“You know,” she continues, bringing forward another image, “I’ve waited almost my entire life to have the technology that allows you kids to take pictures all the time.”
She squints at a blurry shot of my dog, paws spread awkwardly on the couch, tail wagging, before finally adding, “You do Select using old cameras and waiting for these things to be developed.”
I scowl, my pride is hurt and my feelings are hurt. I snatch the photos from her and just think about the embarrassing selfies she takes and religiously posts on Facebook. I don’t know why she felt she had authority on this; If photography isn’t for me, then fine certainly is not for her.
“It’s just for fun, grandma. And they all look good in the film.”
With that, I leave the family room and go to the kitchen to make my breakfast. Perhaps exaggerating a bit, I rip two slices of bread out of the bag and put them in the toaster.
As I wait for my bread to crisp, I remind myself of exactly why I love movies so much. After all, my grandmother is absolutely right. I have access to a quality camera almost every second of the day with virtually unlimited storage, endless takes and easy sharing features. I can take photos of myself or friends until I have the perfect frame, the perfect lighting, where everyone is posing perfectly and smiling perfectly.
So why on earth am I capturing moments through a plastic viewfinder with only 27 grainy images I have to have Counting to see?
I was struggling to come up with a coherent answer when I suddenly realized why I had acted so defensively. Because yes – film is fun. But why do I attract it with such unwavering force? And why are countless other people my age doing exactly the same thing?
I had to ask around; someone would know that.
My first opportunity came the next day when I was mindlessly scrolling through my Instagram feed. Asher Rawlins, a second grader in my Spanish class, shared a post documenting the month of April solely on disposables. And as I flipped through the photos, full of people laughing and hugging, an oddity struck me. There was this sense of authenticity, genuine warmth and serious happiness that permeated every single slide – an emotion I don’t always find in iPhone images.
Of course I had to learn more. One day I met Asher towards the end of class to ask her what motivates her to film – maybe I could find my answer there.
Without hesitation, she replied, “I think what I love about film is that you can’t see the photos after you take them. Also, you only have a limited number of pictures, so you can’t retake anything. Everything is becoming very topical and just a little bit more open.”
I started to understand. The qualities of the film that drew criticism for being “unnecessary” or “archaic” were also the same qualities that made it unique. Our generation may have been the last to not have our baby photos taken with smartphones, but we still grew up under the constant pressure of social media.
When you have a camera that can take unlimited high-quality photos, there’s an unspoken understanding that the image you want to post will be the absolute best – after all, you’ve had endless attempts to get it right.
However, film offers something different. Something almost liberating.
The soft glow of silver halide after exposure to light precedes any modern filter, gently flooding memories with a kind of nostalgic glow. And unlike the camera app, the limited space on each reel forgives closed eyes and goofy smiles, trading flawlessness in favor of capturing the moment exactly as it was; as a joyful and chaotic moment in time.
Perhaps it’s our desire for legitimacy and social pressure that has driven the demand for film cameras exponentially in recent years. Prompted by this information, I needed to speak to an expert – someone who could place our excitement about the film in a broader context of the story. Of course I knew exactly where.
Valley Photo Service has been located on the corner of Whitsett and Magnolia for over 70 years, and Noé Torres has worked there since 1996. When he took over the business in 2016, he had already witnessed many major demographic shifts in his customer base, but never had a stronger revival experienced in its industry than in the past five years.
“Not everyone your age has had the experience of growing up watching film,” he explained to me as the bell on the door rang and customers came in and out. “All the images were captured with digital devices and when younger people found out that you could capture images in such a tangible way it really captured their imaginations. You guys are the only reason we had this massive comeback – it’s a bit like vinyl. It brought business back and breathed new life into the film industry.”
Increased engagement from younger audiences has enabled the store to set up a mini photo lab to process and export color film more efficiently than ever before. Torres emphasized that none of this would have been possible without high school and college students, kids like me and Asher, and countless others across the valley.
Our generation’s need for a break from the torrid demands of the digital world has sparked an inspirational renewal of an entire industry, a synthesis of creative inspiration and yearning preservation of youthful memories. So the next time I show photos of my grandma, I’ll be sure to ask for them see those of she Childhood, the red-eyed smile and tangled hair of an almost forgotten youth, of decades almost left behind – but always captured on film, captured in their beautiful imperfection.