In Praise of Analogue < JP Photography

In Praise of Analogue

A 1940's Royall KMM on which the outline and first draft for this post were composed
My 1941 Royal KMM Typewriter, on which the outline and first draft for this essay were first composed.

This is a love song to film. And perhaps not just film but all things analog.

“The bourgeois status of toys can be recognized not only in their forms, which are all functional, but also in their substances. Current toys are made of a graceless material, the product of chemistry not nature. Many are now molded from complicated mixtures; the plastic material of which they are made has an appearance at once gross and hygienic, it destroys all the pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch. A sign which fills one with consternation is the gradual disappearance of wood, in spite of its being an ideal material because of its firmness and its softness, and the natural warmth of its touch.” – Roland Barthes, from the essay Toys in his collection Mythologies ¬©1957

At once rhapsodic and confrontational¬† Barthes elegantly summarizes -metaphorically- the debate between digital technology and its naturally warm predecessor. The most resonant part of this essay is his description of the transcendental qualities of wood, “It is a familiar and poetic substance, which does not sever the child from close contact with the tree, the table, the floor.” Film is relative to its surroundings in much the same way. As the wood converses with the trees, table and floor, film is at once both representational of the fleeting, nearly incapturable emotional moment it depicts, and part of it simultaneously.¬† The object itself is similar to wood its supple warmth, born from the coupling of light, time and water. A negative or positive is more than just a frame that relates the moment light was reflected off an object through a lens; it is a capsule from that precise segment in time. The film was also in the presence of its subject and is therefore inexorably linked to it in a way only analog can be by actually there. It is a physical relic that was once in immediate and intimate proximity to what it shares with us. The sublime gift it offers us is uninterrupted continuity. The magic is profound- the light that radiated from the subject passes through it and the image, once viewed, continues this optical relay.

Like film, a vinyl record is the physical manifestation of the energetic vibrations it contains. Examining the grooves allows the ultimate synesthesia – you can see the sound! Moreover both have an intrinsic feel that is unlike anything else. Although science and mathematics may say otherwise we can often use the analog medium as portal into what it captures. There is mood, essence and substance transmitted that is unquantifiable yet undeniably there. Listen to the original vinyl recording of your favorite album, read the first love letter you got, or reflect on the memories of the first time you saw an image appear under the warm red glow of a darkroom safe-light and you will feel it.

As Dave Hickey describes it in Air Guitar, “the beat is sliding on those tiny neural lapses, not so you can tell of course, but so you can feel it in your stomach. And the intonation is wavering, too, with the pulse of the finger on the amplified string. This is the delicacy of rock-and-roll, the bodily rhetoric of tiny increments, necessary imperfections, and contingent community.” This is what sets film, vinyl and hand or typewritten letters apart; their ability to capture and furthermore to transmit with sincere integrity those “necessary imperfections”. Additionally the hand of the creators is eminently evident. To coax such resonance out of the aether requires a discipline unlike any other. The act of “living in real time” as Hickey describes it.

The incomparable Bill Evans adds to this dialogue in the beginning of his liner notes to Miles Davis’ seminal recording Kind of Blue, “There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.” This is also a manifesto to the delicacy of film. While the photographer may expose several frames, once the shutter is pressed there is no stopping the light which floods the lens spilling over the aperture illuminating the film for the brief flicker of an instant. As all photographers can attest, using any SLR only complicates matters because you have attune yourself to the subtle time travel required to capture the “decisive moment” as Henri Cartier-Bresson put it. If you see what you want in the viewfinder the light has passed you by and you are already too late. You must act in clairvoyant anticipation of an unknown something yet to come.

You only get this one chance to get it right. And maybe it isn’t perfect. Maybe it isn’t the way we thought it would wind up. But in the journey, that delicate process of interpreting the muse: art is born. The unspoken knowledge -often unconscious- that the image hasn’t been seriously tampered with only elevates the medium, allowing, as Richard Avedon famously said, that “all photographs are accurate, none of them is the truth.” But it’s as close as we’ll ever get. And that’s just perfect with me.