Zach's PEN #6: My Mom Disagrees

2020 Week 37

Dear PENpals,

Moving home to Philadelphia this week! Couldn't be more excited.

I got a detailed response from my mom to last week's PEN. She used to work as a designer for Town & Country Magazine before her career as a professor at Syracuse University.

In addition to reminiscing about some of the tools she used as a designer (it’s crazy how print layout was done before computers), she sent me this:

At Town & Country, when we’d send a photographer out to shoot a “city story,” or other feature, he’d (always a guy - no women photographers at that point, and they always called me “honey” or “dear” and it was gross) come back with at least three shopping bags full of slides (the old fashioned, big shopping bags with rope handles). One of my jobs was to sort through them and pick the best 12 to 20 images. Out of thousands.

You couldn’t “chimp” (except for studio shots, where most photographers used a Polaroid camera before using the actual film camera), so you took 6 rolls instead of half a roll to ensure there was at least one in the batch that was acceptable. And we ALWAYS had to retouch the “good” ones. Whiten the teeth, get rid of the wrinkles, crop and straighten, color adjustments, etc..

So, professionally speaking, digital is cheaper in the long run. I think you’re enjoying the nostalgia of it.

In my first “real job” (thing Americans say all the time that's pretty offensive when you think about it) working for Jim Scherzi at Scherzi Studios, I learned a lot about this. Jim was actually one of the photographers my mom had worked with when she was at an agency in Syracuse and he was among the first commercial photographers in the world to go digital (as my mom was among the first to go digital for design and therefore deserves most of the credit for why I ended up a nerd).

When I said last week that digital photography has its place, I mean that I reach for a digital camera for (almost) every professional job I do (though I love that I can use the same lenses for both film and digital). I agree with every point my mom makes here except the last one: that I'm “enjoying the nostalgia of it” (there’s an implied “just” there). This is something I've spent wayyyyy too much time thinking about to not respond. I'm settled on this issue: The nostalgia is less than 3% of the appeal for me (and that's accounting for a lot of nostalgia). I'm confident that I can separate the nostalgia from the pure utility, with the allowance that the utility of any creative tool has something to do with the enjoyment/experience of using it.

To go to the analog extreme (not quite as extreme as analog print design...), shooting motion picture film is not ideal for just about everyone, on cost alone. This is an example of too much constraint for most creative endeavors (particularly for anything not fully scripted and storyboarded).

That said, a couple of years ago at Short Order we shot some film on this project for Challenge Program, a non-profit where I sit on the board. Mauro Giuffrida directed the spot. It was deeply impractical to shoot in slow motion on film (that's a lot of frames), but the beauty can't be denied (including the part at the end where I accidentally opened the film magazine in the light, giving it that nice organic, fiery burn on the right side of the frame, yeah, totally planned that, not a mistake at all).

I attribute half of the beauty to the look of film itself, and the other half to the intentionality that shooting film requires. This is something that cannot be faked. Saying that you can shoot digital the way you shoot film is like saying that you can play poker with Monopoly money like you play with real money. The stakes change the level of attention to framing, how well the actors perform, how well the rest of the crew hits its marks. It fundamentally changes the experience. But on the other side, it can also make the stakes too high, too tight, less free-flowing.

The alleviation of this cost constraint doesn't make digital video “better” except that it makes much more “possible,” which is very good (and something I really care about).

But for still photography that you do for the love of photography itself or for the purpose of capturing moments? Film is better and effectively much cheaper. This is one hill I'm ready to die on. Also, I just have too much to say on this and it’s probably the most niche/boring to PEN readers of all the subjects. If so, please accept my apology in the form of 16mm footage of Louisa on the beach from last summer (need to break out the Bolex for Wendell soon):

The 16mm stock we used came from NFL Films, who were still shooting film until four years ago when the look of digital was finally good enough for them. When they switched to digital, I got the last 44 rolls of 16mm they had in their freezer, and I still have most of it left. I've been waiting for the perfect project... Fun fact: No one in the history of the world has shot more film than NFL Films, a New Jersey company.

Some Links

Funny enough, I've written a bunch of blog posts that I haven't really shared yet. Here's one about How I Lost the Joy in Creative Work. It's a bit of a downer, but there's more coming in that series.

Speaking of analog/old-school, my prolific friend Danny Mulligan, who still writes letters and postcards frequently, has a flip phone, makes poetry zines, and needs a separate guest room for his collection of stringed instruments, released an album with one of the bands he plays with, Bug Martin & Co. It's great oldschool country (I always get genres wrong and will get yelled at) and Danny plays a lot of instruments on the record including pedal steel (pedal steel is harrrrrd). Pay what you want for their album. There's even some unexpected but very welcome didgeridoo on that jawn!

And another prolific friend, Thomas Johnsen, who has a band called Thantophobe, made a music video with one of my digital cameras and the same 16mm lenses I used to shoot Louisa on the beach above. Tom has recently come to shooting 35mm stills and it's been fun nerding out with him. Here's how Tom introduced the song, called “In the Place Where You Were Young”: “As I continue to get older, so many people I have known and loved have been lost to suicide and this song was born of that stuff."

I played it at least five times while writing this PEN. Again, I'll get in trouble for this, but to me, it has some of the best flavors of my favorite Tom Petty songs.

And if you need to settle down your emotions after that one, while we’re on the subject of all this Philly music, my friend and fellow Nottingham Alum Alan Gover, finally showed me a song I'd heard about so many times but never sought out to listen to because I was afraid I wouldn't like it, and I really wanted to like it. Turns out... I like it! Here's "South Street" by The Orions (for those familiar with Philly, I live one half block from South Street, for those unfamiliar, get with it).

Next week, I’ll be writing from the City of Brotherly Love.

Peace and love, PENpals,


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