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Old school cameras are making a comeback

Heard on:
A roll of Kodak film.

Point-and-shoot cameras, both digital and film, are attracting Gen Z's attention. David Little of the International Center of Photography in New York says this might point to boredom with perfection and an interest in the image-making process. Chris Furlong/Getty Images

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For some, it may seem like we’ve unknowingly traveled back in time. The late 1990s and early 2000s appear to be roaring back through the fascination of Generation Z.

Long-gone fashion trends and tech are making their way back into the zeitgeist. One piece of tech you might not have expected to reenter society are the old school digital and film point-and-shoot cameras.

Why are these cameras enjoying a revival? Several reasons. But David Little, executive director at the International Center of Photography in New York, thinks younger people may simply be bored with perfection.

“It’s almost as though taking a photograph, a digital photograph on your smartphone or your iPhone, might be a little bit too easy,” Little said during an interview with Marketplace.

Marketplace’s David Brancaccio wanted to know why, with all the capabilities smartphone cameras have today, younger people are turning to older point-and-shoot cameras. He spoke with Little about this new trend.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: When I shoot real black-and-white, analog, old school, silver nitrate film, I mean, I like the feel of the equipment, the grain of the image, the process of developing. But what do you make of this trend toward often younger people using crummy, old digital cameras?

David Little: Well, I think part of it is that it’s something that they’ve never done before. So I think there’s something about the allure of something that might be a little bit more retro or old. And I think whether it’s older digital or analog cameras, it kind of indicates that they’re a little bit bored with perfection. You know, it’s almost as though taking a photograph, a digital photograph on your smartphone or your iPhone, might be a little bit too easy, and they like a little bit more of the process of these older types of cameras.

Brancaccio: I remember filmmakers, a long time ago, used to like the Fisher-Price toy video camera, which I remember produced images so ugly, it was kind of cool. I mean, maybe it’s some of that?

Little: Absolutely, absolutely. They love having that cool sensibility, and, you know, of course photo images are made with machines, and each of those different types of machines make different images. And photographers, whether they’re young or old, love that variation, that variety of camera-based images. And you still find folks using cameras, or they’re using the, you know, there’s always sort of a resurgence every once in a while with the old Polaroids. You do the point-and-shoot and you sort of bring out your Polaroid. So there’s a kind of magic too that is really terrific through these older analog cameras. We’re finding, for instance, ICP, the International Center of Photography, we offer analog classes, and we’re getting this explosion of interest in analog classes to the point that we’re having to add new classes because of a big waiting list. And again, it includes not just younger folks, but, you know, other folks that maybe have been taking digital cameras and digital photographs and maybe they took a class in college, and they’re kind of going back to thinking about what it was like to be in a darkroom. And to see that, that image sort of come out from the paper, I mean, no matter how many times you see that process, it is, it’s still magic that you see the image occur. Whereas again, with the digital, oftentimes, it’s so instantaneous that you don’t necessarily get to see that emerging image. So that’s really, really exciting for anyone of any age.

It’s just “too easy”

Brancaccio: And back to one of your earlier points about maybe people are getting a little sick and tired of perfection. A modern smartphone camera does amazing things. It can take pictures in extraordinarily low light, so much is in focus, so much has proper exposure, and you think that’s maybe sometimes getting a little boring?

Little: It is. It’s too easy, it’s just really, really much too easy. And then also, I think maybe the boring quality too, again getting back to what I was saying a little bit earlier, is perfection. And I think that we could even think more deeply about that. Like, what does it mean to see an image that looks exactly like you think it looks? There’s somewhat of an assumption that we see things, as individuals, all the same way in these images. And maybe one could say, particularly with analog, is that with analog pictures or with these older technologies, the individuals who are creating those images are actually creating images that are more in tune with what they see. There’s a wonderful independent spirit as well that I think shouldn’t be lost here. I often think in the history of photography, if you look at the 1970s, which was the period of time when analog photography became part of the art market. The photo market is a very, very short-lived market, it started, really, here primarily through a gallery called the Light Gallery. But part of that process of entering into the market was creating editioned photographs. And the idea with an editioned analog photograph is that all seven or all 10 of those photographs would be the same. And I note that because the Japanese photographers had a very, and still do have a very, very different approach to developing. Each photograph, let’s say one of the great photographers Daidō Moriyama or Shōmei Tōmatsu, each photograph for them is a creative opportunity, and each photograph is different. So again, it kind of goes against the sameness, but it also sort of speaks to a certain moment. The way that we might see something in January might be different than the way we see it in August or September, that there are conditions of life, conditions of experience, that alter the vision and how we understand the world. And that’s very much about picture making as well.

Brancaccio: Just before we connected here, I was browsing some of the photographs of one of the great photographers, Alfred Stieglitz. And, you know, these are great photographs, often of New York. But yeah, I started to see some of these pictures, Stieglitz’s pictures, look a bit like something you might get on a crummy point-and-shoot from 1999, rather than what comes off your fancy phone.

Little: Precisely. And, you know, Stieglitz was so integral to the history of photography with camera work. And Stieglitz was really, at first, fascinated with images that were somewhat blurred or had textures. And they used, photographers of that period, particularly Stieglitz, also used all these different kinds of papers that also altered the image as it was sort of chemically produced. It’s really roughly, let’s say, from the late 19th century to early 20th century that we start to get this notion of a kind of, what we might see as a clear or pristine image that is so much like the pristine images that we have today. But you’re absolutely right, there is more of that kind of point-and-shoot, rough, again, personalized, quality. One of the distinctions of that period, which is a little bit different from today, is that at that time Stieglitz and many of the photographers were thinking about photography in competition with painting, that painting was a higher art form. So they thought that it was necessary to blur that painting might be, uh, that photographs would be like an impressionist painting, even though it was chemically based. Because photography has always had this sense, it’s always fought against this perception that because it’s made by a machine, that it’s somehow not smart, that creators aren’t as creative. So Stieglitz was part of that. And maybe we could say that about the teens today. They want to have ownership of their own image-making and their own creativity, much like Stieglitz and that first generation of great photographers.

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