Old School Photography Techniques Are Making a Comeback — on Instagram

There is a revolution happening in Phoenix, and it started in the unlikeliest of places.

For the past decade, analog film photography — the method that involves physically loading a roll of film into a camera and waiting to see the shots until the film is developed — has been dying around the world. Big-name film manufacturing plants have been torn down, prices for remaining photo supplies have gone up, and photo labs have become scarce as digital photography has taken over.

But film is making a comeback in Phoenix.

In the past couple of years, a small group of 20-somethings has started buying up antique cameras off Craigslist and eBay, inserting rolls of film, and shooting away. While most millennial photographers are drooling over how many megapixels the next iPhone camera will have, this group is geeking out over 50-year-old equipment and trading different kinds of film like currency.

They've created a 21st-century photo club, meeting in a friend's studio to pose and photograph each other, or taking their cameras to lunches that turn into impromptu photo shoots.

And how did they find each other? Instagram.

Flipping through Instagram — the über-popular photo-sharing mobile application that hit the market about five years ago — these photographers started noticing images that looked different. The grain seemed more natural, the tonality in the shadows seemed more tangible than what Instagram's filters can create. They saw these differences in the two-by-two-inch photos on their phone screens, and they wanted them — and have rediscovered film photography as a result. Because of what they saw on a digital application, they've returned to an antiquated art form.

In an age when immediacy is the ultimate technological goal, these photographers prefer to take it slow.

"There is no instant gratification" in film photography, says analog photographer Will Fryar, who led the charge in Phoenix. "But digital photography isn't worth that."

Earlier this year, Andrew Pielage, a Phoenix photographer and New Times contributor, pulled over on the side of a road at sunset and snapped a photo of the desert landscape on his phone. Later, he posted it on Flickr.

"I'm not even sure I got out of my car," Pielage recalls, laughing.

When a photographer posts a photo on Flickr, the device he or she used to take the shot automatically shows up, if it's taken on a digital device. An agency hired by Apple searched through photos on Flickr taken on an iPhone 6 and found the shot Pielage had captured of Arizona's desert flora at sunset.

It was a good shot.

Apple approached Pielage to use that photo in its international #shotoniphone6 campaign. His image has since been plastered on billboards in New York City and Tokyo and in print ads worldwide alongside other stunning shots taken on phones.

Pielage's experience illustrates the acceptance of digital and, specifically, mobile photography. Photos taken with phones are prolific, even crossing over into the fine art world.

In February, the Columbus Art Museum in Ohio opened an exhibition filled with Instagram photos only. Phoenix gallery MonOrchid put out a call for the public to submit Instagram photos for an exhibit in 2014.

But at the same time, there's a trend in the Phoenix photography community toward DIY. The level of just what qualifies as doing it yourself is debatable.

Analog photography involves skill and know-how with regard to almost every one of the many required steps of processing film. Few in Phoenix actually complete this process themselves from beginning to end.

Daniel Kim, a 26-year-old wedding photographer based in Gilbert who's highly regarded among fellow film photographers in the Valley for scanning and editing his own photos, recently began developing his own negatives in his garage.

"It's just chemistry," Kim says. "Anyone could do it."

Will Fryar, a tall, thin 28-year-old with dark-rimmed glasses, agrees.

Fryar shoots artistic film photos but sends his rolls away to a photo lab in Alabama where professionals develop, scan, and edit his negatives based on Fryar's preferences.

Several weeks after the lab receives the negatives, Fryar gets an e-mail with digital copies of the finished stills. Then he chooses which to post on Instagram.

Now, local photographers are hosting Instameets, where anyone within the Instagram community can meet and network with other photographers.

It's become a chain reaction. After Fryar, a filmmaker who emerged as a leader of this growing community of photographers, has posted a film photo on his Instagram, one of his 13,000 followers sees it, questions how he got a certain aesthetic, and begins experimenting with an analog camera to post his or her own film shots on the app.

With photographic technology advancing and photographers in Phoenix and around the country returning to the original forms of the art, it is harder than ever to define what exactly is photography.

And more importantly, just exactly who is a photographer — and who isn't?

Since photography's beginnings in the early 1800s, when French inventor Nicéphore Niépce and his brother Claude first experimented with capturing images using light-sensitive substances, there has been a question of whether photography is art or science.

Unlike painting, drawing, and sculpting, film photography requires a machine and the mixing of chemicals, which kept other artists from regarding it in the same way as other mediums.

"Because of the chemistry, it took a while for photography to be art," says Betsy Fahlman, a professor of art history at Arizona State University. "People said it diminished the work because it was mechanical."

Photography was regarded as a means of documentation, simply the process of capturing light on receptive surfaces. Except the process was not simple at all, and few had the knowledge and resources required to do it right.

When photography was invented, those using the cameras had to be wealthy, with access to the equipment, and the desire to risk their lives working with chemicals.

Will it ever be possible for professional photographers to make a living with strictly analog photography again?

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As technology advanced and cameras became more portable and easier to use, the opportunity to photograph reached more people.

But even in the 1960s and '70s, a hundred years after its invention, photography was not offered in art school classrooms.

"If you wanted to do photography, you had to do graphic design," says James Hajicek, an analog photographer and retired Arizona State University professor of photography.

In comparison to other artistic mediums and even analog photography, digital photography is in its infancy. Sony introduced the first electric still camera, also known as a digital camera, in Japan in 1982, and the first cell phone to sport a camera was released about 20 years later.

With digital photography, the requirement to develop film by hand essentially was eliminated, and the process became completely mechanical, separating the art even further from the traditionally accepted artistic mediums.

Between 2005 and 2010, Canadian photographer Robert Burley documented the death of film. With the sudden growth of digital photography, the film photography industry basically folded in on itself.

Burley traveled the world to photograph the closing and destruction of film manufacturing plants and created Disappearance of Darkness: Photography at the End of the Analog Era in 2012.

"Kodak used to make over 250 kinds of film for film photographers, now I think they have about six," Burley says. "Each year, every few months, there's another product that's discontinued, but it's sort of settled over the past two years."

Instagram launched in October 2010, and in the past few years, it has radically changed the way users — all 400 million of them — view and interact with photography.

"I look at what my students are doing on Instagram," says Burley, who teaches photography at Ryerson University in Toronto. "It's often better than what they're doing in class."

The mobile app is all about immediacy. Users either take photos using the app's camera function or upload images to the app, edit the image using virtual tools and colored filters, and then post it for their followers or the public to see. And for the most part, that's it.

"Our trajectory was to be shown in a gallery or museum, but that's not necessarily [Instagram users'] trajectory," says Carol Panaro-Smith, an analog photographer and photography teacher at Alchemy Studio in Phoenix. (She is married to Hajicek.) "They feel fulfilled by doing it virtually."

Instagram offers filters that mimic the coloring and grains of vintage films. Supplemental editing software, including Visual Supply Company (VSCO) and Hipstamatic, even name their filters after film types (Kodak Portra, Fuji 160, Ilford HP5) and offer options to add grain to the digital files.

Despite the rapid growth of the app, little academic research has been done on Instagram, possibly because when it comes to data, images are more difficult to analyze than words.

But a team at Arizona State University led by Subbarao Kambhampati has published several studies, including one on which filters are the best and another on what categories Instagram photos fall into.

The team perused thousands of photos from around the world for its research but hadn't come across a lot of film photos posted. Or any, really.

"Did you get a large number of people doing this?" Kambhampati asked when told of the movement among Phoenix photographers. "I did not know this phenomenon at all."

While the majority of Instagram users are not professional photographers, a fascination with mimicking the aesthetic of vintage film overtook some. Will Fryar, who was mainly a videographer before Christmas 2013 but learned film photography techniques in high school, began questioning why he was putting effort into making his digital photos look like film when he could just use film in the first place and get a more authentic, sincere photograph.

Fryar was not alone.

But despite the differences between a person taking a photo on an original Pentax K1000 camera with Portra 400 film and a person pressing a button on a phone, is the photography itself essentially the same art?

"It has not changed at all," says Ryan Cordwell, a 23-year-old digital photographer and leader within Phoenix's Instagram community. "The equipment and medium has only changed the accessibility."

As with any two artistic mediums, it is impossible to definitively say whether film photography is better than digital or vice versa. But that doesn't stop photographers on either side of the debate from trying.

"There's no soul behind digital," Fryar says. "I love the small mistakes that comes from film."

"I've seen what [film photographers] post," says avid Phoenix Instagrammer Donjay. "It doesn't make it any better . . . It just has a different character."

Timothy Archibald, who spent five years in the '90s working as a photographer at New Times, built a darkroom in a spare room of his house where he would process and print his own photos. It was a requirement for his job.

Archibald, now a photographer in San Francisco hired by clients including American Express, Hewlett-Packard, and Rolling Stone, traversed the switch from film to digital, reluctantly at first. He says "nerdy people" latched onto digital first because they liked the technology of it. It wasn't until about 2006 that he fully made the switch because his editorial clients wanted digital.

"I think it was that the tide had turned," Archibald says. "I needed to stay relevant."

He has used both mediums for editorial and fine art purposes and sees the difference. Film, he says, is more seductive, luscious. Digital is sharper.

Archibald shoots exclusively with digital now and says he would never go back to film due to the ease digital provides. He says he wouldn't be able to do his job without digital.

But he gets the draw film has for younger photographers.

"I grew up with [film photography] so there is no sense of discovery for me, but kids these days are just picking up a film camera and didn't have that, so they're discovering it for the first time," Archibald says. "For a 47-year-old, it's pathetic, but for a young 20-something, it's radical."

Analog photographer Panaro-Smith specializes in photogenic drawing and alternative process photography, which generally dates back before the vintage cameras the young photographers use. She appreciates the return to older forms of the art, but doesn't quite get why these young photographers would stop at posting the photos on an app.

"It baffles me why they wouldn't want to print in an analog way, too," she says. "Why do they need this sophistication for a two-inch screen?"

On a Saturday in March, about 250 Arizona photographers mingle at Mod, a co-working space in Central Phoenix, sipping local coffee and looking for the next photo to snap. Various backdrops and walls covered in chevrons and paisley stand around the space with studio lights pointed at them, waiting for someone to aim a lens and trigger the shutter or hold up a phone and tap the button.

"I thought this was going to be a competition," says one of the hundreds of photographers gathered in the airy, modern space.

It's not a competition. It's Arizona's portion of the 11th WorldWide InstaMeet. These mega-gatherings of Instagram users happen simultaneously in communities around the world several times a year. Instagram chooses when the WWIM will happen, but leaders within the individual communities plan and coordinate events.

In a royal blue Instagram AZ shirt and balancing a camera bag strap on his shoulder, Will Fryar is practically greeted like a celebrity by the other guests at the InstaMeet, and he is immediately surrounded by a group of other photographers.

Elsewhere in the building, middle-age women with their smartphones in hand move from room to room asking guests for Instagram handles so the women can quickly peruse their feeds.

Professional photographers wield large digital cameras and ask their subjects to move just an inch this way or that way to frame the perfect portrait.

A few younger photographers hold up mobile light meter apps and adjust the settings on their analog cameras.

The digital photographers begin flooding their Instagram feeds with artsy shots featuring the stylish backgrounds around Mod and the hashtag #WWIM11AZ, a way to categorize the photos.

A few weeks after the event, the film photographers post their grainy shots.

The number and variety of attendees is a testament to the growth of the Instagram community and a stark contrast to photography's beginnings.

And the number of young photographers with analog cameras hanging from their shoulders speaks to the impact the digital app has had on this old-fashioned art form.

At the end of this summer, Will Fryar moved to Chicago for a new job, and he's already meeting other film photographers there.

"There is an awesome film shop in Wicker Park," he says.

But the community he contributed to will likely continue to grow in Phoenix.

"Photography will never stay the same. It will always grow and morph," Panaro-Smith says.

She and Hajicek say they are hopeful about the future of analog photography. Though the style is changing and the end goal may not be the same as theirs, they admire the efforts of these young photographers.

Panaro-Smith smiles as she browses Fryar's Instagram account for the first time, commenting on his eye for interesting photographs.

"I'm intrigued and excited," she says.

But the two photography veterans say the definition of a photographer will depend on who is behind the camera, whether it be analog, digital, or attached to a mobile application.

"It's the equipment, but it's more about the knowledge," says Kim, the Gilbert wedding photographer, who now shoots, processes, and edits his film himself. "Film is not a magic pill. The basics of photography have to be there."

Hajicek, who prefers to do much of the photographic process himself, says he believes the universe will balance itself.

As the masses move toward the ease and immediacy of digital and technology advances to allow a broader range of photographers to create art, a small but dedicated group of photographers will "keep film alive," as the film photographers like to say and hashtag on Instagram.

"As a species, we will never lose our need and love and desire for handmade objects," Hajicek says. "You just don't want to throw away meat and potatoes because an Ethiopian restaurant opened down the street."

But will it ever be possible for professional photographers to make a living with strictly analog photography again?

"That I would probably doubt," says Dieter Schaefer, owner of Phoenix Photo Lab, one of the few locally owned places that still develops film. But he also doesn't think film photography will ever completely die out.

Until recently, the app allowed only square photos, and a recognizable style of symmetrical photos emerged. Beyond stylistic trends, Instagram has contributed to making photography and photo sharing prolific. The number of the image-based app's users worldwide has officially surpassed that of Twitter.

In the end, though the mediums change and the audience grows, it's still photography, and Hijacek thinks there is room for all of it in this "visual revolution."

"Let's add it to our toolbox but not throw it away," he says. "Let's just buy a bigger toolbox."