron explains that nostalgia “can go in a couple of different directions, like it can be very conservative… maybe that can be attached to a conservatism that is political or social.” However, he suggests that this longing for change can also be productive, and progressive as “ the nostalgic has this thing of wait a minute, let’s slow things up a bit. Let’s not lose this connection with history and the past. There’s always these two sides to the nostalgic, which makes things really interesting.”
The allure of the film camera, and the warm, grainy images it creates, is especially strong in the age of Snapchat. It’s a welcome technological change from our screens, which might have become anxiety-inducing with their university tasks, LinkedIn network requests, and unwanted, invasive DMs. I like the way that film photography makes me wonder outside of my own small world, and the way it makes me question the necessity of digitising every single thing. The idea that it signals a want to slow down is one I would welcome. So, #FilmIsNotDead, optimistically speaking, because of the future possibilities it might represent. Maybe we’ll bring back the fax machine next, so we can actually get away from our desks for 30 seconds.