I bought a typewriter not long ago. If you look at Craigslist on a regular basis you’ll probably find one for cheap. When you find out the ink ribbon is old and dry you’ll discover that you can still buy replacement ribbons on the internet. And then you’ll debate whether or not you should buy the split red-and-black ribbon or go for the all black one, reasoning that you can flip it and get some extra life out of it, not that I’ve ever worn out a typewriter ribbon in my life. And when was the last time you needed to type in red anyway?
I also recently bought a 1997 Mazda Miata. I know the stereotypes and, no, I’m not a hairdresser. I’ve owned two of these little cars in recent years. It was less than a week after selling the first one that I started shopping for the second. I felt incomplete without one.
Both of these purchases are examples of my desire to live in an analogue world. The typewriter is obvious, with linkages and interactions that manifest in tactile objects (type-covered pages) that you can share or hoard. The way the keys unevenly pound against paper, leaving ink artifacts that form words and, sometimes, ideas, is soothing.
My typewriter lives on my kitchen table. An ideological remnant of the late 20th Century about “dining” and a pessimism about how many people I might cook for on any given night leaves me with more table than I need most of the time, so the Smith Corona Classic doesn’t often get in the way. I’ve taught my twelve-year-old daughter about the beauty hidden within a haiku. A typewriter is the perfect means by which to express a haiku. Keys are deliberately pushed and the audible, mechanical clacks create a precious, unique and real thing that you can hold and reflect upon. My kid expressed her feelings about the school hot lunch program via a typewritten haiku –
Luke warm mac and cheese
is the scourge of the hot lunch
I’d rather eat dirt
That made me smile. Since when does a twelve-year-old know the word “scourge?”
What I like about the Miata is the way that it proves that there was a brief but precious and perfectly balanced moment in the mid-to-late 1990s automotive world. Technology was good, cars were reliable and handled well, and engineers had figured out suspension, and engines and clutches lasted a stupid-long amount of time. Equally important, gimmicks hadn’t yet taken over.
Not long after this sweet period of balance, dashboards became digital, computers made physical mechanisms outmoded, and parts of every car were more often connected by wires and micro chips and less by cables and levers. Modern cars have gone totally computer-age with dashboards dominated by touchscreens that will look as foolish as a Palm Treo cell phone in five years. (For younger readers, Palm was a dominant cell phone manufacturer in the early-to-mid 2000s. They were even bigger than BlackBerry for a while. Remember BlackBerry?)
When I bought it, my Miata produced a grating mechanical buzz from a small box under the dash every time I didn’t put my seatbelt on fast enough, or when I opened the door with my keys still in the ignition. It was monumentally annoying, but I could fish around under the dash while it was buzzing and identify the noise making box by feel and unplug the wires leading to it. One can do this type of simple modification when machines are built out of bits and pieces, and not software.
Which brings us to photography, finally, this being a site about photography.
I had a Canon S100 digital point-and-shoot camera. One day the lens extended and never retracted again and a “lens error” notification appeared on the rear LCD screen. This had happened once before when the camera was relatively new. An email sent to Canon and a couple of tracking numbers later, I had a Canon S100 repaired under warranty. But this was the second occurrence of the same defect, and it occurred long after the S100 had passed puberty and become a full blown geriatric camera in the world of digital photography.
“Dear Canon, my S100 needs to be fixed again.”
“Dear Canon S100 owner, Ha ha ha ha!!!! You’re a loser for owning something so old.”
I’m paraphrasing. I bought the camera in 2012, it became a broken and obsolete lump of technology in 2018.
With nothing to lose, I dusted off my tiny screwdriver set, adjusted the desk lamp on my workspace, and loaded a web page titled, “How to fix your Canon S100 yourself, you cheap bastard.”
Remove tiny screws.
Remove more tiny screws.
Flip cable thingie, gently prod cable out of thingie.
Remove more tiny screws.
Remove LENS MODULE
Install new replacement LENS MODULE.
What? I was hoping I’d stumbled upon a “repair it yourself” hack to fix a common problem. Apparently the hack was a “replace the entire piece” guide. This was not helpful. This was garbage. And now, too, was the S100.
Another thing that I own is a hard drive that has stopped working. I’m usually pretty good about double and triple redundancy when it comes to digital files and back-ups, but this one hard drive escaped my efforts for some reason, and how poetic is it that the one uncopied drive is the one that failed? On this drive are videos of my kid during the first year or two of her life, digitally recorded at a time when video cameras used rewritable DVDs which you would copy onto your computer’s (apparently) fragile data storage device. I keep meaning to take this drive to a tech guy to see if the files can be retrieved but it hasn’t happened yet, and I suspect the chances for recovery are slim to nil, and getting smaller every day.
In contrast, I have taken apart an old Pentax Spotmatic SLR to adjust a sticky shutter with success. I once got an Olympus film camera off of eBay only to find it rattling upon receiving it, the cause being a loose screw inside the viewfinder. I took the Olympus apart, returned the screw to its proper spot, and reassembled it into a working camera. I once took apart a 20mm Nikkor lens and cleaned the sticky aperture blades to get it functioning again.
I like things I can take apart, understand how they work, or why they don’t, and put them back together. I can do this with the Maita as well. Armed with a screwdriver and a couple of wrenches I removed and replaced a speedometer cable; a serpent like cable within a housing with little gear drives at each end that connected a gear in the transmission to a wheel in the speedometer. And I even fixed a friend’s typewriter when a small armature had become disconnected deep inside the mechanism. With a bread knife and some squinting I managed to reconnect the linkage so that the ribbon would dutifully jump between the type slug and paper when a key was pushed.
Nothing is permanent, but there is something comforting about the tangible and the mechanical. And this is why I shoot film.
Film cameras, the older ones anyway, are little mechanical devices that can be dissected and understood. There is a fascinating series of photographs by Todd McLellan where he takes things apart and photographs them. Amongst the photographs of a flip clock, and old rotary phone, is an image of a Pentax Spotmatic dissembled to the tiniest screw. Even reduced to parts, it’s a conceivable object, a real thing. There are no magic pixies in amongst the micro screws, fine springs, bevels, washers and pins.
And when assembled, what that machine does is produce a tangible image, a negative that you can hold and examine. It makes a photograph without the aid of ones and zeros. The negative, stored properly, might last forever. Stored improperly, as evidenced by my treatment of the negatives I took some thirty years ago, they may also last forever while the ones and zeros of my kid figuring out how to be a human being on a defective hard drive are lost forever after just five or six years.
I know a lot of people will talk about the soulfulness of the colours of film, the comfort found in the grain structure of film prints, how there is a purposefulness to taking a photograph on film because, unlike digital, film has a cost and a commitment associated with every click, and it’s slow, and it requires more thoughtfulness in the creation of a photograph when using film. Yeah, I can buy some of that as well, but I shoot film because it’s real. The machine that takes the photograph is real. The film is real. Maybe the scans are still ones and zeros, but there’s still a PrintFile sleeve with negatives in it that can be viewed using nothing but a light source.
I have no problem with Instagram, and I’ve consumed countless Podcasts, written a billion texts and emails, I have multiple copies of hard drives filled with RAW photo files that I may never look at again, there is music on my phone, and all this stuff is fleeting, electronic evanescence. It’s incredible how I can look at Instagram every day and see amazing, beautiful photographs, but it’s never the same photograph, and each one fades into the ether after viewing, and if it was that good why can’t I remember any of them? And why is it so hard to find them once the algorithm decides they don’t need to be seen anymore? Instead, Instagram becomes less about actual photographs and more about a type of photograph, an idea of an idea without specificity or grounding.
And so much of our digital landscape is the same – data conjured out of routers or processed through circuit boards and powered by lithium batteries for just a moment, before being replaced by the next idea about something else that we’ll forget just as quickly.
But film is real. The process is real. The machine that takes the photograph is real. The stack of negatives taking up space in a drawer in my bedroom is real. And that’s why I shoot film.