Skip to main content

Our phones and digital cameras have displaced the centuries-old art of film photography – an art that I stuck with, years after the world had begun to marginalize it. Some old mementoes made me reflect on what we’ve lost, and gained, in that transition

Open this photo in gallery:

I knew the rolls of film in my closet had been around for well over a decade. I didn’t know what the pictures were, or even if the film was mine.Photos courtesy of Jana G. Pruden/The Globe and Mail

The film had been sitting in the back of my closet for years, behind some old boxes of staples, right next to a pack of unused batteries. There were two rolls of colour film and two spent disposable cameras, the kind people sometimes used to put on the table at weddings. What the film contained was a mystery. I knew it had been in the closet since I moved to Edmonton 10 years ago, and I had a vague memory of it kicking around long before that. But I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d shot a roll of film. I wasn’t even certain it was mine.

When I pulled the film out during a deep-clean of my office one day this strange and lonely year, I decided it was time to finally get it developed.

I felt a bit strange when I dropped it off at a nearby drugstore, the same routine I’d done countless times, but only a very long time ago. I considered whether or not to get doubles, picked a print size and finish, watching as the clerk filled out four envelopes and dropped each roll of my film inside. I slipped the perforated claim tags into my wallet.

Everything is so instantly and readily available now – images of anything on the planet, access to the majority of movies, songs or TV shows ever made, all with a few flicks of a finger – that I didn’t mind the prospect of waiting 10 days to get my pictures back. I actually kind of liked it.

On that film would be images that did not exist anywhere else. Pictures that weren’t on Google, or Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. Whatever those pictures were, for better or worse, they would be the only ones like them. That seemed like something worth waiting for.

Open this photo in gallery:

Photographs on film were always a gamble, capturing awkward moments, people blinking, sometimes exposed improperly. With digital, images that don’t work can be deleted and forgotten.

Open this photo in gallery:

One of the first pictures I ever took, of my uncle on a farm in Manitoba. After she got the pictures back, my aunt bought me my own little camera.

I was 10 or 11 years old when my aunt let me shoot a roll of film on her farm in Manitoba. I took a picture of my uncle standing by a fence, of the sun setting over burnished golden fields. After my aunt got the film developed, she bought me my own little camera. I loved photography right away, and soon I carried my camera with me everywhere, shooting animals and flowers and things I found in my neighbourhood. I posed my friends and family for portraits, exploring the world and my life through a lens and viewfinder.

When I got older, all the money I made babysitting went to buying film and getting it developed, to saving up for a new camera, or buying lenses and filters. As a teenager, I would learn to process and print black-and-white film, spending countless hours in the red glow of a community darkroom space. I loved being in the darkroom. For anyone who has ever watched an image appear from nothing in a tray of developer, it feels like magic every time.

Modern photography dates back about 200 years, but the idea of the camera – and the phenomenon of the camera obscura, where light casts an image inside a darkened space through a tiny hole – is thought to go back 2,000 years or more. The word photography comes from the Greek: Graphia for drawing, photos for light. Drawing with light.

Though the idea of capturing an image of the world was astounding, photography was not an immediately loved or accepted medium. Some didn’t think photographs could replace drawing and painting, or saw it as a threat against the artistry of human renderings. Others regarded photography with suspicion or fear. Certain religious or cultural groups believed the act of being photographed was sinful or vain, or that a photograph could capture part of your soul. (That belief was not limited to – nor consistent within – Indigenous communities, though that is where it’s most commonly attributed.)

Open this photo in gallery:

It is a strange contradiction that film photographs are real and tangible, yet also finite. If a negative and all its prints are destroyed, the image is gone forever, irretrievable.

Early photo shoots were somber and important affairs. Taking a photograph was time-consuming and expensive, in many cases a privilege and honour. Some would be photographed only once in their lifetime, if that; one single image, to be given to a loved one, worn in a locket or carried in a chest pocket across countries and oceans, through wars and immigrations. Sometimes, a person’s first and only portrait would be taken after death.

The 20th century saw a continuous flow of advancements and refinements in photographic technology. Soon, there were more convenient cameras, better lenses, reusable flashes, and film that allowed people to shoot in colour and in different lighting conditions. The invention of Polaroids offered the thrill of almost-instant pictures, albeit at a hefty price per snap. (I say almost-instant, because anyone who has excitedly fanned a Polaroid knows how long a minute can feel.)

But despite these developments, the basics of photography remained the same for a very long time: Film was exposed to light, developed into negatives and printed onto paper.

Then digital photography arrived, and everything changed.

In many ways, the appeal was obvious: Digital pictures were immediate and, except for the technology, cheaper and less wasteful, requiring no processing, no paper or film. You could shoot almost endlessly and see the results immediately. No more awkward moments or people blinking. No more poor exposures or ruined rolls. Images that didn’t work could just be deleted and forgotten.

By the mid-1990s, professional and hobby photographers were increasingly abandoning their film cameras and going digital. Darkrooms and developers closed. Once-iconic camera companies lost money, scaled back, shut down altogether. The range of film, paper and photographic chemicals being produced shrunk steadily. Kodak scrabbled along at the edge of bankruptcy for years, until an announcement this summer that the company would begin making pharmaceuticals.

I held onto film for a long time, longer than most. But eventually even I couldn’t deny it any more.

Somewhere in the early 2000s, I got a digital camera and began shooting film less and less. Then came smartphones. After that, you didn’t even have to carry a camera any more, the strap cutting into your neck or shoulder, the camera body banging against your own, a comforting weight, but a weight just the same.

Twitter and Facebook arrived in 2006, Instagram in 2010. Then, anyone could snap a picture on their phone, adjust anything about it, and make it instantly available to anyone in the entire world with cell service or an internet connection.

It all changed so fast that it was easy to think photography had always been so common, so accessible, so instantaneous. Before long, it felt as though it had always been that way.

I have more than 9,000 pictures on my phone. There are photographs both important and frivolous, a mix of things I wanted or needed to record, to share, to remember. There are crime scenes and court exhibits for work. There are pictures of food, family, my dogs, various things that caught my eye. A beautiful snowy sunset, a craft I was working on, a chair I liked. Some – like a shot of a complicated WiFi password – were taken merely for convenience.

I take more pictures than ever, but I don’t know if I’ve ever printed even a single one. Does it matter if they don’t exist beyond the digital world? What are these photos I’ve taken, if they live only within something as insubstantial as a cloud?

Open this photo in gallery:

It is hard to throw away a photograph. Like destroying the only copy of a book, or discarding the memory itself.

I wonder if the images on my phone and in my cloud are more or less meaningful to me than the piles of photographs held in boxes in my basement closet. Stored there are pictures of my parents and grandparents before I was born, pictures of me as a child, photos I took later of friends and family. There are pictures of distant relatives and people I don’t even know. Women in victory rolls or beehives, handsome men in suits and fedoras. Strangers who have somehow become part of my own archive, whose images and memories I keep right next to my own.

It is hard to throw away a photograph. I suspect that’s why there are bins of them at antique stores, prints for sale at thrift stores or on eBay. People may not want to keep the pictures, but it still feels wrong to discard them.

I once had a friend who, after a falling out or breakup, would destroy all the photographs she had of the person who angered her. I always marvelled she could do that. It seemed so drastic to me, almost violent. Like destroying the very memories themselves.

When I see old photographs for sale, I always rifle through them, and I usually end up buying one or two. Perhaps it is the singular beauty of that one frozen moment, like finding a pebble on a vast beach that is, for whatever reason, worth putting in your pocket and carrying home.

From such unremarkable boxes and closets, significant photographs sometimes emerge. In 2007, three boxes of film taken by photojournalists Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour during the Spanish Civil War were discovered in Mexico City, in what came to be known as “The Mexican Suitcase.” The film – totalling 4,500 individual images – had been missing for 70 years.

In 2010, a commercial painter in Fresno came forward with two boxes of glass plate negatives that were believed to be shot by Ansel Adams in the 1920s, and lost for almost a century. The man had purchased the negatives at a garage sale for US$45, and they sat under a pool table wrapped in newspaper and envelopes for four years before he realized what he had. The work was later estimated to be worth more than US$200-million.

Consider Vivian Maier, a nanny whose brilliant street photography only came to light when someone purchased her negatives and film at a thrift store auction after her death. The vision of a great artist, an exceptional chronicler of the world, was there in boxes, just waiting to be found.

Will someone ever find a forgotten genius on a discarded Tumblr site? Buried in the flood of images on Instagram?

Open this photo in gallery:

Film photographs are real, but also finite. If I had thrown the film away, or exposed it to light, the pictures on those rolls would never exist at all.

It is a strange contradiction that film photographs are real and tangible, yet also finite. If a negative and all its prints are destroyed, the image is gone forever, irretrievable. Had I tossed the film from the back of my closet into the garbage – or popped the canisters open and drawn the ribbons of film out into the light – those pictures would never exist at all.

Yet people now know that photos live forever online. Digital is virtual, non-existent but also limitless. A printed photograph can sit dormant for years, even decades – closed inside a photo album or shoe box or yearbook – then, made digital, travel the world in an instant. Even after being deleted, copies of digital images can remain, haunting like ghosts. Populating and repopulating like cells, in some cases wreaking havoc and harm.

Most children today will have much of their lives documented online. Pictures of themselves as mewling newborns, as toddlers in diapers, as shy tweens or gawky teenagers, generations growing up with a thorough recording of their lives alongside. Even the youngest children know how to pose for the camera now, a sense of self developed through selfies, reality formed by seeing themselves as an image, reflected.

The implications of this are only starting to become clear. There are reports of people wanting to get plastic surgery to more closely resemble the way they look in the images they post online, after the filters that widen their eyes and smooth their skin and narrow their chins into fine points. A desire to look more like a manipulated picture of oneself.

Meanwhile, each generation is more photographed than the last. I know of only one photograph of any of my grandparents as children. In it, my infant grandfather lies on his stomach on a sheepskin, laughing. The picture is black and white, coloured by hand. I love that picture. I can see the old man I knew in that baby’s sparkling eyes. There are only two prints of that photograph in existence. I could make a new copy of it, shoot it on digital and get it printed – but would it be the same?

Open this photo in gallery:

It felt a bit strange dropping off the film to be developed. Going through a routine I’d done countless times, but only a very long time ago.

I was strangely nervous as I went to pick up my pictures on a chilly Friday afternoon. I’d thought a lot about what might be on those four rolls of film, and I worried how disappointed I might be if they were just blank frames, or maybe old photos from work, with nothing of interest at all.

As the clerk flipped through a drawer looking for my envelopes, I surveyed the area around the photo lab. I could get my photos printed on a mousepad or a blanket or a large stretched canvas. I could have them printed on coffee cups and water bottles, turned into puzzles and bobbleheads. Off to the side was a handful of selections of film for sale, on racks that once would have been loaded with choices.

When I was a kid, I would rip open the envelope right there in the store, or crouched on the step outside, going through the pictures as fast as I could to see what was there. I could barely wait to see whether I had captured the world the way I intended, and what surprises might be revealed within those 24 or 36 frames.

Sometimes I’d get the shot I wanted. Sometimes, I got something far greater: A moment of beauty or connection I hadn’t fully appreciated as I clicked the shutter.

This time, I decided to wait until I got home to look at the pictures. I told myself it was because I’m an adult now and I am better at waiting. But maybe it was because I wanted to enjoy the wait a few minutes longer, to linger in the anticipation of what might be there.

On my way out of the store, on a whim, I bought some film.

The pictures I got back are not all great, or even good. That was always the way with film. I could see they were taken in 2004 and 2005, right around the time I switched to digital.

Some of the pictures are blurry, grainy, under- or overexposed. Some are so far removed from their context, they no longer make sense. In one, my aunt and cousin are grinning, loading recycling into a bin. The joke, whatever it was, now long forgotten. There is, inexplicably, an entire roll of pictures of their dachshund playing in the leaves. There is a picture of a squirrel, a Scrabble game, an open phone book.

Then there are dinners, trips, holidays. There are pictures of my grandparents, who are now gone. Of babies who are now teenagers. Of a boyfriend who is now my husband. Of old friends who are no longer in my life. There are pictures of beginnings, of times before, of people and places now forever lost to me.

Some of the photographs brought back moments and feelings so powerful, they took my breath away. Things I saw once, a very long time ago, drawn with light and waiting to be seen again.

Open this photo in gallery:
Open this photo in gallery:
Open this photo in gallery:

The pictures I got back are not all great, or even good. I could see they were taken in 2004 and 2005, right around the time I switched to digital.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe