On History & Media

I’m currently working on the Film Photography item on my Bucket List. By habit, I look at the back of the SLR after each exposure to see a preview of the image, only to remember that it’s a film camera. As a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about how quickly we are able to see the result of a picture in the age of digital cameras and smartphones. Even my 2 year old son understands the convenience and looks to review a photo in the camera app because that’s what he sees his parents do. The challenge and uncertainty of film photography is appealing because it is finite.

The decorations of my office are, in part, an homage to the history of imaging technology. Among the items that decorate the space are a handful of SLR cameras, an 8mm motion picture camera, a 16mm film projector, a carousel slide projector, and assorted film boxes. I’ve also included a few modern pieces of equipment on the shelf. More than anything, I enjoy seeing the 16mm projector next to my drone. It reminds me of the progress that has been made in the last 85 years – since the time early home video was accessible to consumers.

I’m in the midst of a family history project and appreciate the work that was done by my family members to preserve the past. Media can be permanent if it survives the transition between playback methods. My great grandfather was an early adopter of consumer video in the 20th century. His first 16mm film reels date as far back as 1936. He had to purchase film, load it into the camera, photograph sparingly because of the finite frames available, send in and pay for the film to be processed, and splice together segments of 100′ reels into 400′ reels. The splicing involved a physical edit – cutting and gluing the film together. He then watched the film back on a projector, but only after setting up a viewing screen.

Contrasted to today, I dig in my pocket for my phone, swipe right to open the camera, hold it up (hopefully horizontally) and capture a video of whatever interesting thing is happening. The media automatically uploads to the cloud and my phone goes back into my pocket. The video is either sent and shared or finds its resting place among tens of thousands of other moments in time.

The compilation reels of my great grandfather contained motion picture of multiple events or locations – a hunting trip, parade, or Christmas morning. He added title cards to the beginning of most of the reels in his collection. The projector and screen were brought out for special occasions to look back on these finite, time-intensive edits of history. It’s also worth mentioning the films are silent – the only sound to be heard is the whir of the film feeding through the projector.

If only I could step back in time and share with him about how the future would have flying remote-controlled cameras that can operate from miles away – and all of it would be accessible to the photography hobbyist.

I also wonder about the shifting gender roles of media capture in recent history, which is a topic worth thinking through on another day. Much of the family media I’ve converted to digital for friends and family was captured by men who were interested in the changing imaging technology. The rise of the camcorder and the responsibility to organize a catalog of media for the family seemed to have been culturally relevant to men from the 1930s until the first decade of the 21st century. However, the roles seems to have swapped with the advent of digital. The movement away from a dedicated camera to the convenience of a smartphone seems to appeal more towards women, who I see as the ones documenting family occurrences today. Whereas the camera gave an outlined set of tasks and responsibilities to the man, the commonality of the smartphone has potentially replaced his role, and as a result he defers. These observations are, of course, generalizations. If you have any thought around this topic, please let me know.

Did the smartphone take the challenge out of family documentation?

We live in a media-rich age but to what end? With unlimited quantity comes less respect for the medium. How do we address the organization of unlimited quantity? We buy extra storage to house terabytes of information in the cloud but the media never seems to be organized into a cohesive digital “reel”. I’ve always thought there is a business model somewhere in this problem…

My hope is that, after developing the film photographs, there is a new importance placed on the photography process and I am more contentious about slowing down to documenting occurrences in the world around me.

Today, I can still play back one of the film reels from 1936 on my 16mm projector. I can then go for a hike and capture aerial drone footage with my futuristic flying camera.