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Everyone I Meet at Yard Sales Misses Photography

There’s a growing interest in film photography among young people (to whom it’s brand new!) I love teaching about photography and getting these old film cameras that documented so many of our lives, keeping them alive and working for a new generation of photographers, making prints, creating art.

I work one-on-one with students in Boulder and Denver and in a classroom setting at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center in Denver.

When I see thrift stores or yard sales, I stop and source cameras that I make available to students. (You are welcome to bring your own, as well). I mainly seek and recommend mechanical film cameras with little battery dependency, and manual controls and film advance. Older cameras without working meters are also often still usable once you learn to estimate exposure, which I teach—light is extremely consistent and you don’t actually need a meter.

Which brings me to today’s topic–how people I meet miss photography. When I ask at a yard sale if there is anything photographic for sale–cameras, darkroom items, books, old film–I explain I teach film photography, and they always light up. They reminisce about the times they used film cameras and made photographs during trips or with family, or took a photography class in high school.

When we start talking about film photography, the conversation always turns to the way photography used to be There’s talk of old photo albums that are full of memories. Photographs that used to hang on the walls of their home. I comment that photography used to be about making memories to relive later, but nowadays it’s a live diary, “Here’s where I am now. No need to ever look at this image again.” And swipe away it goes.

One woman recently suggested she has boxes full of albums that are never seen. I suggested, “Take out one photo album a month and make it the featured book on her coffee table for family and guests.” She loved that idea and said she was going to do just that, and she was excited that she’d be able to relive those memories and tell stories about them, too.

Often I’ll pick up older Nikons or Canons or Pentax cameras at these sales (sometimes they need a bit of cleaning up and fixing, and I can do simple repairs), but sometimes they’ll have a Leica or Contax or something else that’s much too valuable and expensive and that I can’t afford for students (or myself). I suggest to these folks they keep that camera. “Put one roll of 36-exposure black and white film (that’ll cost you $10 locally) in it, and only shoot one frame a month, on the first of every month. 36 frames will last you three years, and then get it developed and printed and you’ll have a wonderful time capsule of photographs you made but forgot about. That’s where the magic of film photography is–in the forgetting!” I’ve had more than one person say they would like to try that, that would be exciting and fun to do.

They often tell me they miss what photography used to be and enjoy my enthusiasm for film photography. Sure, it’s simple now, with digital and phones, but it’s no longer used for memories. It used to be special. The separation from the time you made the photograph until when you saw it, that was a necessary part of it. Having real photo prints in hand and giving them out to friends, that was the gift of photography.

Now, it’s, “See me, I’m here now”, glance, swipe and never see again. Really, that’s where the photograph ends.

I commented to one seller recently that I photograph weddings in a very minimalist way, shooting a film camera or two, and then printing up between 30-50 photographs for a leather-bound album that’s worthy of the coffee table, and a privilege for viewing to only those family and friends who come to visit. Those people who are special enough to visit us at home, they get to see this special book that isn’t posted online. That isn’t 650 photos. It’s a treat, a “morsel” of the wedding delight, a taste of the day.

Perhaps less is more when it comes to photography these days. The sheer quantity of images we’re surrounded by in a day makes people long for a simpler experience of photography possibly.

All I know is that I see people light up at the mention of film photography. When I say I still have a darkroom and hand-print my photographs, they’re enamored. When I mention I teach in Denver or one-on-one, they pause to consider taking classes. There’s a reminiscence to a time when photographs mattered, photography was embraced for its special-ness, its ability to take us back in time, and we lived with photographs in our world, in our homes, our offices, our living room, bedrooms and kitchens.

A world that isn’t too long ago, that isn’t out of reach today. But the digital world beckons, the phone lights up again and we are often so inundated with images, who has time to think about digging out the old Minolta or Olympus, the Rolleiflex or Leica, loading film and actually making photographs, shooting with intention?

I know I do. But I’m a photographer who values the art, the craft, the print and the framed work on my walls and albums. Photographs are quite prevalent in my world.

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