During one of those stretches when life was fuller with experimentation, I forever-borrowed my dad’s Carter-era 35mm camera. It had sat digitally idled and dusty for a few years, and I felt the urge to figure out how to take take pictures the right way, to learn what the heck they meant by film speeds and ISOs and f-stops.
So I ran around town and shot off a few rolls of film, doing my best to dial it all in. What I got back from the local camera shop looked like the 1970s. At the time I was disappointed in the results, but looking back I held in my hand prescient proof that I had beat the hipstamatics to the punch. No need for me to i-philter and instagram my credentials; my limited photographic skills did it for me.
Turns out that our tools can shape our perceptions more than we know, that the past you think you’ve discovered is only another generation’s etching, a shorthand guide to the real thing in their mind’s eye. No more than notes on a page convey sound, or totems tell the whole tale. I’ll never know how my grandpa saw the Pacific from the deck of a destroyer – vivid with chaos and uncertainty – to later generations, that fight’s always going to be black and white.
This guy took my accidental vintage snapshot experiment a notch further, and with far more purpose. British photographer Jonathan Keys resurrected a 130-year old wooden camera to take pictures of modern life the really old-fashioned way: the collodion process. This involves splashing about noxious chemicals, glass slides, portable darkrooms, and subjects that will to stand stock-still for minutes while the exposure takes hold.
The results are a time warp – part past, part present. Like something Spock & Kirk would have stumbled on while seeking out new life and new civilizations. Even though the whole convoluted process is so time-consuming he can only take a few photos a day, he says that the results can outpace the editing and nit-picking-via-Photoshop rigmarole that has become the current standard. With this setup, what you get is what you get.
Now that 35mm sits shelved in my basement, returning to the cycle of disuse once again. But good gear has a way of finding purpose – I’m sure it’s not shot its last. Like vinyl, Vans, and Ray-Bans. Some summer day will come when my kids will take it out for a spin.