Home > ill-considered rants, photography, typewriters > The pull of the analog

The pull of the analog

I like typewriters.

I collect them, actually, although not the pre-war, glass-keyed desktop behemoths that most collectors like. I like lightweight, post-war portables, especially my 1969 Olympia SF. And I use them, often, for first drafts, partly because I have this notion that first drafts do not deserve hard-drive permanence, and partly just because I used typewriters as a kid and I like the solid thwack of progress being made, letter by letter, word by word.

My 1951 Royal Quiet Deluxe has a neat feature called the “Magic Margin”: you position the carriage where you want the margin, press a button, and voila, your margin is set. The magic is done by a spring that pulls the margin stop into place once the “Magic Margin” button releases it from its catch. It’s a wonderful, Rube-Goldberg feature. And this is the attraction of typewriters. You press a key and you see all the complex levers move.

Of course, the machine I’m typing this post on is infinitely more complex, but the complexity is hidden. The machine is a black box, running an operating system that is also a black box, over which software runs, likewise a black box. And it’s no fun unless you can see the levers move.

I have been dusting off a couple of old cameras, buying chemicals, and blowing the dust out of the corners of my memory where the processing of black-and-white film is filed. And needing a subject, I took my camera down to the poet Patricia Young’s excellent reading on Wednesday night, and shot some pictures afterwards.

I love shooting available darkness, and this is one of the places black-and-white excels. You maintain a sense of how things actually look, in a dimly lit bar; you don’t have the sense, as you can get with flash, that everything in the world is evenly lit with pure, white light. But you pay a price, as is evident in the picture I posted yesterday: you get heavy grain, and you have to shoot wide open with a slow shutter, so any movement becomes a blur.

Newer digital SLRs with full-frame sensors can kick black-and-white film’s ass, to use the technical lingo of photography; I recall night shots of the Olympic torch relay, for example, posted to Twitter by Steve Simon, with minimal noise. The DSLR lets you preserve not only the shape and quality of the light, but its colour. And you don’t have to develop the film on your lunch break the following day, as I did, and then wait for it to dry, and then scan it, and then spot the dust out of the scans.

But you can’t see the levers move.

I am amazed at the ingenuity of an all-mechanical camera shooting film. It is, on the one hand, incredibly primitive: a metal machine operated by springs and levers that exposes a strip of plastic coated with silver halides, that you then treat with a hand-mixed chemical soup, in your laundry room, to produce pictures. But consider the engineering genius behind a mechanically-timed shutter that’s accurate from one second down to 1/4000 of a second, or the complexity of Kodachrome — a film that is, by today’s standards, primitive.

Who came up with this stuff?

Yes, a DSLR is much more complex, just as this computer is much more complex than a mechanical typewriter. And yes, a digital photography workflow is superior in every way to threading film onto developing reels in total darkness.

Okay. But I love the way the faint, sulphurous smell of fixer sticks to my hands.

In a world where it seems that everything is a commodity to be sold at market price, maybe it’s an artistic temperament that insists things should have intrinsic value, that the value of an object should be determined in part by the ingenuity of its design, an ingenuity that you can only truly appreciate if you can see the levers move. There is something to be said for Model T Fords, for manual typewriters, and for various other things that you can fix with your own hands.

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