Slow down, review: the spiritual benefits of film photography
What many people may not know about me is that before I became a Franciscan brother, long before I was ordained a priest or became a professor of theology, I was a professional photographer. In college, I studied both theology and journalism, and worked as a freelance photojournalist for years covering sports, breaking news and feature film assignments for a multitude of newspapers, magazines. and press services. And I loved it.
During the first two years of my initial formation as a Franciscan, I still carried out missions for a few editors, while photographing special occasions for ministries in my Franciscan province. I even ran a photography class at one of our departmental locations in New York and held a summer photography and spirituality workshop in Boston.
However, once my theological and ministry studies began, and certainly after I was ordained, my life was occupied with the work of the sacramental ministry, teaching, research, and writing. With a few exceptions (the occasional portrait shoot for my siblings’ weddings or a sporting event here and there), photography has started to recede as an important part of my life.
Like millions of others, I found myself taking pictures on a smartphone without much consideration, quickly capturing and then forgetting fleeting moments and scenes from life. During this time, my photographic equipment was stored in a warehouse in the basements of the convent.
And then the pandemic struck.
Initially, I found myself without the same demanding schedule of meetings, deadlines and travel that I had accommodated over the years. It wasn’t quite a retreat, as there was little about the pandemic that was renewing itself spiritually, emotionally, or physically. But it was a different pace of life that allowed for a lot of thought and discernment, even in the midst of horrific circumstances.
It was then that I found myself drawn to this aspect of my life that had been dormant for almost two decades. I started by dusting off digital material, most of which is, by today’s standards, archaic and virtually worthless. But everything still worked and I started taking pictures again.
Walking around my neighborhood being one of the few things I could do safely during the pandemic, I started taking a camera with me to capture what I could see. My skills were certainly rusty. Photography is still a part of science and art, so both sides of the brain need time to get back into gear.
And then something very unexpected happened. Thanks to the internet, I came across a thriving community of analog photographers – those who didn’t shoot with digital cameras, but used decades-old cameras to shoot 35mm, medium, or large format film.
What shocked me about this community was the way it was run by young adults, most of whom had only known the digital world of smartphones and social media, the “creators” of 4K videos. and YouTube. These Millennials and Gen-Zers ironically fell in love with analog technology that had all but disappeared. It was both surprising and, as I have come to experience, deeply inspiring.
Unlike many of those young adults who were new to filmmaking and almost on their own revitalizing the motion picture industry, I started with filmmaking in the 1990s and for years even shot professionally with the film. The early years of professional digital photography were difficult with prohibitive prices for equipment that rendered poor image quality. I didn’t start photographing regularly with a digital camera until 2003.
Reports of the imminent death of film photography were swift shortly thereafter. In 2004, Kodak announced the cessation of production of cameras. Two years later, Nikon announced that it would also stop manufacturing most of its film cameras. Other manufacturers have followed suit. At the same time, many film companies like Kodak, Fujifilm and Ilford suffered from a rapid decline in sales, and in 2008 Polaroid announced that it would stop producing its famous instant film.
So it’s no wonder that, like many others, I was surprised to see this resurgence of film photography. Watching a new generation discover the analog experience that I not only took for granted, but was the only option I had for the first half of my life, created some nostalgia but also excitement. Over the past few months, I have started shooting movies again, rediscovering some downsides and enjoying the many blessings.
In my opinion, the only major downside is the cost. Cinema, although more and more popular these days, is not always easy to master and therefore the cost is higher due to low demand. You also need to have the film processed and digitized or printed, which you can do yourself, but setting up a darkroom and purchasing the chemicals and equipment are also quite expensive. So when you think about the total cost per frame on film (about 40 cents each), it can add up.
And yet, the cost per frame and slowness of processing is also one of the movie’s biggest blessings – it forces you to thought about every picture you compose and take. It takes some thinking, slowing down, and thinking about whether you want to use one of the limited numbers of frames you have on that roll of film for that particular shot.
You don’t have the luxury of instant feedback either. There is no digital preview on the back of a film camera, and there is no way to share your footage immediately on social media. Therefore, you have to learn patience, and it can be a challenge. However, the virtue of patience has profound spiritual and practical implications. In an age of instant gratification, cultivating patience is a virtue.
It also challenges the photographer to cultivate a spirit of hope, as you won’t know for a while if what you had hoped to accomplish in your framing, focus, and exposure will result in a successful image. Plus, by the time you know it, it’s usually too late to go back and recreate the moment.
One of the biggest advantages of analog photography is that it encourages a new way of seeing the world. Additionally, as one article explains, the lack of mediating digital technology “helps us pursue an unfiltered connection with our own creativity.” Knowing that my options are limited, I found myself looking deeper into my surroundings, seeing how light works, considering the details of a scene, and recognizing the beauty of the people and the world around me, even when I do not have a camera in my hand.
I’m grateful for this resurgence of analog photography in general, but I’m also encouraged by the spiritual benefits that come with slowing down and seeing again. To discern the presence of God in the world through the lens of a camera is a humbling and exciting experience. I am not the only one to recognize the link between photography and the spiritual life. In recent years, several authors have explored these themes, including Christine Valters Paintner in her The eyes of the heart: photography as a contemplative Christian practice and Philip Richter’s Spirituality in Photography: Taking Pictures with Deeper Vision.
For those who would like to see how photography has been a rich expression of spirituality for others, I highly recommend the recent book Contemplating Heaven: The Photographs of Thomas Merton, edited by Paul Pearson, director of the Thomas Merton Center. Merton was one of the greatest spiritual voices of the 20th century; this volume invites us to see also his spiritual vision.
As for me, I intend to continue to embrace my rekindled love of photography – analog and digital – striving to make it a spiritual as well as a creative practice.