All photographs © Grant Black
I’m often asked whether I prefer digital over film. For the type of pictures I take, there is only one answer.
Digital. No contest.
I’m nostalgic for the long meditative hours of printing black and white. The radio playing classical music, the safe lights glowing orange-yellow, the gentle gurgle of water. Yes, I’m nostalgic for my youth, like all of a certain age.
But once the newspaper demanded colour on all assignments, the darkroom time went from joy to drudgery. The craftsmanship was overwhelmed by the mechanics of the print processor and the demands of colour reproduction on an ancient press.
Young digital-native photographers, staring into their laptop screens, work in isolation. They’ve never had the mentoring that went on in a wet darkroom. Colleagues were there to offer a second opinion on picture selection, crop and printing style. I learned a great deal from them all.
But today, the quality, versatility and the high ISO performance of digital cameras rules. This picture of the Northern Lights, taken from the rolling deck of a cruise ship somewhere in the Labrador Sea between Greenland and Newfoundland, just wouldn’t be possible without digital.
That said, every now and then I feel the nostalgic pull of the black and white darkroom. Perhaps I’ll follow that dream some day.
It was the first camera that I bought as an eager teenage photographer.
I bought it from a local camera shop’s used cupboard. My little Pax M2, built sometime in the late 1950’s or early 60’s, came with a brown leather case and a simple strap. I loved the size and weight and the rangefinder focusing. I loved the retro look and the quiet shutter that made me feel just a bit more like a fly-on-the-wall photojournalist. The lens quality, however, left a bit to be desired.
Since then I’ve owned and used four more small, quiet cameras and loved them despite their foibles and idiosyncrasies.
Canon G-III QL
Next came a Canon G-III QL, which arrived in my camera bag in the late 1970’s when I was a young news shooter with The Windsor Star. I covered it in black book-binding tape, trying to make it look more discreet. Again, the lens wasn’t very sharp, but it was quiet and easy to use. Tucked under the front seat of my car, it came in handy more than once when I came upon spot news when my regular gear was at home.
I saved my pennies and a few years later I bought a used Leica M4-2 with a 90mm lens and soon added a 35mm and a 21mm. The lenses, made in Germany, were incredibly sharp. The rangefinder focus was a treat to use and I learned how to zone focus when shooting fast-moving news pictures. My pictures were always sharp even in poor light. I finally felt like a real photojournalist. My heroes always used Leicas. My Leica and an older Leica M2 were simple beautiful cameras. Many years later I toured the Leica factory in Wetzlar, Germany. It was like visiting a sacred place.
And then came the digital revolution. The Calgary Herald supplied huge, noisy digital beasts designed for news and sports. I longed for a quiet compact that would take my Leica lenses. But that was the way it was riding the bleeding edge of new technology.
My dreams came true when Epson, a company known for printers and scanners created the R-D1. It had some cool features – you cocked the shutter with a retro thumb wind just like you were advancing film back in the day – and the black and white files look just like Tri-X. Beautiful. At 6 megapixels the files were a bit small, but did manage to make some nice pictures for the paper.
I bought it used from a friend in Vancouver – a globe-trotting photojournalist who often works for international aid agencies, who bought it from a well-known wire service photographer who has done lots of international work, so it had a good pedigree.
I remember photographing a woman who reacted badly to the noise of the shutter and the light from a flash. I opened her curtains a crack and used the R-D1 to make a nice portrait with my fast 35mm nearly wide open. I was allowed back stage while Cirque du Soleil artists practiced. My quiet Epson was the perfect camera to capture intimate moments as they stretched and exercised, talked and taped tender joints.
The camera is unique, nearly rare, but significant enough to be featured in an “Unsung Cameras of Yesteryear” episode on TCS TV. TCS TV is a great YouTube channel brought to you by the folks at The Camera Store in Calgary. You can see the feature, hosted by Chris Niccolls and produced by Jordan Drake at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIOk6kmYOWc
My current compact? The retro-styled Fuji X100S. Beautiful colour, a silent shutter, light and compact, fast to use, good auto-focus and nice low light performance. It isn’t my old film Leica, it isn’t perfect by a long shot, but it has become my go-to camera when travelling light and shooting on the street. And it sure is fun to use.
GORDIE HOWE WITH HIS SONS MARK AND MARTY IN 1979
The brush with fame was, like so many during my career as a daily news photographer, brief, even rushed.
The Hartford Whalers were practicing at the Windsor Arena, a decrepit hockey barn on the edge of downtown Windsor. Gordy Howe had been playing for the Houston Aeros in the World Hockey Association for several years, skating along with his sons Mark and Marty.
But to The Windsor Star his 1979 pre-season appearance in our town was news. Front page colour news.
And that was unusual. At the time the Star ran one colour “project” a week, always on Saturday. The pictures were almost always shot several days before publication, were static, over lit and frankly, uninteresting.
Our work was printed on an ancient press that was never intended to print four-colour pictures. The reproduction was terrible. We often put our 35mm film cameras away and shot on clumsy twin-lens reflex cameras which used 120 film. This gave us slightly better picture quality and the flexibility to use fill-flash at higher shutter speeds.
We didn’t even develop or print our own pictures but rather used an outside lab.
I can’t remember if I used my 35mm camera or my old Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex for the assignment but I do remember being nervous. Very nervous.
I put a flash on a light stand bounced into an umbrella and had a fellow Star photographer hold a second light.
Howe and his sons skated over, I set them up, shot a few frames, perhaps a half dozen, and it was over. Gordie said something like, “ya got enough, kid,” I nodded yes and they skated to the showers.
That wasn’t the end of my Howe family photo assignments. A few years later I photographed Gordie’s youngest son Murray for the Toronto Star. He was studying medicine at the University of Michigan and has since gone on to a career as a radiologist.
After several months away from shooting for clients – a cross-country move and a summer job at the Pan Am Games limiting my availability – I’m back being a photographer. Recently, a long-standing client hired me to shoot an environmental portrait in Leamington, Ont. Yes!
It has been a exciting few months. In early May we watched as our stuff was loaded on to a moving van for our move to Amherstburg, Ontario, an historic town south of Windsor on the banks of the Detroit River. That day was the start of a complicated cross-country tango that saw us fly to Windsor to meet the furniture, fly back to Calgary to pick up our vehicle and camper trailer and then drive across the western flatlands through Northern Ontario and finally to our new home in southwestern Ontario.
Along the way we visited scores of friends and saw many members of our families. (Thanks to all for your hospitality.) Our decision to leave so many good friends in Calgary was a tough one, but we’ll be back to visit this winter and to continue our passion for skiing.
Three weeks after finally arriving in Amherstburg, I took the train to Toronto to start my stint as a photo venue manager at the Pan Am Games. It feels like I’ve spent more time away from home than at home. The move is still a work in progress. I’ve opened most of the boxes that line the basement, but storage must be built and a workroom finished before things normalize.
Why Amherstburg? We lived in Windsor/Essex for many years and have longstanding friendships that go way back. Within days of our arrival I was diving a shipwreck on the bottom of Lake Erie with old friends. Familiar and comfortable, it feels like I never left, even though it’s been 15 years.
I keep running into familiar faces at restaurants, wineries or even in the most Canadian of Canadian places – Canadian Tire. Sometimes I know who they are instantly, other times I don’t come up with a name until much later, recognition clouded by the intervening years.
In many ways, Calgary and Windsor/Essex couldn’t be more different. Calgary finds the oil that runs the cars and vans that Windsor builds.
Calgary: A martini town that makes beer. Windsor/Essex: A beer place that makes wine and whiskey.
Windsor: The Big Three rules. Calgary: Big trucks rule.
Calgary: Business tycoons are cultural heroes. Windsor: A good job is steady and preferably with a union card.
Alberta: Grain and beef. Essex County: A both plus corn and beans, fruits and vegetables, tomatoes, cucumbers and flowers under glass and the much-diminished fishery that pulls tasty perch from the green depths of Lake Erie.
Essex County: Pancake flat but surrounded by water. Calgary: Flat with rolling hills and magnificent mountains to the west.
The last leg of our cross-country tango followed the route I drove a lifetime ago when I moved to Windsor from Saskatchewan. I drove a less-than-reliable compact who’s starter died in Kenora. I found a replacement in Thunder Bay and donned my coveralls to replace it in the parking lot of a grocery store. This time a more reliable vehicle, but still the rugged scenery of the seemingly-endless Northern Shield.
Then I was apprehensive. A new job in a strange city where I knew no one. A move away from ‘home’.
That move worked out just fine and I know this one will too.
“What was I thinking?”
“Who is this?”
“Why did I waste film on this picture?”
I keep asking myself these questions as I continue the arduous task of going through, winnowing down and throwing out hundreds and hundreds of slides that I’ve shot over my 35 year career.
These aren’t the pictures I’ve shot for the newspapers. These are the freelance assignments for magazines and books, personal pictures from long ago vacations and pictures of people I was once close to, places and things I thought might have some commercial value as stock images and things I found visually interesting.
Lovingly captioned and archived in binders, they’ve been ignored for more than two decades.
Looking at them brings back good memories of family visits, exciting adventures and beautiful sunsets. Kodachrome won’t fade for 10,000 years, but our lives change and shift and memories fade.
Film was expensive, but it was worth it. I learned about light and exposure, technique and composition from every frame. And that helped me hone my skills and grow as a photographer.
We’re just back from a five-week trip to Europe where I shot over 3500 digital frames. That’s nearly 100 rolls of slide film, which would take up over a foot of shelf space to store. Those pictures fit on a handful of SC and CF cards and seem to take up nearly no space on my hard drive.
I tried to avoid joining the throngs of tourists shooting buildings and landmarks, instead trying to find photographs of real people doing real things. That was challenging in busy cities like Prague and Budapest where tourists were everywhere, pointing compact cameras, cell phones and even tablets at St. Stephen’s mummified arm, the Szechenyi Baths or Prague Castle.
We all need these vacation pictures to validate our experiences and to help remember the places we visited and the people we travelled with. But what will become of these digital treasures in five or ten years? Since most people don’t backup or print their digital images, will those memories be lost to a stolen cell phone or a crashed hard drive.
Or, will these digital images face the same fate that my beloved Kodachrome slides are now facing?