That the classic film stock company Kodak has filed for bankruptcy protection has left me with mixed feelings. While I have no sympathy for businesses that don’t adapt to the times (hi Sony), I do see this as a time to reflect on the twilight of chemical-based film. And it is something that saddens me.
Don’t get me wrong, working with film was smelly, dirty and bad for the environment. But the process of shooting with film was a series of finite moments, and it was a magical and romantic process.
But it was also brutal. When using 35mm film, there was only 36 frames to work with at a time. Despite being able to push and pull film stock (‘push’ to ‘simulate’ higher ISO than the film had, and ‘pull’ to simulate a lower ISO), generally you would put in a roll of film with an ISO to match the lighting that you were shooting for. You developed the film for a definite period of time. You made a print using a set time. When making a series of prints of the one photograph, you repeated the same timings over and over again. You dodged and burned the print as you were exposing the paper. Over and over again. It was hard, repetitive work. Yet there was something both meditative and bewitching about developing film and making prints.
Today, using digital cameras, the possibilities are almost endless. With the latest crop of DSLRs, as long as you have some light, you can make a photograph. Once you’re in the ‘darkroom’ of Photoshop you can virtually do whatever you please to a photograph. There is an almost overwhelming number of choices you can make when post-processing your images. It’s easy to get lost. It’s even easier to jump on trend bandwagons (the overuse of High Dynamic Range (HDR) for instance). And easy to misuse the tools. Which is why I’m grateful for having lived and worked in the media through the film era.
I can recall getting one of the first digital Kodak DSLR cameras to test in Australia. Even though we never went on to purchase it from Kodak, I can remember that this technology, plus Photoshop (which was at version 1.0 at the time), was inevitably the future – as was typesetting on a computer. So much so that at the time, I changed careers from writing to digital-based graphic design and typography – virtually overnight.
So what does Kodak have to do with a photo of some monks in Luang Prabang? Everything for me. Without carrying on about ‘the old days’ (and making myself appear ancient in the process), loading a roll of film from Kodak was filled with intent. You knew what lighting conditions you were going to face. You knew what ‘look’ you were going for. And you knew how you would set about attempting to achieve it.
Now it’s about having the tools to shoot in any conditions. Which is great. The fashion photographers know exactly what their results are going to be because there is an art director hovering over a cable feed of the images on the other side of the room, so they know when they have the shot. And for travel and editorial photographers there is the ability to change the look of what you’ve shot in the digital ‘darkroom’ before posting them on a website or uploading them to a gallery for a client.
The endless post-processing possibilities must be bewildering to photographers who didn’t shoot film – unless they have a very focussed vision of what kind of work they want to produce. For me, I still see colour and light – both the amount of light and the tone – as pointers to shooting a certain kind of stock.
While I am thinking about these things when I’m on assignment, it’s when I’m editing a final select of images for a story that certain colours, tones and light (hopefully) lead me to think about how I would have used a particular stock for that assignment.
On the day I took the image above in Luang Prabang, there was a blown-out, hazy sky, and despite the colourful orange garb of the monks, to me this was always going to be a day for slightly grainy black and white, probably shot on ISO 400 film from Ilford or Kodak Professional Tri-X 400 – which is still available! These days, this look is easy to achieve in the ‘darkroom’ of any post-processing software. And this is how I’d send it to a publisher. I say ‘easy’, but I have spent a long time tweaking the settings for each ‘film stock’ in the software package so my photos look a little more hand printed.
When faced with a similar set of circumstances, I wonder what the generation of photographers who have never used film or who have never spent countless hours in a darkroom honing their skills will do. The thinking photographers will, of course, have the history of photography and photographers in their head. The others will just press a filter button that “looks cool” in a software package without any knowledge of how that ‘look’ came about.
I’m grateful to have spent all those years shooting film and processing film in a darkroom.