Philosophy & Reflections

All Analogue: a Digital-Free Experience of Film Photography – By Ailbíona McLochlainn

February 16, 2022

Last week I received a message from someone who happened upon my website. They had read that I shoot both digital and film, but could only find examples of digital photos. Where could they view some of my analogue work? And I realised then: They couldn’t.

Well, technically they could – by visiting my house. Our walls are covered with framed darkroom prints. Albums and boxes full of prints and negatives are stacked upon shelves and hidden under beds. But I haven’t digitised film in years. After I shoot a roll of film, it gets developed, then photographically printed. No digital steps are involved and the print is the final result. I do sometimes take digital photos that depict prints or negatives as objects. But I don’t digitise the photographic images.

I cannot say for certain why my process has become what it has. I am not a purist and do not espouse a philosophy of keeping things 100% analogue. I have nothing against scanning, or against digitally storing, viewing and sharing, or even against digitally editing, shots taken with film. I used to do all of those things. Then I stopped.

It happened unconsciously and gradually. To begin with, my workflow was in line with what others describe: I would shoot a roll of film, then either develop it, ask my husband to develop it, or send it out to a lab {I do all of the above, depending on available time, life circumstances, etc. – I told you I am not a purist!}. I would then scan the negatives. And upon reviewing, and sometimes tweaking the digitised images using photo editing software, I would decide which to print, which to keep and perhaps share, and which to discard.

The first part of the process to go was the default batch scanning. Most likely this was simply because I grew tired of spending so much time at my computer, and headachy from the constant noise of the scanner {its lamentful churnings had become the soundtrack to my daily existence!} Yet I could not afford to pay for digitising services considering the volume of my output, so scanning myself was the only viable option. Eventually it occurred to me: Why bother going through the time-consuming process of scanning entire rolls of film, when in the end only certain frames from each roll were worthwhile? So instead of batch-scanning, I began using a light table to review the negatives. I would then only scan those negatives which looked promising. Sometimes the darkroom print would even happen before the scan, if a negative looked especially exciting.

This newfound workflow suited me for a while. My scanning time was greatly reduced, and I was re-gaining my ‘eye’ for evaluating images in their negative form, which I was quite enjoying.

If I have to pinpoint a specific incident that took things to the next level, it was this: I had taken a particularly successful black and white photo with my trusty Rolleiflex. The darkroom print was so lovely, I couldn’t put it down – it looked as if the image had been poured onto the paper in liquid silver. After gazing at my gorgeous print ecstatically for what seemed like hours, I hurried to scan the negative.

The scan was nice. Yet somehow… unsatisfying? I re-scanned. Then re-scanned again. I messed with the scanner settings. I messed with the image in Photoshop. It remained nice. Had I not seen the darkroom print, I would have been happy with the photo on my screen. Great dynamic range, sharp, interesting composition, a sense of mood and narrative, all the things. Very nice. But nice is not magical. Nice is not tactile. Nice is not… real. I felt compelled to delete the scan. I framed the photo and hung it up on the wall.

At the time I did not experience this as a shift in my thinking. Life went on, and it was only some time later I became aware that I was scanning less and less frequently. One day I was tidying up the room where the scanner was kept and noticed cobwebs. It had been more than two years since I’d last used it. But it was only after receiving that message, asking where my film shots could be viewed, that it truly hit me: I had gone all-analogue, to the extreme.

Reflecting on my process now, I can see that there are both benefits and drawbacks. The biggest benefit, I feel – as cringingly earnest as this sounds – is a sense of creative fulfilment. In retrospect, I realise that displaying and sharing the digitised versions of my film photos, carried an undercurrent of discontent, even if I were not explicitly aware of it. In a way, it felt as if I was dealing with hollow imposter images and not the photos themselves. I am a painter as well as a photographer, and perhaps this bias stems from that. When I first began taking photos {back in the day, when film was the default option}, it was the physicality of photography that attracted me: the feel of the negatives, the smell of the darkroom chemicals, the idea of silver gelatin being used to capture a moment in time and transform it into a fixed object. Returning to that process with all its visceral implications and valuing it as the end-goal {as opposed to an intermediate step in a process that ultimately results in a digital image}, offers me something intangible yet deeply gratifying. As a secondary benefit, keeping things entirely analogue does allow me more time away from my computer, which is something I value more and more these days.

As for the drawbacks, they are fairly obvious. In an era of ‘pictures or it didn’t happen,’ to claim that I shoot film and then have nothing to show for it to the virtual world, feels a bit suspect. And while at this stage in my life I feel like I have nothing to prove, it’s not so much about that as it is about the natural human inclination to share and communicate. Yes, all of my favourite photos are displayed in physical form and they get seen. But not on a scale we are now accustomed to images being seen. And so a part of me wonders: Am I ‘justified’ in taking analogue photos, if their viewership is so pathetically limited?

Editing is another aspect of an all-analogue workflow worth considering. The parameters of my process make it tricky to correct or alter images that are flawed yet sufficiently interesting – or sentimentally valuable – to warrant printing. Neither mine, nor my husband’s darkroom skills are good enough to work magic on problematic negatives. We can compensate for imperfect exposure, and can make basic dodge and burn masks, but we lack the knowledge needed for proper analogue retouching. Importantly, we also lack the time and patience. After all, a fix that would take me seconds to execute on a digitised negative using image editing software, would require hours of darkroom work …for each individual print. I admit that I lack that degree of commitment.


On the logistical side of things, there is also the question of display and storage. What do I do with all the prints?  My favourite ones are up on walls. And not just in our house. I gift photos to friends and family. Occasionally I sell some. And while I haven’t attempted to exhibit in years, a few may still be up in galleries and similar settings. The prints that aren’t framed for display are kept in albums and boxes for browsing, and they do get taken out and looked at quite often. The negatives are also stored in boxes, organised in chronological order. At the moment, the quantity of it all – while substantial – is not so out of control as to make storage a problem {in truth, storage of all my digital images presents more of an issue}. But I do recognise that at some point space could potentially run out.

Perhaps the most pressing concern though, is the lack of digital backup. Should my negatives get damaged, the photos will simply vanish – years of creative work and sentimental keepsakes destroyed. But after giving this some thought, I ultimately decided that if that were to happen, the photos would be gone regardless; having digital backups won’t bring them back. It is the physical negatives I feel attached to and it is them I would mourn; I doubt that having their digitised ghosts would console me. Nevertheless, I admit it’s a good idea to digitise at least my favourite photos… perhaps in addition to investing in fireproof, waterproof storage!

In writing this article, my aim was to share my process and to examine how I arrived at it. There are elements of my approach which are admittedly problematic, and so I neither promote it nor encourage others to adapt it. Furthermore, I cannot say that I myself am committed to continuing down the all-analogue path.  After years of photographing in a bubble, I would like to be part of a larger dialogue again, to share my film images. For that reason I am considering re-introducing a digital element into my workflow – but in what form exactly, I do not yet know.

But moreover… It is the lack of intentionality, I think, that is making me question my process. It is starting to feel as if my current approach to film is a coping mechanism of sorts, a response to a  creative midlife crisis – rather than a result of conviction. So perhaps in writing this, my hope is to recognise that – and overcome it. Thank you for following along.

___
NOTES

The camera pictured in the first image is a Leica IIIf. The camera pictured in the second image is a Moskva 5 {a medium format 6×9 rangefinder}. All illustrative images in this article were taken with a digital Leica CL.

For anyone interested in critical theory: Hal Foster’s The Return of the Real pertains to some of the ideas discussed here.

Ailbíona McLochlainn is a photographer, knitwear designer, and recovering academic, based in Ireland. For additional information and lots of pictures to look at, visit www.ailbiona.com

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22 Comments

  • Reply
    Vlkr
    February 16, 2022 at 10:37 am

    I would love to see some of your analog work in the digital realm! I also do most of my (very amateurish) stuff almost exclusively analog but scan my best prints with a simple flatbed scanner for sharing digitally. It’s way faster and somehow more fun than scanning negatives.

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      February 16, 2022 at 2:33 pm

      For some reason I also find scanning negatives/ transparencies more unpleasant than …whatever is the technical term for ‘normal pictures.’ But I think the glossy paper of my photos would present a problem, plus I suspect the resolution would be pretty low? I think for me, the most reasonable solution might be to shoot less/ more selectively and pay for the scanning. I am giving it all some thought.

  • Reply
    Martin
    February 16, 2022 at 11:40 am

    Great read again!
    I guess it’s time for an exhibition or a series of videos like 1000 Masterworks which aired years back on TV.
    For the younger ones: That is meant
    https://youtu.be/6hcqo7kRhU4
    (randomly chosen)

    Take care!

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      February 16, 2022 at 2:36 pm

      Thanks – Not sure I qualify as one of the younger ones, but I did not know about this series; certainly worth watching!

  • Reply
    Donato Rondinelli
    February 16, 2022 at 1:43 pm

    Ailbíona,
    Thank you so much for sharing your story. You’re honesty is refreshing. You’ve touched on some important things. Thanks for providing a little direction as a result of your own experiences. Photography can be a very isolating hobby, but stories like yours remind us that it shouldn’t be that way. I feel like this is one of those articles that I can come back to on a regular basis as a self check. Please, continue to document your experiences. Some of us have jumped back into analog mid-life. Stories from experienced people are necessary because time is not on our side. Thank you so much. I look forward to hearing more.

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      February 16, 2022 at 2:41 pm

      Thanks for reading! I thought this was worth writing up, because once in a while I see discussions where people wonder what going ‘pure’ analogue might be like, or whether they should do it as a matter of principle. It happened to me unintentionally, which granted creates a different experience than had it been a matter of conviction, but still I thought my experience might make for a useful reference point.

  • Reply
    BWS
    February 16, 2022 at 2:44 pm

    Ailbíona, Less is More and Balance does work out in the end. You are a great analyst of now and the future of photography.
    BWS

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      February 16, 2022 at 3:00 pm

      Alas, balance is not one of my strong points! But I am working on it 🙂

  • Reply
    Des McSweeney
    February 16, 2022 at 2:51 pm

    Hi Ailbíona, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece. I wandered to your site and was captivated by the tone, feel and content of your photography. Loved the cardie on the washing line of your old site ;-). But many other portraits too. I have dared attach myself to your work on that most digital of venues, Instagram 😉
    Des

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      February 16, 2022 at 3:02 pm

      There is a lot of knitting on the instagram feed; I am impressed with those who can cope!

      Interestingly, the images on my old website are a mix of digital and film… and I do not always remember which are which.

  • Reply
    Martin JONES
    February 16, 2022 at 4:30 pm

    Thank-you, a really interesting thought piece. I don’t enjoy scanning either and am also moving to a much more selective appraisal of negatives or contact prints as my first step 🙂

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      February 17, 2022 at 9:18 pm

      selective appraisal was the term I was looking for and couldn’t quite think of when describing my process – thanks!

  • Reply
    Merlin Marquardt
    February 16, 2022 at 11:33 pm

    Great article! Like “ digitised ghosts”.

  • Reply
    Bill Brown
    February 17, 2022 at 3:28 pm

    My take on this analogue process is so different from many others. My path and introduction to photography was from the retouching side not the creation side. At the age of 21 I landed a job at a lab as a dust spotter. The year was 1976 and digital wasn’t even on the radar. I advanced quickly to complex/intricate image correction such as removal of cars, telephone poles, etc. as well as sky replacement for architectural photographers and ad agencies. I was one of three retouchers who worked with the top tier of local photographers. We each had our own niche so we had all the work we could handle. All of this was rendered right on the finished photo with the use of an airbrush and gouache paint. There were no undos and my skills as a realist artist were mandatory to create a final image that no one suspected of being manipulated.

    Flash forward to 2006 and my client base had disappeared as PS and digital print output had changed the photography landscape. Everyone was now an artist. Not wanting to become a dinosaur I made the choice to take the leap from the totally analogue process of hand rendered retouching to the computer and PS. I didn’t see it as selling out but a way of survival and providing for my family. Now in 2022 I have once again established my place in the local photographic community. My specialties range from large scale high resolution portrait retouching to print restoration, either restoring an original photo or creating a new digital version. The reputation I’ve built is my analogue approach and thinking that I bring to the process.

    I know this is a lengthy reply but I fully believe that analogue is a way of thinking even when using digital processes. I don’t disdain digital but have learned to embrace all the possibilities that it brings and at the same time maintain who I am as an analogue thinker and person. It’s always beneficial to look beneath the surface and articles such as this create a dialog that can be beneficial on so many levels. Thanks for taking the time to share your story.

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      February 17, 2022 at 9:43 pm

      ‘Analogue is a way of thinking even when using digital processes…’
      Hmm. I would need to think about that one.

      I bought my first camera as an adult and began ‘seriously’ shooting film in 2004, which was right on the cusp of the transition you describe. It was a sad, but fascinating cultural change to witness and be a part of. Camera shops and professional photographers were almost literally giving analogue equipment away. Photo labs were either closing, or discontinuing the full range of their services, one after another. I remember watching one gentleman clearing his Boston studio of ‘useless stuff’ and literally pushing retouching equipment into a heap and then sliding it off the table into a trash bin, with a hysterical chuckle about it all being worthless. It seems surreal now, but I remember this sort of thing very clearly. And I have often wondered whether any of these establishments have since gone back to offering analogue services again.

      Out of curiosity, when you give customers a choice of restoring an original (darkroom print) photo vs creating a new digital version, what percentage choose which option?

      • Reply
        Bill Brown
        February 18, 2022 at 12:36 am

        To elaborate on the analogue way of thinking I will use a real world example. My main client is a portrait photographer that I have collaborated with for 31+ years. Before digital came along his work flow was 98% b&w silver gelatin prints from his studio print tech. He shot with Hasselblad equipment. I would retouch the negative if requested but most often it was on the final print using a brush and dyes. With his direction we established a distinct look for his work. When he moved the studio to a digital workflow in 2006, the Hasselblad with a 31mp Phase One back, he wanted me to continue to retouch his work. He says he took me into the digital age kicking and screaming. With the studio going digital I would now be the print tech as well as the retoucher. We also started producing more color work because now he was able to control the result. He patiently guided me in the subtle points of fine art printing and taught me how to see and edit color. As I taught myself retouching with a digital pad and pen I approached the whole thing from the viewpoint of a person with 30 years of analogue retouching experience. I figured out how to make PS adapt to my style instead of me adapting to the software.

        I recently assisted on a location shoot for a long time client(film to digital) and they graciously took us on a photo tour of their beautiful home. As we moved from room to room, viewing their collection of images, I saw first hand how my analogue way of thinking and working has played out. One particular set of photos, 20×20’s framed and hanging in a vertical arrangement, combined both silver gelatin and digital pigment prints. As I analyzed the prints I was very pleased to note that there existed a real visual coherency. I have worked very hard and deliberately to create this timeless look. There is another client that I retouched traditionally her b&w bridal portrait and then in 2020 her oldest daughter came to the studio for her b&w bridal portrait. By maintaining and honoring my analogue upbringing our working relationship has produced a body of work that blends two technologies, that many would say oppose each other, into a seamless visual experience. I hope this helps you gain a small insight into what I mean by having an analogue vision for your work. To say it simply,timeless visual coherency.

        To answer your question about restoring original prints. There are numerous variables that affect the decision. Sometimes the print is a valuable one of a kind work from a well known deceased photographer. The client wants to maintain the signed original. Other times it is a cherished family heirloom, usually an oval with the convex glass, hand tinted and printed on a matte paper. The key to a seamless repair is the matte paper surface. Finally and most often is the damaged or faded traditional chemical print on an F surface paper. I recommend having a high resolution capture or scan to then facilitate the process of creating a new original that can be printed on photo paper or output to a high end photo quality pigment printer and using a museum quality Hahnemuhle or Epson fine art paper. With the newer ink sets from Epson combined with the museum rag paper I can give a customer an assurance of at least another century or longer for their new print. This last method of capture or scanning, then digitally restoring, is chosen probably 98% of the time. Here are two links to the Instagram of one of my clients. I restored these two images last Christmas season. The first is an 8×10 of five siblings(the only known photo to exist of them together) https://www.instagram.com/p/CV57laDt34L/ The second was a 16×20 restored to original size and printed on Epson Legacy Fibre Rag. The final print was gorgeous and still felt analogue in every way. We created a video as a sales tool for their shop. https://www.instagram.com/p/CYZwevcvJPV/

        Sorry for the long reply but this idea of maintaining an analogue heart in digital output is something I am quite passionate about.

  • Reply
    Anton
    February 17, 2022 at 3:35 pm

    I have noticed that scans from b+w film are poor substitutes for the optical enlargements, and have been wondering how I’d feel if I stopped scanning b+w film altogether. It seems to make sense. I could still scan the prints with a flatbed if I felt the need. As for sharing the images: the tiny number of friends and family members who might be mildly interested in my photos would only see physical prints instead of phone-sized imitations. It’s not really a down side.

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      February 17, 2022 at 9:19 pm

      Do you mean that you notice it with black and white more than colour, or do you only shoot black and white?

  • Reply
    shawn granton
    February 17, 2022 at 7:53 pm

    Great post, Ailbiona! Since getting back into film a couple years back, I’ve thought about the digital element in today’s analog photography. I do get scans from negatives, and being able to see all my photos on a large computer monitor vs. squinting for detail on a 3″ x 5″ has given me an appreciation for what the old machines are capable of. And even if I do get prints, most of them are from digital scans anyway.

    But seeing what things would look like “all analog” has motivated me to do things like occasionally shoot slide film, or get optical prints made. I’m lucky that Blue Moon here in Portland still makes prints the “old” way. I shared some here on 35mc last year, but of course scans of the prints are not the same thing:
    https://www.35mmc.com/27/07/2021/minolta-hi-matic-7s-and-a-sentimental-journey-discovering-true-optical-prints-by-shawn-granton/

  • Reply
    Anton
    February 18, 2022 at 8:49 am

    I shoot a bit of colour too but don’t have a colour enlarger. If I branch out in that direction, I guess the same thoughts will apply. I often like the b+w enlargements from colour negatives more than the colour scans.

  • Reply
    Sam Gustafson
    March 21, 2022 at 2:46 pm

    Thanks very much for the thoughtful article. I’ve started shooting film again and decided to use a similar process, strictly analogue, no scanning. In the past, when I scanned negatives and edited them, it felt too similar to my digital photography. Except it was more expensive, slower and wasn’t as flexible. Why would I do this? But with a fully analogue workflow, it feels like an entirely different activity. I think it’s hilarious that you are also a knitter because that is exactly the analogy I’ve been using to explain to people why I’m making darkroom prints from my film.

    When I used to knit, I didn’t do it because I wanted a sweater. If I wanted a sweater, I would go to the store and buy one. It’s cheaper, faster, and the outcome is more certain. Knitting a sweater is a terrible way to get a sweater. But it’s a very satisfying and enjoyable activity.

    I approach film photography in the same way. If I just want some pictures of my kids doing whatever they are doing that day, I’ll get out my digital camera. I like using it and really love the images it can make. But if I want to enjoy a truly unique photographic experience, to think about light and exposure and focus. To futz and fiddle. To occupy my mind with something challenging but ultimately unimportant (like most hobbies), I will get out my film camera or go down to the darkroom and make some prints. They are two related activities but with fundamentally different purposes.

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      March 21, 2022 at 6:08 pm

      ‘… Knitting a sweater is a terrible way to get a sweater.’

      Ohhh a dagger straight to my heart!
      I do not feel the same, but I do understand what you mean by this.

      I suppose with both knitting and analogue photography, it comes down to being process-oriented vs product/outcome-oriented, and what you are describing is being very much toward the process-oriented side of the spectrum. I am the opposite. For example, when it comes to analogue photography, one of my dark (pun intended) secrets is that I don’t much like working in the darkroom. If there is no other option, I am willing to do it in order to get the end result – ie the negatives/ photos. But if the opportunity presents itself, I am only too happy to delegate the darkroom stuff to my husband (who genuinely enjoys the process) or a competent photo-lab. I am after the end result, which are the physical analogue negatives/ prints.

      As for the fuzz and fiddle of actually taking the shots… I do enjoy that part of the process, but don’t see it as unique to analogue. Any digital camera I use is set up very similarly to my film cameras, with all manual settings and lenses, requiring a sufficient amount of fuss to keep me happy!

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