Whenever I see a photo I like — in a magazine, online, in a newspaper — my first instinct is to figure out how I could recreate the shot. What lens were they using? What was the lighting setup? How long did it take for them to get that shot? It’s so easy for me to get bogged down in the technical details and photo envy that I sometimes forget to just let go and allow myself to experiment and fail on my own, to have my own imperfect experiences instead of trying to copying photography formulas. Film photography has been far and away my most nerve-wracking and enlightening experience with uncertainty and letting go of control.
My first film photography class was also my first official photography class; I had pursued photography on my own since my sophomore year of high school, but I had only really taken photos for my enjoyment and for my friends’ senior pictures. Still, that’s a considerable amount of experience, so when I enrolled in Tulane’s Intro to Photo class a year ago I assumed I was in for an easy ride.
On the contrary, I found film photography disorienting, mainly because there was no LCD screen displaying the photo I had just taken. I had no way of knowing if my exposure was correct other than trusting the flickery needle of the light-meter. On top of that, I only had so many shots before I had to call it a day; I couldn’t just take 8 slightly different photos of the same subject, hoping one of them would come out right. I wandered around Audubon and St. Charles aimlessly until my first roll ran out on a quick shot of a streetcar passing.
Despite my discomfort, I had high expectations for my photos. I had all that experience under my belt; surely that couldn’t be taken away from me. After developing my roll I slowly unspooled the wet film from its development canister, absolutely thrilled to be unraveling a tiny glimpse of my very first film photo collection.
Instead I found a film strip containing about 28 little black rectangles. My film was ruined; my hopes, work, and expectations burned into perfect rectangles of ash by a light leak in my new camera.
However, I realized later that not all the photos were ruined. There were about 26 photos that were blown out and completely unusable. Five had tiny glimpses of information, but were more or less lost causes. But three or four that were completely untouched by the light leak. One of them was my very last photo of the streetcar.
This photo, the strongest survivor amidst the carnage, is my absolute favorite portrait of New Orleans that I’ve taken. Not only because the streetcar is an integral vein in NOLA’s heart, or because in the picture looks a little like both ghost and a mirror, but because this photo was completely unplanned and unrehearsed. I had no way of knowing what the shot looked like and no way of redoing it, but by some miracle it rose up out of the river of ruined photos I could never see.
I never knew failure could taste so sweet.