It’s been a crowded few weeks at the school of art where I’m working on my MA. The end of the semester has blown past, the exhibitions have been mounted, the exams and assessments have come and gone. And now the undergraduates are gone for the summer, leaving the postgrads and staff to raise the occasional echo in the corridors.
And as we return to our even keel, I’ve been shunning the healthy light of day to vanish into the darkroom and develop the the backlog of film that’s been awaiting my attention. Which is how we find ourselves travelling backward in time to a sun drenched London in April of this year, with photography of Extinction Rebellion’s protest.
You many have read my earlier post on the subject, my blow by blow account of four days running around the capital photographing the protest, the signs, the boat. And it’s not short of pictures. This will be different by its very nature.
Different how? Therein hangs the tale.
When I look back at the digital pictures in my earlier post, the majority of them are a riot of colour. Blue skies, bright clothes, the flags and banners in every colour of the rainbow, even the florescent jackets of the police. With the black and white filmstock that was loaded into my other camera we loose that, but gain other things. Without the colours I find I’m paying more attention to the people. To the faces, the expressions, to the range of ages involved.
I find it especially in the pictures of the arrest at Oxford Circus. The images seem to me more like portraits than like media images, with the expressions captured in the grain of the film. Without the carnival colours of this seems grimmer, grittier, more businesslike. That’s a large part of why I’ve returned to film – for a street photographer urban grit is very much a stock in trade. With the arrest images, there’s a story to be read in people’s expressions and body language.
I see the same in more relaxed images taken in other locations – without the colour the eye is drawn to other things. The geometry of people’s stances, the buildings in the background. The message of their banners and placards seems starker to me, more ominous. Perhaps it’s appropriate. For all the festival atmosphere of the Rebellion’s protests, the underlying message is as serious as a heart attack.
Again, there’s the sense of portraiture rather than news gathering. Without the vibrancy of the signs we start to see the bright April days not in terms of their blue skies but of their harsh shadows, and the faces beneath the placards and regarding me from over their banners are not the faces of partygoers – they’re engaged in the serious business of saving the world.
That’s softened, of course, by the images of people dancing, people embracing, people simply standing together. I can’t look at the pictures without remembering the festival atmosphere of it all. Again, with these images it’s the faces and the gestures that tell the story. I’ve described it as a party before now, and it was, albeit one with a purpose.
The practical differences of shooting on film, of course, are manyfold. The largest and most obvious from a purely news gathering perspective is that it’s not until the end of the developing process that you know if you’ve gotten the shot (and no matter how many rolls I shoot, or how many films I develop, the moment of opening the developing tank and seeing what I’ve got is still one that mingles expectation with nervous terror). There’s also the practical limit to how many images you can shoot. I shot just over one hundred images on film over the four days I covered the protest, while taking barely under a thousand digital images.
That said, image for image, I feel that the film pictures stand up just as well. They’re different of course, quite apart from the lack of colour. But when shooting on film I treasure each frame. I compose more carefully, consider the details. Just like that, the first step of picture editing is completed before it’s even taken.
There is another eminently practical reason for shooting on film. It gives me a second camera. I can mount it with a different lens. Rammed into a crowd of people, waiting for the police to bring out the next arrestee, circumstances can change too quickly to swap lenses. Could I carry another digital camera? Of course. But where’d be the fun in that? Perhaps more to the point, would I wish to walk around with that much of my net worth strapped around me? In selecting photographic kit, I’ve always followed a policy of buying not the best I can afford, but the best I can afford to replace. I buy my equipment pre-owned, and it’s usually a few years old. But there’s still very few pictures I can’t take with it. And, more crucially, there’s nowhere I will not take my kit. My current film camera (Nikon F65) represents the final development of Nikon’s consumer film SLRs, takes the same lenses as my D600, weighs practically nothing and cost less than ten pounds. It is the perfect urban photography tool.
Next time I’ll be looking over some film images from the XR52 protest in Bristol earlier this month.
All of the images in this post were captured by myself in London UK between 15/4/2019 and 18/4/2019. I retain full copyright to them. They were taken using Alford HP5 Plus 400 ISO film, developed by the photographer – the images used here are digital scans of the resulting negatives.