Following in the footsteps of vinyl and bell-bottom jeans, film is finally cool again. (Photo by Josie Lafontant)


Column: Picture imperfect: How I learned to love the warmth of a grainy film photo

The limited amount of space on a film roll forgives closed eyes and goofy smiles, trading out flawlessness in favor of capturing the instant exactly as it was; a joyous and messy moment in time.
<a href="" target="_self">Josie Lafontant</a>

Josie Lafontant

November 18, 2022
“The quality is pretty awful,” my grandma says, her brow furrowing as she holds up a photo of my friends posing by the future fountain (and current cement abyss) in the middle of the campus courtyard.

“You know,” she continues, bringing another picture to the front of the pile, “I waited almost my entire life to have the technology that you kids have to take photos all the time.” 

She squints at an out-of-focus shot of my dog, its paws sprawled out awkwardly on the couch, tail mid-wag, before finally adding: “Yet you choose to use old cameras and wait to get these things developed.” 

I scowl, my pride wounded and my feelings hurt. I snatch the photos out of her hands, thinking only of the embarrassing selfies that she takes and posts religiously on Facebook. I don’t know why she felt that she had any authority on this; if photography isn’t for me, then it certainly isn’t for her. 

“It’s just for fun, Grandma. And everyone looks good on film.”

With that, I leave the family room and cross to the kitchen to make my breakfast. Maybe a bit over dramatically, I yank two slices of bread out of the bag and shove them in the toaster. 

Opening night of the school musical on film. (Photo by Asher Rawlins)

As I’m waiting for my bread to crisp, I remind myself why, exactly, that I like film so much. After all, my grandma is totally right. I have access to a high quality camera with practically unlimited storage, endless takes, and easy sharing capabilities nearly every second of the day. I can take photos of myself or friends until I have the perfect frame, the perfect lighting, where everyone is perfectly posed and perfectly smiling. 

So, then, why on earth do I choose to capture moments through a plastic viewfinder, with only 27 grainy images that I have to pay to see? 

I struggled to come up with a coherent answer, suddenly realizing why I’d acted so defensively. Because, yes — film is fun. But why do I gravitate towards it with such unwavering force? And why are tons of other people my age doing the exact same thing?

I had to ask around; surely somebody would know. 

My first opportunity came to me the next day, as I was scrolling mindlessly through my Instagram feed. Asher Rawlins, a sophomore in my Spanish class, had shared a post documenting the month of April entirely on disposables. And as I swiped through the photos, full of people laughing and hugging, there was one curiosity that completely stuck out to me. There was this feeling of authenticity, of genuine warmth and serious happiness that permeated each and every one of the slides — an emotion I don’t always find in iPhone pictures. 

A photo from Asher’s Instagram feed. (Photo by Asher Rawlins)

Naturally, I had to learn more. I caught up with Asher towards the end of class one day, to ask what draws her to film — maybe I could find my answer there. 

Without any hesitation, she replied, “I think what I love about film is that you can’t see the photos after you take them. Plus, you only have so many pictures, so you can’t retake anything. Everything becomes very in-the-moment and just a little more candid.” 

I was beginning to understand. The qualities about film that tended to elicit criticism that it was “unnecessary” or “archaic” were also the same qualities that made it so unique. Our generation might’ve been the last to have our baby photos not taken on smartphones, but we still grew up surrounded by the constant pressure of social media. 

When you have a camera that can take unlimited, high quality photos, it creates an unspoken understanding that the image you choose to post will be the absolute best — after all, you had infinite tries to get it right. 

Film, however, offers something different. Something almost freeing.

The soft glow of silver halide after its exposure to light precedes any modern filter, gently washing over memories with a kind of nostalgic glow. And unlike the camera app, the limited amount of space on each roll forgives closed eyes and goofy smiles, trading out flawlessness in favor of capturing the instant exactly as it was; as a joyous and messy moment in time. 

It is perhaps our desire for legitimacy and easing of social pressures that has driven up demand for film cameras exponentially in the past few years. Sparked by this information, I needed to speak with an expert — someone who could contextualize our enthusiasm for film within a wider scope of history. Of course, I knew exactly where to go. 

Valley Photo Service has been on the corner of Whitsett and Magnolia for over 70 years, and Noé Torres has been working there since 1996. When he took over the shop in 2016, he had already witnessed many major demographic changes in his customer base, but never had he seen a revival in his industry more powerful than the past five years.

Valley Photo Service | 12466 Magnolia Blvd, North Hollywood, CA, 91607

Valley Photo Service in Valley Village, Calif. (Photo by Josie Lafontant)

“Everybody your age didn’t really get to experience growing up with film,” he explained to me, as the bell on the door chimed and customers moved in and out. “All of the pictures were taken on digital devices, so when younger people found out that you could record images in such a tangible way, it really captured their imagination. You guys are the sole reason why we’ve had this massive comeback — it’s kinda like vinyl. It’s brought back the business and completely pumped life into the film industry.”

The increased engagement from the younger crowd has allowed the store to install a mini photo lab, to process and export color film more efficiently than ever before. Torres emphasized that this wouldn’t have been possible without high school and college students, kids like me and Asher and countless others across the valley.

Our generation’s need for a respite from the fervent demands of the digital world has catalyzed an inspiring renewal of an entire industry, a synthesis of both creative inspiration and wistful preservation of adolescent memories. So next time I show my grandma photos, I’ll make sure to ask to see the ones from her childhood, the red-eyed smiles and tangled hair of an almost forgotten youth, of decades nearly left behind — but always preserved on film, captured in their beautiful imperfection.