I was rummaging through my studio looking for a compact zoom film camera that I had taken with me on a motorcycle trip to Montana last summer and finally found it along with a couple of rolls of film I had never processed.
I was excited to see what was on the film and it turned out to be a roll of TMAX 3200 speed film. In all my years of doing photography I had never exposed a roll of 3200 ISO film before. I steered clear of high ISO films because they have excessively large grain. Much of my career has been in pursuit of extremely fine details and image sharpness and this film was unlikely to give me either of those… I thought.
As I looked at the film canister I remember the frustration I had felt when I went to put the film into the camera at the last minute before I headed off on my trip. I had run out of my usual film and just had this roll of film sitting in a drawer. It had been a free sample sent to me along with one of my orders of my usual Tri X.
I spent 5 days riding and camping around the western half of Montana. I had decided to commit to photographing with film so I didn’t bring my digital camera. Realizing that I only had this 3200 speed film I almost didn’t take any photographs at all.
A friend of mine had told me about this Garden of 1000 Buddhas in Arlee Montana and I had missed it the previous trip. I didn’t want to miss it and I found myself there on my bike all alone. It was a wonderful experience.
It was blistering hot and made worse by my riding gear but I still pushed on and slowly walked around and made some exposures on my little point and shoot Canon Z135 zoom.
More than a year later I found myself finally developing the film. I could instantly see that I had something really worthwhile captured on the film.
The next day I made this print and was blown away at what I had. The film was extremely sharp and yes the grain was there and highly visible. However the grain seemed to add to the image not diminish it. As I compared the print to some digital images I made on my cell phone I could see that the film had a more spiritual quality to it. I was reminded of the word transfiguration.
In Christian churches you hear the concept of the transfiguration of Christ. Buddha has a similar story. When I looked up the meaning of the word transfigure this is what I found:
transform into something more beautiful or elevated.
“the world is made luminous and is transfigured”
I think this is exactly what the 3200 grainy film had achieved. In fact I think this is what film photography does in general and I feel it is what photographers aspire to in general.
I think the extra grain added a patina to the image that captured more of the essence of what that place felt like to be there.
In the classroom I could talk about the juxtaposition of light and dark values and the juxtaposition of the shape and proportion of the prayer flags in the background to the shape on top of the Buddha statue’s head, but in the end I could also describe the mystical experience of capturing a photograph in a way that illuminates understanding beyond any words I could use to describe it.