On the Enduring Value of Film – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE EDITION 214

A Return to Film Confirms an Indelible Human Need for Connection with the Medium

This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 214, April 2018

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The maxim goes that the most expensive thing the average person buys, after a house, is a car. Well, in my case, that ‘next most expensive thing’ is a film scanner. We (at the Flow printing studio) decided last year to bite the bullet and respond to the growing demand for film scanning and dive headfirst into very expensive and very old technology. In B+W 211 I argued that, through the prism of the change from film to digital we are at a fascinating nexus between the beginning and the end of the beginning of photography – this argument sits roughly on the same timeline (but not exactly) as the shift from film to digital. But in the last couple of years we have seen a 200% increase in the number of rolls of film we are processing and, subsequently, the scans we are making. What is driving this technological reverse and what does it tell us about the medium?

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Please allow me to belabour you with a couple of personal details which are essential in laying the groundwork for this month’s polemic. I have two occupations beyond writing; proprietor of a photographic printing studio (FLOW) and photographer. When I set up my first commercial darkroom in 2004 the world was film. Digital was insurgent but for most photographers who hadn’t yet invested in a ‘Leaf back’ the unthinking default was whichever film you favoured. For my own work I chose, with little thought or variation, Tri-X (which I rated at 200 and developed 3:1 20C 7.5 mins in Perceptol since you didn’t ask – a great scanning recipe incidentally) and for clients’ work I would develop film in D76 ‘deep tanks’ unless requested to do otherwise. Negative colour (C41) films like Kodak Portra and Fuji Pro (a personal favourite) were introduced in the early noughties to a booming professional photography market. And then came the ‘great switch’. Kodak released a digital SLR and virtually paid photographers to use it. The software was there and Apple made computers capable of easily coping with large file sizes in a way that non-computer type people could enjoy.

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By 2005 the great switch was underway and unstoppable. I invested in my first Canon 5D and, at the studio, we bought our first Epson inkjet printers which now carried pigment inks in ten colours. The creative energy was now digital. By 2008 we had stopped processing film and had all but closed the darkroom. Digital was here and it was fully backed by every major player in the market. For a company like ours that existed on commercial terms we had no option but to go with the Flow, so to speak. And, personally, I loved the new medium. Less messy, more dependable for assignments, more latitude than film – and for me – an untechnical photographer at best, a massive benefit in the loss of sleepless nights hoping that the photographs I had shot latently existed prior to development on some polyester rolls in a bag somewhere. Had I counted the rolls properly and had I argued hard enough to not have them X-rayed on my way back to London? Digital fixed all of these insecurities and led us into the endlessly mutable world of bit depth and pixels where anything was possible given access to processing power and skills.

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But we humans never make houses on shifting sand. Because that is what digital photography is – a permanently shifting base on which nothing can be built to last, nothing can be relied on to not have been changed. We humans are endlessly mutable ourselves – we are free to change our minds at will but it is in our nature to settle. To photography the digital era has represented a great unsettlement. What is the enduring value of anything if it changes from what it is today? Digital photographic technology, for all its wonderful benefits, is not a human medium. It is essential to humanity that we have the technology but it is an alien form that we humans can never truly own because we can never directly engage with the technology that makes the pictures and we can never call a digital photograph ‘finished’.

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And so, as I report from the ‘coalface’ of the photographic world where my business has watched the comings and goings of photographic technology I can now tell you that film is back. And in a big way. Shot mainly by younger photographers who have grown up in the Photograscene era (see B+W TP210) film is making a huge comeback. I would say that C41 processing of colour film (Kodak Portra 400 and 800 in particular) is where most of the resurgence can be found but we handle a lot of Tri-X, Plus-X, FP4 and HP5 as well. For these photographers who enjoy the quality of film there are many more reasons that they are eschewing digital. They love the restrictions, or immutability, of the analog medium. They love that you need to be careful with your exposure; how many and how shot. They love that they get a physical rendition of the light that they experienced at the time of exposure. They love that a sense of place comes as standard with an exposed negative, they love the grain that tells that story of the chemistry that has made their image. They love that an exposure can be wrong. And for this new understanding of photography we have digital to thank. For how could we have been forced to re-evaluate film if it weren’t for an attractive interloper encouraging us to look with new eyes on the long held object of our hearts’ desire.

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And so we bought a big Imacon scanner which monthly payments make me shudder. We can’t deny all that digital has bought us. Scanning film is, if you will, a very happy medium. But we invested in response to a new appreciation of photographic process. A new acknowledgment, consciously or not, of the essential, immutable human particle that is present in film and of which, digital is utterly devoid.

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