Thursday, 3 January 2013

In Praise of Grain

Olympus OM-10 / Vivitar 70-210mm f/3.5
Kodak TMAX 400

One positive consequence of the decline of film photography has been a flood of cheap old film equipment on the second-hand market. And not just box brownies and plastic instamatics, but Nikon F3s and Hasselblad 500s - real grown-up cameras that went to war and photographed Twiggy. When they were new people dreamed about owning them, and travelling the world for National Geographic, or being asked by the editor of Sports Illustrated to spend a few weeks in the Bahamas shooting the annual swimsuit issue. Or perhaps you were going to take publicity photographs on a movie set, or you were going to follow Aerosmith on tour. If only you had a proper camera.

And so a while back I picked up a battered old Mamiya RB67. It sold for $800 or so in the late 1970s, including the lens. Nowadays people can hardly give them away. They're awkward to send by mail, because they're bulky and weigh 6lb. The RB67 is a medium format camera that uses 120 rollfilm, of a kind the local grocery store probably never sold; you had to order it from a magazine or go to a camera shop in the city. Medium format was special in the 1970s and 1980s. The film was bigger than 35mm and the equipment was big and expensive too. You really had to want it, but if you turned up to shoot a wedding with a Bronica or a Mamiya - or a Hasselblad, if you were loaded - people paid attention to you, because you were obviously the real deal. Not some silly amateur.

The RB67 wasn't used much for weddings, though, it was a studio camera, born to live on a tripod. Born to shoot studio portraits and those awful 70s cookery books. Six pounds of metal, rubber, glass and plastic - mostly metal - with an enormous shutter that makes a loud THWACK when it closes. Every frame is an event, and when you're shooting with the RB67 you only get ten shots per roll. Ten big, detailed shots; the camera's 6x7cm negative has almost five times the surface area of 35mm film. The slides look fantastic on a light table and once upon a time a picture editor would have gone ga-ga over them.

Mamiya RB67
Fuji Velvia 50

And there's no grain. If you want to fill a double-page magazine spread with a single image, you have to enlarge the negative, but the more you enlarge the negative, the more you enlarge the grain; and so the bigger the negative the better the results. The most exacting landscape photographers - and the lucky men and women who shot Playboy centrefolds - generally used cumbersome wooden view cameras that took astonishingly clear 8x10 inch film plates.

But there's the thing. When people think of film, they think of film's flaws. Looking at the images that my RB67 produces I can't help but feel a twinge of disappointment. The pictures are smooth and clean, just like digital photographs. Sharp details, good saturation, no flaws, no grain. They look too perfect, too clinical.

Mamiya RB67
Fuji Velva 50

There was always a tension between different film formats. Some photographers moved freely between them. The Richard Avedons and David Baileys of this world shot their studio portraits with smooth medium format but were not averse to getting their hands dirty with 35mm. Don McCullin and Cartier-Bresson and Eugene Smith used grainy, scuzzy 35mm, because the smaller cameras could go places their large format brothers could not. The images they sent back from Vietnam and Sudan - and the streets of Paris and Pittsburgh - set the visual template for a generation's reality, just as the sharp perfection of colour magazine adverts became shorthand for fantasy. Robert Capa's images of D-Day were shot with a 35mm Contax rangefinder in the murk and gloom of a stormy June morning, and the negatives were famously ruined during the development process. Nonetheless the ghostly, chaotic images that survived were desperately real. No-one ever questioned their veracity; not like they questioned Joe Rosenthal's photograph of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima. Rosenthal used a Speed Graphic press camera, shooting 5x4 inch sheet film. His image of the flag has an unreal clarity that only served to fuel accusations the whole thing had been posed in a quiet moment, away from danger.

In good light a digital image possesses a neutrality that technical film photographers of the 20th Century would have killed for. Kodak and Fuji spent decades trying to squeeze the look out of photography, but never quite achieved it; and the most popular films - Fuji Velvia, Kodachrome, Tri-X - all had a distinctive combination of contrast, tonality, and grain that film photographers could recognise instantly. On an objective level, digital gives the photographer a neutral base on which to weave his Photoshop magic, and yet the plethora of cameras with built-in photographic filters, the Instagrams and Picmonkeys, all fill a great yawning desire to make the blandness of accurately-captured reality sing with colour and quirks. Grain makes real life look like a movie.

A heavily retouched photograph
taken with a medium format camera; it would be boring otherwise

Or at least it did, once. Hollywood has had a hate-love-hate relationship with grain. Classic Hollywood films were generally shot on well-lit soundstages, but the rise of New Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s brought with it a run-and-gun aesthetic that emphasised shooting on location with minimal equipment. The leading film stocks of the day were still relatively slow, so in imperfect light cinematographers had to underexpose when shooting and overdevelop in the processing, which made the grain almost tactile. For The French Connection, Manhattan, The Taking of Pelham 123, Owen Roizman and Gordon Willis were prepared to embrace grain in pursuit of their artistic vision, with the happy side-effect of making those films seem like news footage of a fantasy. New Hollywood was built on imperfections.

But with the rise of hi-def TV and Blu-Ray, Hollywood was faced with a quandry. Hi-def formats render imperfections with a clarity hitherto unavailable in the home. Grain can be smoothed away with Digital Noise Reduction (DNR), and when done well DNR can produce clean results without sacrificing the original look. James Cameron's Aliens - a famously grainy film - underwent a remarkably sympathetic restoration for its 2011 Blu-Ray release, but when done poorly the results resemble a cartoon. The initial Blu-Ray releases of Patton and Predator were widely criticised for transforming George C Scott and Arnold Schwarzenegger into plastic-faced showroom dummies, and the original Blu-Ray release of Gladiator was so badly afflicted with DNR that the studio offered to exchange the older discs for a newer transfer supervised by Ridley Scott himself. Fortunately for cineastes the most-anticipated catalogue title of all - Lawrence of Arabia - was shot on relatively grain-free 65mm film stock and restored (several times) by people who cared.

And yet for all my attachment to grain I have to acknowledge that its appeal is a generational thing. I grew up in the 1980s, an age when high-gloss colour was king, but the news photography of the 1960s and 1970s that caught my eye from history books was shot with high-speed black and white film. The grain was further exaggerated by the high-contrast halftone printing technology used by newspapers of the day. It just happened that the era of grain coincided with some of the darkest and most newsworthy decades in human history. By the 1980s, most newspapers had switched to colour, and the television news had abandoned 16mm film in favour of portable video equipment. Nowadays few people under the age of forty have organic memories of film grain, and modern-day found footage movies - The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity and so forth - all draw their power from the look of digital video, which has its own set of quirks.

Daphne Oram's Oramics machine
Olympus OM-2N, 24mm f/2, 50mm f/1.4, Kodak TMAX 400

So the passing of film grain is bitter-sweet. Every generation has its time in the sun. No doubt if I had grown up in the 1920s, accustomed to the large-format plate photographs that were the norm in the first decades of photography, I would have been horrified by small-format photojournalism, just as black and white purists were unconvinced by colour photography in the 1960s. Every generation looks down on those that follow; and dies.

Hollywood - and television - still shoots a lot of film, but in an age of 3D, CGI and digital projectors 35mm cinematography is heading gradually for extinction. It might not happen for a few years, but it will happen, and the equipment will be abandoned as the professionals move on. There will be a golden period when you or I can own an actual 35mm movie camera, of a kind used to shoot The Godfather, for perhaps a few thousand dollars. Already, Super 16mm cameras are affordable enough that low-budget filmmakers no longer have to hire them, when they can own them outright. The processing will be expensive, the scanning nightmarishly hard. But think of it! Your very own movie camera. Owning the equipment that Sven Nykvist used will not turn you into Sven Nykvist, but still; you can touch it, just as he might have touched it, once.

So, let's drink to the slow death of film.

Also, Susan Sarandon hugging a llama.