Editorial: The Appeal of Film Photography

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As I sit here in quarantine unable to go to events, flea markets, or to regularly hang out with friends, I’m reminded of my hobbies. I have quite a few creative outlets like painting and composing, but there’s one that has been completely intoxicating- film photography.  It’s something so inherently cool and quirky, yet easy-going with the fun result of being able to have physical copies of the images.

Today, I dive deep on this new obsession of mine.

Introduction

Photography is probably my most prominent expression of creativity, after dressing up of course.  I may have a predilection for consuming and shooting classic menswear, but I always thought of it as more than just for content or as strictly fashion; it’s just taking pictures of my favorite people.  Something a bit more candid and journalistic, a theme which you have either gathered from seeing my event coverage (a thinly veiled excuse for me to show off my pic-taking skill) or reading my very lengthy essay on Menswear Photography.

That article was a good exercise for me, but in retrospect, I felt that it was too focused on digital content coming out of menswear brands and personalities. It may be more art-focused and extremely well done, being better than most things popping up on IG, but it’s still different from just photographs for photographs sake.  You could call it being a bit burnt out, as I bring my trusty Canon 6D everywhere (and the 35mm f/2), but it’s actually a sentiment that most of my professional (non menswear) photographers share.

When you take pictures for a living and hobby with the same camera editing everything day after day, it’s can get a bit tiring.  And that’s where film comes into play!

Film Photography

Obviously, film photography is the original (or maybe it’s painting?) form of capturing a moment.  Digital just makes it easy and accessible, but there’s something so much more inherently intimate and artistic about film.  With digital, you can take a shit load of pictures, changing settings as you go, and can even edit them further them in Lightroom or manipulate them in Photoshop; you don’t have that luxury with film, at least not right away.  Everything is intentional and a one-time use.  Your choice of film and how you push or pull it all comes into play.  Even your focus is essential; one wrong movement and the subject doesn’t come out clear.  Of course retouching is a thing, and you can edit the scans you get, but eh.  Let’s keep film idealistic.

In short, it’s imperfect, messy, and with careful control, you sometimes you get a good piece. And that’s why I love it!  There’s probably a connotation there between my love of slightly imperfect photography and my slouchy approach to menswear.

Now while you may recall that I got a lot of my original [digital] photography inspo from seeing Ethan Newton, Mark Cho, and Chad Park on Tumblr, upon recollection, I actually got my first taste of good photography via the old pictures posted by my friend Florian on his account.  The feed has a good amount of vintage ads/illustrations, detail shots of vintage pieces, but a majority of the content comes from film photography of the 1920s-1940s (The Golden Era). Of course, seeing photography from the 1950s-1960s is also nice, which tends to have a touch of modernity to it.

At those times, especially in the early days, photography wasn’t as widespread/accessible compared to what it is now (think of how many IG photographers there are), so the content was either in the form of artists taking artsy pictures, journalists documenting the world, or random home-pictures; the idea of content for content wasn’t exactly developed yet.  It’s due to this nature of “capturing the world” that we why it appealed to me: it’s literally pictures of well dressed people who are naturally well dressed.  Sometimes it was an artist having fun in his studio or it’s Vivian Maier taking pictures of people on the street. Whatever it was, the subjects just look so damn cool. I strive to evoke feeling in my digital photography.

And like I said earlier, sometimes the pictures themselves don’t come out well.  Maybe they’re slightly out of focus or too dark. Maybe the grain is a bit too much. Or perhaps the films are old, so the scans aren’t too great.  But that’s cool!   Other times, the frames are exquisite.  Everything is on point, from the focus to the metering.  And that’s how you knew people were good.

There’s just something so lovely about the medium that I find entrancing, that can only be recreated digitally if you don’t just take a film picture.  There’s depth in the darks; the colors can be muted or enhanced; and of course, seeing people in tailoring or workwear as simply the clothes they wore that day without the modern lens of being “into fashion” is just fascinating. Even the fact these images were carefully chosen to be frozen in time is endlessly cool.

I’ll get into my film photography in a moment, but right now, enjoy some of my favorite Golden Era film pictures that I think evoke what I’m talking about; from the style of the photograph to the style of the people within them, some being famous, other’s being nameless.  There’s even a sense of awkwardness about getting the picture taken, something that is also lost in an era where everyone is basically a semi-professional photographer and model.

And yes, I realize that I’m being very idealistic about this whole thing, but who cares! It’s fun and beautiful.

I love pictures of people in their element.

Lighting will always appeal to me.

Today

Thanks to the rise in digital cameras, film photography has taken a bit of a back seat, at least in the mainstream.  It’s not gone, surely that will never happen, but its definitely a rarity. As such, you can see that many of my photography inspirations take pictures in the same vibe, just with digital.  I mean like I said earlier, there are a lot of problems that come with film, necessitating buying rolls, making sure the settings are right, and getting it developed. I can understand why people don’t want to deal with the headache, especially in this content driven world where you want to shoot as much as you can and share it when it’s ready.

However, that’s what makes film such a more art-driven, vintage-filled activity, since you’d have to be so dedicated to these “outdated” processes in order to take part in it!  And because of all those little idiosyncrasies, hassle, and that charm I noted with all those old examples, film photography also has a bit of a hipster or indie appeal.  Not quite punk or edgy, but different.  It’s akin to wearing a beret: you could just as well use a knit cap, but you chose something with a weird, slightly intellectual vibe.

Because of that, I’ve come to admire when people use film, especially if it’s a brand.  To me, a brand that uses film has an appreciation for being “slow” and even a bit hipster (in a good way).  I mean in the world of IG photography and daily content, it’s hard to imagine that only a few years ago, most of it (like Abercrombie or Ralph Lauren) was being shot with film! Film and its more thoughtful approach is a calming voice against the algorithm.

Drake’s took the world by storm with their fun, candid approach to menswear photography.  Now the brand is nearly fully expressed through film by way of photographer James Harvey-Kelly, who has been stated to mainly work with film (and medium format).  The pics are obviously for content to share on IG or for their famous lookbooks/editorials, but it’s still very nice to see! In fact, all of this film stuff has been a big push for their IG content, finally supplementing their focus on the NYC store taken by F.E Castleberry (whose work is definitely inspired by film).

The images certainly have life and character.  My favorites are the ones from Pitti, since they’re not shot specifically for a look book or an editorial, coming across as documentarian, which rocks my boat.  But across all of it, you can tell they’re slightly imperfect, whether it’s due to the lighting, the focus, or at a dutch-angle.  It’s these characteristics that call to mind the vintage photographs I love so much.

There’s something so interesting about choosing a silly picture to immortalize in film.

Even The Armoury NYC tried their hand with film, thanks to the talents of Elliot Hammer, a photographer turned their Head of Communications.  It was used for their casual wear lookbook.

Now while film in classic menswear content is a bit rare (despite all the tumblr and IG’s sharing film pics of well dressed men all the time), it’s extremely popular more casual circles, namely streetwear and skating; it’s even widely used for documenting musicians.

I may not have examples here other than Rowing Blazers (who straddles the line between ivy casual/prep and skate/street), but I’ve seen it among some of my non-menswear friends (and some of the girls I date) in places in LA and NYC.  They’re all a bit indie/alternative to the mainstream, which is what probably draws them to using a medium that isn’t as commercial or “easy”.  Due to this connection to niche communities and interests, the use of film becomes intimate, adding an extra layer to the old school documentary-esque approach.

The recent lookbook by Rowing Blazers appears to use film to great effect. Again, it’s a bit more casual in terms of content, but that easy, retro vibe.  If Drake’s and The Armoury exude that old school, slightly somber take on film, then Rowing Blazers (rightly) brings the cool vibe from all those skate pictures from back in the late 1970s to the 1990s.   Just by looking at the pics, you’ll be able to get those effortlessly cool, hiphop/hipster vibe despite the old money, East Coast rowing connotations.

My Friends

If we want to talk about what actually got me to take more notice of film in the contemporary sense (heads up, I started doing film much before that Spring 2020 RB lookbook came out), the honor goes to Chase Winfrey.  A Drake’s alum now working for J. Mueser, a bespoke tailoring house also in NYC, Chase has really become an excellent photographer, using both digital and film cameras.  I like that his approach seems to be similar to mine, where he takes pictures for both his job and for pleasure. Chase has many friends and colleagues in the menswear space and on his feed scattered among his stellar outfits, he features them across his mediums. When the company you keep is well dressed and pretty photogenic, it’s hard not to resist the temptation to snap a pic or two during a hang.

He hasn’t done big published work like the Big Three (Milad, Robert, and Jamie), but that’s why it’s so fascinating to me.  His shots of his friends and colleagues just hanging out are stellar, bringing to mind the perfect combination of the photographs of old and the newer, more street/casual ones. You could say this is thanks to the use of flash snapshots and proper SLR exposures, the latter of which I still need to figure out.  Overall, his work is a perfect insight of what the NYC menswear scene is like, through Chase’s personal lens, and all done on nostalgic film.

I haven’t actually talked to Chase much about his photography, but his stuff speaks for itself. If he’s anything like me, he’s probably grown up with a lot of the same film pictures popping up on his Tumblr for years and trying your own hand at it is only natural.  Chase has been a great style inspiration for how I approach ivy and I’m proud to say that he’s been formative in my desire to try out film photography for myself.

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My friend Jay on expired film.

The other driving force behind my journey to film came from Andrew, a good friend of mine that I met in college.  He’s not involved with menswear whatsoever (though he has made a few fun appearances on the blog), but he’s been a hobbyist photographer for years who like Chase, does digital and film.

Andrew’s main quirk is that he loves using vintage cameras and expired film. I’m sure Chase does as well, but Andrew takes it upon himself to experiment with different ISOs, brands, and years of expiration all to great effect.  He’s still in college and thus has free access to a darkrooms and scanner, but I’ve gathered most of the processes and approach from our countless hangs and conversations.

He typically shoots IG models, but I love looking at the pictures he takes of our friends. I think they’re fantastic and certainly inspirational. I may not be as keen on dealing with expired film, but the imperfections and “visible age” are just great.

Overall, I’ve definitely been noticing quite a few people my age getting into film photography.  It’s especially prominent in stereotypical artsy-indie culture, especially in Los Angeles (I’d expect NYC too), so of course I’d see it on the IG feeds of the people I hang out with, both inside the menswear industry and out.  It’s only natural that I’d get into it myself.

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My pal Jon is a filmmaker and also a hobbyist film photographer. During the pandemic, he actually picked up a secondhand Leica and shot these.

Rory is a menswear enthusiast who thrifted a point-and-shoot film camera and took these!  I love the candid, amateur vibe.

Film Photography

My first actual foray into doing film myself came last summer when for my 24th birthday, Andrew gifted me an expired Kodak disposable camera.  It was a completely new experience for me as I only had 24 exposures, couldn’t control the speed/aperture, and most of all, I couldn’t see what the final snap looked like!  But it was my birthday and I thought to myself, “why not make some fun memories?” So instead of using my digital camera, I just used the disposable one.  I was certainly chose my moment carefully, but I knew I was going to be happy in the end.

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After finishing the camera, I was told by Andrew that I should have the film pushed two stops since they were expired rolls. I went to my local Samy’s Camera and got them developed, scanned, and printed.  It all may seem redundant, but when I was taking those pictures, I had a flurry of flashbacks to my childhood, where disposable cameras and photo albums were the only way to look at memories and not by checking IG feeds or FB timelines.  So despite all the expenses of all three processes (I should really learn how to develop these myself and get a scanner), I still toyed with going all in on this whole film thing.

So after a week I got the pictures back and I was floored.  The pictures were so good! Some were blurry. Some were spot on. And like my parents who had years of photo albums of important and random memories, I was soon starting my collection.  But I was still scared to fully get into it; I was a digital boi after all.  I mean painting is fun, but was I really going to invest in a working film camera, purchasing rolls, and getting them developed/scanned? I wasn’t yet sure.

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To tide myself over, I bought two more disposable cameras to see if I really wanted to dive deep into a new hobby.  It’s just so easy to point and click (of course you need to make sure the flash is on) instead of dealing the uncertainty of an SLR.  I just had to get used to the idea of film for myself.  So I brought them to Dapper Day and my personal trip to San Francisco and took a bunch of pictures. After getting the exposures developed and putting them into my neophyte album, I knew I was hooked and ready to go full force.

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One of my favorite pictures of all time.

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When I was looking for actual, non-disposable film cameras, I knew I wanted at least two. Firstly a point-and-shoot with flash, to evoke the ease of the disposables I had first tried; a roll of film is around $7-10 while a disposable is $12, so you save money in the long run! The other would be an SLR, to be a compliment to what I get out of my trusty Canon 6D, just with all the character and “hassle” of film.  I found them in the form of a Konica C-35 and a thrifted AE-1, respectively, and later a Pentax IQZoom EZY-80 (another automatic AF point and shoot). So I guess I ended up with three, though I love using automatics the most.

For my film choice, I settled on Fujifilm C200 for a bit and put it in my point-and-shoot since it’s easy and cheap, though it can present a problem for low light since it’s a low speed film.  After getting some blurry results from my automatic AF cameras (which you will see below), I finally decided to keep things at 400ISO with Kodak Ultramax, found cheap on Amazon. In the AE-1, I initially used Portra 400, before switching to ultramax as well. I used to shoot it normally but I occasionally push it to 800 when developing, since I like shooting in dramatic light and don’t want to pay the high Portra 800 price. I am an amateur after all!

Now I say amateur purposes (disclosed before I show you my work) because I know I’m not the best film photographer.  My pictures aren’t often focused correctly or exposed optimally.  But I’m okay with it.  As I was reflecting back on my birthday pictures with the disposable, I knew that this wasn’t going to be for regular posting on my blog, to take outfit pics, or to even turn into something professional. All of that is what my digital camera is for.

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Film was and will be for personal use, something that isn’t related to my job (though a menswear eye is inherent). As such, I actually bring my film camera with me more than my Canon 6D, taking pictures of in-between moments instead of the outfit portraits and high quality, editorial-esque candids that you typically see on the blog.

In other words, film was for snapping memories I wanted to save in a way that was different than my typical digital life.  It’s rather similar to my paintings, as they are for me to produce for myself and share simply because I’m proud of it. To keep it easy, I don’t do anything else to pictures other than pick them up from Samy’s camera when they’re done being developed, scanned, and printed. Preserving them the way I took it (faults and all) without any post-development editing is important to me as it represents a memory I decided to capture free from extra work on the computer. It’s certainly an exercise in “going with the flow”.

So enjoy some of my favorite film pictures I’ve taken of my little ‘ol life in the past few months.  As you’d expect, it’s full of menswear, fast food, and dumb shenanigans, evoking the documentarian-yet-candid effect I had gleamed from all the inspirations above. And like my regular photography that you’ve no doubt had your fill of, the film pictures you’ll see are a mix of silly, dramatic, and odd, just through the character-filled medium of film.

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My momma and me, in 1978.

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Conclusion

This may just be an exercise in how I really am the beanie donning, cuffed pants/white socks wearing, indie band listening, film photographer indie boy I always knew I was.

I’ve always been a fly-on-the-wall type of guy and photography came naturally to me as a hobby.  Using film not only lets me do that hobby without extra hassle (editing countless pictures after events can be tedious), but it provides a bit of that natural, vintage charm that has defined the the roots of my menswear journey.  For portraits it creates depth when it’s great and a sense of character even if the focus or settings are off. It’s certainly made me more thoughtful in my approach, something that I’ve felt a bit burnt out about, as I’m used to taking a lot of digital pictures (and editing them accordingly).  Overall, I just love how the flash-filled automatic pictures come out.  It’s almost the opposite of the thoughtful SLR; it’s simply a random, fun memory captured on film, akin to the countless ones I’ve seen in my family’s photo albums.  That’s probably why most of the ones in this post are flash/automatic pics!

I know this whole thing is a tangentially related to menswear, but that’s kind of the point. Getting in touch with my style has put me in a great place to express myself creatively, much more than just clothes.  Painting was a good start, but film was something else. As I I had alluded to earlier, being a digital photographer for both my job and my blog had taken a toll; everything needed to be shot and edited and exported for my uses. It had to be nearly perfect, because it’s digital. Why not right?  But with film, you really just have to take it and deal with it, imperfections and all!

It makes me happy to have brought film as a new hobby into my life, despite it still being a bit wonky and imperfect. Like with clothes, it’s all about looking to the past and gathering inspiration to try it myself. I’m certainly not as adept as Chase or Andrew, who seem to have taken to the art form well and more effectively exude the old pictures that inspired me from Tumblr. Until I get better (whatever that happens to mean), it’s just a way for me to be a nostalgic bastard and look at my photographs in a medium other than primarily for my blog or for an IG post. I mean, based on how long it takes me to get through a roll and get them processed, it just wouldn’t work for how often I pump out essays.

Obviously, I may share them on my accounts to show how proud I am of Spencer eating a pie, a mannequin at The Bloke, or me singing karaoke. There’s a bit of menswear involved in the story of the image, but it’s about documenting my life rather than to be regular content. The film pictures I take are just for me to compile into an album and look at fondly!

Maybe someday I’ll get better at them, but that’s all apart of the fun, no?

Always a pleasure,

@EthanMWong

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