London before Christmas; when the evenings drew in at 3.30pm and the air was crisp. A sunset that burnt the foggy sky orange and stained towers of glass into great strips of rhubarb glows through the grainy warmth of film. A sliver of amber light bleeds its way into a rendering of a Kew Garden greenhouse.
A trip to Winter Wonderland at 5 o’clock on a Sunday evening: children everywhere I turn, some screaming as they are whirled into the night, others smugly licking lollipops that obscure their faces and turn their tongues blue. I stand transfixed by the countless stalls tangled in fairy lights, selling bratwurst, chocolate hearts, and warm cider, all just out of reach. The incessant flashing lights advertising the most thrilling and exciting rides were my drug; I became crazed like the children that I dodged as I wove in and out of the crowds, knowing that the film would soak up the neon and celebrate the clarity of the bulbs in their defeat of darkness.
A bridge looked like a spider as I stood underneath it, narrowly avoiding a collision with an exasperated cyclist as I marveled at how the eight-legged creatures crawl into the most unlikely places.
Another trip to Pop Brixton produces a very different composition of plywood, bubble wrap, and paper lanterns. The light in which is exceptional, low and golden and beaming through the plastic walls. It was the greenhouse experience that was missing from that rainy afternoon in Kew.
I noticed that there is a lot of white space in the photographs. The four cameras I used seem to weave individual clouds into big cotton sheets that form perfect backdrops and compete for attention. A ship, the Wellington, sitting patiently on the Thames, is comforted and complemented by an equally white sky. The painted decoration of a building in the heart of Shoreditch comes alive against a benevolently blank background. A monument to the fire of London is welcomed into bleached flatness, enhancing the contrast between old stone and modern glass so characteristic of the city.
The contrast between the old and the new surrounding us makes film exciting and unique. With all this advanced technology at our fingertips, there is still a place for a process that was initiated in the early nineteenth century and continues to be a symbol of thoughtful quality, time, and effort. Digital is fantastic; the speed with which a beautiful image can be produced and the distances it can travel is breathtaking. Inventions in digital cameras have transformed the possibilities of photography, but they favour instantaneity over mystery. The delicious weight of secrets, warm and slightly tacky from the lab, is incomparable. There is first impatient expectation, waiting for the person who spent half the night at an event with your disposable to reveal themselves, or for the product of a wonderful sunrise or tropical holiday or city break or flower market to manifest itself in all its blurry, spontaneous glory. Then follow gasps of delight, initiating deep attachment to images you forgot you took.
Using a (disposable) film camera means you take a risk every time your finger presses down on the plastic shutter button, setting yourself up for joy and disappointment. More often than not a blank, glossy 6” x 4” stares back at you, achingly full of potential never to be realised. These instances are frustrating, but are almost like rites of passage for every camera that passes through your hands: they need to occur in order to appreciate the images that develop better than you could ever imagine possible. To get a grip on the fickle, stubborn, and often inexplicable nature of the film camera; what would be the fun in that? Film is about trial and error. Experimentation fails often, but when it goes right, it’s extraordinary.