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Photography's Current Obsession with Film Doesn’t Mean It’s Better Than Digital

Karl Edwards knows digital photography isn't just for tech nerds and your mom.

by Ben Thomson
Nov 24 2014, 10:30pm

All photos by Karl Edwards


​All photos by Karl Edwards

​Shooting with film, in case you haven't noticed, has become the done thing in the art world right now. If you're not taking pictures of your beautiful friends by a body of water with a point-and-shoot as old as your kid sister, forget about it. In a lot of ways it makes sense; the digital revolution turned out mostly to be a bunch of butterfly wings photoshopped over soft-lit pregnant women shot on a Canon 8D. But while we do need to shake it up, is film the only answer?

Photographer Karl Edwards is the editor of  ​streetshootr.com. The site is a welcome break from the gear and tech talk that permeates much of photography these days. He's also a big fan of digital who sees there's a massive difference between your mom taking 900 photos at family dinners and great photographers using the best technology available to make interesting and original work. We grabbed him to talk about the  divide.

VICE: So what made you personally dedicated to digital?
Karl Edwards: To me, it's not just the workflow, but I'm also in a constant state of learning. And the immediacy is the important thing, it gives you the kind of feedback where I remember the shots I took yesterday. Looking at them, I can think about how I could have shot it better. If it sits on a roll of film and two weeks go past, I'm a little more detached. For someone who's always trying to learn, it makes a lot of sense.

Also, I get about 90 minutes of peace to myself a day. I don't have unlimited resources so I'd have to shoot my own film, process it, and scan it myself. Not only is it not affordable, but that's about 90 minutes per roll. Film is the language of photography, but the reality is it's just not practical.

Where do you think the current resurgence of film is coming from?
I think the ​Lomo movement in the 90s probably drove this a lot. In a way it was Instagram before Instagram. I don't think it's practical, it's kind of like a walled garden, they're doing it because it is what it is. You've heard me wax on about how beautiful film is but I think a lot of people shoot film because it's a thing they can do and it looks great, so why not do it?

I had a job yesterday where I had to shoot 400 shots. That would have been $1,200 on film so it instantly becomes impractical in a commercial sense. I think it's mostly romantic. But I like the idea that It's a physical reaction, when light hits the silver halides on film, they physically change. It's more than just a facsimile of a moment.

There are movements and slogans for everything—buy film not megapixels etc., but the reality is most people are scanning it in and putting it on the internet.

Film can do things digital cannot do. The gradation of tone is never the same on Tri-X, it can't be re-produced on Silver Efex or VSCO. There's a clinical nature we've been accustomed to. We can pine over the lost error of film, but even the great Magnum photographers are shooting digital now. I don't want to say it's better, but it's a better workflow. At the end of the day, when it comes to just making images, I'm fine with digital.

I 100 percent agree with black-and-white, but I hate to say it, VSCO is getting close with Portra.
It's really close. I don't want to say it looks like film, because then why not go and just shoot film? But I used VSCO Portra 400 in that job yesterday and it looks the way I want it to look, which happens to be the way Portra looks.

It's easy to hate on VSCO, but I'm glad that Adobe doesn't have a monopoly on what color should be any more.
Exactly, and they've done it the right way. Every preset is tuned to every sensor, so it's not just this thick blanket of goo that they pour over all your shots.

The other argument for digital is distribution. Everything that's so amazing about film is negated when you chuck it on Instagram
Totally, the whole idea for me is to show my work. In the old days you had to schlep around town with a giant portfolio hoping galleries would deem you worthy and show your work. The democratization that the internet has brought around means anyone can show their work. It doesn't mean it has to be good, but you have a vibrant community of people that really want to look at the content.

That being said, the photobook is coming on strong. And zines. Gotta love the zines.

Do you think that originators of street photography like ​Henri Cartier Bresson would be shooting with film Leicas if they were alive today?
I don't think so. Henri's an interesting one, he's got that famous quote, "Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst," right? So that's your first 300 rolls. I went through 10,000 shots last summer and they were all terrible. I think he would have been delighted to save so much time today.

I just think he was interested in seeing and capturing the world. And if there was an easier to do that, he would have taken that route.

Check out ​streetshootr.com​ for more of Karl's brainwaves.

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