Let me take you back to 2018. After discovering my interest in photography, my grandmother tells me that she’s coming to visit with a gift, and an attached caveat: don’t get your hopes up, it might not work anymore. It turns out to be a 35mm Minolta camera that once belonged to my grandfather, and she estimates that he bought it in the 90s. It’s my first experience with any non-digital camera, so my belief that it’s incredibly dated leads me to overlook the fact that it winds the film itself, has programmable modes, and so forth — in layman’s terms, it was analog photography with all the bells and whistles.
We get it working, and next thing I know, I’m stupefied that I’m only able to take 36 exposures at a time with this thing; I would often shoot more frames than that of the very same picture on my digital camera, just to capture all the tiniest details that might change in the fractions of seconds between one frame and another. But just a week later, I’m amazed at the ethereal clarity of the photos this camera creates. While I’m fully aware that I had just taken them a few days ago and able to recall almost exactly where I was when I shot them, at the same time I am swept away by an immense tide of nostalgia, as if I was looking into a much more distant past, long before I was even taking photos as a hobby. Until this point, I had thought of photography as a creative outlet and a way to document experience for any number of reasons, but I never understood its capacity to transcend time.
With an iPhone or a digital camera in hand, you can immediately capture a scene and edit it to tell whatever story you like. A photo of a bright and sunny day could be so heavily processed that it appears moody, muted, and melancholic without even many significant changes. Although it can still be manipulated, there is more of an objectivity to film, a documentary unwieldiness that I think our modern psyches honestly have a difficult time grasping. When you look at a film photo you took in another place and time, it forces you to confront the monopoly that your memory claims to possess over your experiences in this world. All of a sudden, we can’t retroactively replace our remembered “reality” with a narrative that fits our impulses in the present.
Giving yourself over to an art form that tests you is to surrender this ego, even in such a small way as to think you got a great shot when you pressed the shutter button, only to discover when the scans come back that is was blurry, underexposed, or out of focus.
Those things just happen, and film doesn’t pull any punches when you get it wrong: the evidence is incontrovertible, right before your eyes.
The sooner you understand that these things happen, the sooner you can move on.
When I moved back to America in 2019, I inherited yet another 35mm camera from my grandmother. This time, it was my grandfather’s Canon A1, reaching me all the way from 1974. If I thought the Minolta was rudimentary, this was practically ancient, but working my way backwards like this allowed me to appreciate the innovation on display. This was the first 35mm SLR camera to have a fully automatic programmed mode, meaning that it could adjust its aperture and shutter speed to light conditions without any work on the photographer’s part. In context, this is extraordinary, because the camera is only partially electronic — most of its operations are still mechanical, based on levers and switches moved in certain ways. There is a small battery in the top, but the functions it performs are so minute that I am still using the same one as was in the camera at least twenty years ago, when my grandparents were using it regularly.
To get help understanding this camera and ensure that I was using it properly, I drove to Dury’s Camera Store here in Nashville, about twenty minutes from my house on the highway. They assured me it worked fine without a new battery, I bought some film, and went on my way. Over the next few months, I returned time and again to wonder at the walls and cabinets full of equipment whose purpose or function I didn’t understand — this was a comprehensive camera store for true experts, and it had been that way for more than 135 years. I quickly discovered that it was the oldest camera store still open in the country.
But it wasn’t until a visit in December that I understood why I felt so comforted in this store, and I realized it while standing in line. As I waited, I looked around, discovering stair and display cases I’d never seen before. My senses felt heightened as I smelled something: the somewhat musty scent of old carpet, combined with a hint of electric heat that a lot of machines in one place will generate. It was almost exactly the smell of my grandfather’s old office, a carpeted mecca of tape decks, typewriters, mixing boards and processors that inspired endless wonder in me as a child. I remember watching with total fixation as he revealed their innards to solder wires together, or made a hulking computer monitor flash blue with the menu of an old DOS operating system.
A few weeks later, I was in Chicago visiting my girlfriend when I decided to visit Central Camera Company on the recommendation of a friend. Where Dury’s was spread out and a little less accessible, Central had only one aisle running the length of an oblong store, where you were flanked by merchandise crammed into cabinets and onto shelves on both sides, feeling like you might trip over a rogue lens cap or tripod if you weren’t careful. Dury’s felt like my grandfather’s office, but Central was like stumbling into Melquiades’s laboratory from One Hundred Years of Solitude: a place of organized chaos held together by equal parts determination and imagination, such that you couldn’t be sure it was real. Sandwiched into a small slice of Michigan Avenue underneath the L, a massive neon sign pulls you from the miasma of modernity into a simpler time, when a store owner is always present and ready to comment on your transaction with a wry bit of humor.
The staff at Central showed me so much kindness on return visits. I talked to an associate and the owner himself, Don, about the phenomena of analog and film surging in popularity amongst young people like myself. I mentioned I was thinking about writing a story for Passion Passport about it, and they were happy to talk. Another time, Tim accidentally charged me 4 cents (4 cents!) too much for a roll of black and white film — he apologized by throwing in another for free.
About a week ago, word came in an Instagram post that Dury’s in Nashville would be closing their doors for good. I thought I understood that the pandemic would hit them pretty hard, but I was still taken aback. I couldn’t wrap my head around more than 135 years of business just fading away. I was worried the same thing might happen to Central, another of the very oldest camera stores in the country. Then I would have no choice but to mail my film off to get processed in the future, or to order new rolls online. The personal interactions that film photography had brought me so far were probably my favorite thing about the hobby, and I would hate to see them supplanted by virtual convenience.
Then, just last night at the time of writing this, cities across America boiled over in anguish at the death of George Floyd. Protests descended into violence as the police continued to attack citizens and enforce their perverted sense of order. Nashville’s courthouse was set alight, and Chicago’s Central Camera Company burned to a crisp. When Don, the owner’s, face appeared on the news, he immediately set aside concerns for his business in deference and respect for the movements that are fighting to protect Black lives. He echoed the sentiments of the Gandhi Mahal restaurant owner in Minneapolis:
“Let my building burn.”
These losses, however devastating, could never compare to the losses experienced every day by the Black community in this country.
After all, much like the fickle flaws of a film exposure, the evidence of a terrorized and marginalized life in America for BIPOC is overwhelming and undeniable. For too long now, it has simply been a matter of whether or not those of us with privilege choose to see it. We have routinely and systemically shielded ourselves from their point of view, refusing to ever imagine the shoe going on the other foot. When our businesses burn, it is a product of our own obstinacy, and the mile or so that we may be forced to walk in the shoes of loss is infinitesimal in comparison to the oceans Black people were forced to cross in order to build this country against their will. The sooner we can take responsibility for our complacency, our privilege, and our silence, the sooner white people can move in tandem with Black leaders to create something new. The time of framed narratives, slippery truths, and alternative facts is going up in smoke before our eyes. Racism is not getting worse, it is getting filmed. Take a long, hard look.
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