FILM: THE ULTIMATE ALTERNATIVE PROCESS
In photography, there have always been “alternative processes”, ways to create pictures using different technologies from the mainstream. This was true even in the 1840s, when the choice was between Daguerreotypes and Fox Talbot's new-fangled negative-positive process. Since then, the choice has been dizzying. For capturing the image we've had (among others) wet plate; dry plate; cut film; roll film; 35mm; sub-miniature; Polaroid; and digital. For showing the pictures we've had (among others) salt prints; cyanotype; collodion prints; albumen prints; silver gelatin prints; bromoils; photomechanical reproduction; ink-jets; dye-subs; and the now all but ubiquitous computer screen.
Sunlit wall, Arles. Frances shot this with a Leica MP and a 16-18-21mm Tri-Elmar, both of which are still available new (the MP was ours but the Tri-Elmar was on loan for a test). The film was Kodak Tri-X, developed in Ilford DD-X and printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.
Today, there's no doubt: digital is the mainstream. But film still exists. Why? There are all sorts of reasons. First, artistically, it gives a different look – or rather, a whole range of different looks.
Second, it's inexpensive: you can buy incredible cameras at very low prices, or sometimes get them for nothing, and you can achieve results that would cost you tens of thousands if you tried to do the same with digital. If you want to try the traditional wet darkroom, the chances are that someone will give you all the equipment you need, just to see it go to a good home.
Third, it's a craft, akin to woodwork or engineering, and there's always a pleasure in mastering a craft. Never mind “You press the button, we do the rest”: you can take control at every stage of the process, even coating your own sensitive materials if you want to.
Fourth, it's easy, at least since 1876 when they introduced factory-coated dry plates: Kodak roll-film made it even easier in 1888.
Fifth, it's historically fascinating.
Sixth, some people actually enjoy the delayed gratification: the anticipation of seeing what the pictures look like, instead of seeing them immediately on the back of the camera (I have to admit this does not appeal to me).
Seventh, a film is a real, physical, very durable object: you can't just accidentally wipe it off your hard drive.
Eighth – here's the clincher – it's fun.
Waterfall, Julian Alps (Slovenia). 1960s Nikon F with 1970s 200/3 Vivitar Series 1, orange Soviet-era filter, Ilford HP5 Plus developed in Ilford DD-X and printed on Ilford Multigrade.
Sure, film won't appeal to everyone. Why should it? Vintage cars don't appeal to everyone. Beautiful buildings don't appeal to everyone. Art galleries don't appeal to everyone. Not everyone is an avid reader, or listens to music, or goes for long walks. But if there's even a shadow of an appeal in film as far as you're concerned, why not try it? This is the first in what we hope will be a long series of articles about film: in the early 21st century, surely the ultimate “alternative process”. But again I ask: why?
There's no answer. It's a bit like religion. If you have to ask the question, you'll never understand the answers. Some of us just like being different. Some of us have a unique vision that we can't realize through other means. Some of us have a stronger sense of history than others. Some love to experiment and to recycle old cameras. Some are simply curious. And these are only a few of the reasons to try film. You may well have your own reasons to try it; in which case I urge you to do so. You may also have your own reasons not to try it, in which case I will adopt the hectoring tones of a revivalist preacher and say, “Well, dearly beloved, you'll never learn anything unless you listen.” To those who find the comparison with religion odious, I can only apologize. After all, I said nothing more than, “If you have to ask the question, you'll never understand the answers.” That's as far as the comparison should be allowed to go.
With any luck, there should be two separate categories of readers for this series. One is people who have never left film, and the other is people who are wondering about film, or have recently taken to it. The first few columns are likely to appeal principally to novices or to those returning to film, though, even the most experienced film user may pick up the occasional tip, and there's always a certain consolation in knowing that You Are Not Alone. And, indeed, that plenty of people are as keen as you are, and want to see film photography continue throughout their lifetimes, even if they're only in their teens today. That's the sort of loyalty that film commands. In the (very) long run in this column, we'll be looking at all kinds of specialized stuff such as hand coloring and Hollywood style portraits with 8x10 inch cameras. The great advantage of putting this on the internet is that the archive of old columns remains available: there's no need to repeat the same ideas each year.
A Bright Future Awaits You On The Colony Planets. The title, of course, comes from the movie "Blade Runner". Frances shot this in Beijing using a Voigtländer Bessa-R2 with a 28/1.9 Voigtländer Ultron. Voigtländer rangefinder cameras are still available in the 21st century. Kodak Tri-X developed in Ilford DD-X; printed on Ilford Art 300; hand coloured with pencils and Marshall's Oils.
To begin with, we'll concentrate on 35 mm photography, and either traditional "wet" silver halide prints or (to a lesser extent) prints from scans, but in the long run, as already mentioned, we'll look at all kinds of other formats and techniques. The thing is, my wife Frances and I have been doing this for a very long time, and we've tried all sorts of techniques. I started in about 1966, and Frances started taking it seriously in the 1980s. Her first published picture was the cover of Motorcycle Touring in Europe in 1985 and in about 1990 she was the first woman ever to write for Shutterbug magazine in the United States.
Bromoil. This is perhaps the best known and easiest "control" technique. You start out with a conventional black and white print, and you then soak it in a solution that bleaches out the silver image but hardens the gelatine in proportion to the density of the image. The harder gelatine retains less water; the softer gelatine, more. Famously, oil and water do not mix, so if you dab greasy ink onto the print with a brush, it sticks more in the areas with less water and less in the area with more water. You can add ink selectively (and to a limited extent remove it with a dry brush) and the overall effect is not quite like anything else. Frances shot this in Malta with a Contax AX and made the bromoil using a kit from Fotospeed in the UK.
In the glory days of black and white we used to get all kinds of cameras and materials to test, and we'd like to pass on the knowledge we have acquired over the decades. You won't find this kind of information in the magazines any more, so the internet is the natural medium. Of course you can find most of the information in this column (and future columns) somewhere on the internet, but it will usually be in very fragmented form and it often assumes quite a lot of knowledge of film photography, which many people won't have.
Our intention is to support and encourage the manufacturers and vendors of film and related products, and to create a sort of on-line community for the benefit of novices and old hands alike. Support the manufacturers and dealers, and they will support you!
We'll be honest. We know that these are not the most sophisticated of web pages. Plain text on a white background; simple layout; no animations or videos. This is not, however, just because we're not professional web designers. Rather, we wanted to echo an earlier, simpler day of proper printed books and magazines, packed with solid information and inspiration: the days of film.
Sun shade. Frances shot this in the South of France on Ilford HP5 Plus, developed in Ilford DD-X. She used her Alpa 12 S/WA with a 35/5.6 Rodenstock Apo Grandagon and a 6x9 cm back: Alpas accept a wide range of formats from 6x9cm down, including digital. Although 35 mm is far and away the most popular and common format, there are those who reckon that if you are going to use film, you might as well go the whole hog and use roll film or even large format cut film. Unexpectedly, this can actually be easier in some ways than using 35mm. Exposure is less critical, and if you use really large formats, you can even make contact prints.
Now to the next question. Do you need a darkroom? The simple answer is no. It is perfectly possible to shoot film and then to have it commercially processed, scanned and printed – or even printed optically using an enlarger and traditional “wet” technology. Many film users are perfectly happy with this approach. On the other hand, the more complex answer is that the more you can do yourself, the more control you can take. For many people, including me, this is a great deal of the pleasure of film photography. If I get things wrong, there is no-one else I can easily blame, and no-one else who will try to shrug off responsibility and blame the problems on someone else: the software, the firmware, incompatibilities, the computer.... This is an interesting paradox: a liberating responsibility.
My Leica (and Retina) and I The book is from the 1930s; the Retina from the 1950s. I used it to take the picture of the spa below, guessing the exposure (the Retina has no meter). The rule of thumb for bright sun is 1/ISO at f/16: with ISO 100 film, 1/100 at f/16. I used 1/125 at f/11, to err on the side of over-exposure. The historical aspect of film photography fascinates many: one friend uses period Leicas for World War Two re-enactments.
The most important thing to realize, as I have already said, is that film photography not difficult. It could hardly have survived for well over a hundred years if it were. Remember that the term “point and shoot” dates from the days of film, not digital. Anyone of ordinary intelligence and dexterity can master a film camera. The artistic side is another matter – but then, the artistic side is another matter with digital too.
The next thing to realize is that you can choose how deeply you want to get involved. You can mix and match both commercial processes and personal involvement, and equally, you can mix and match both silver halide and digital. You can develop the film yourself or have it commercially developed; you can scan it yourself or have it commercially scanned; you can have it commercially printed, either optically or via a scanned file, or print it yourself. It is even possible to print a file from a digital camera on silver halide paper. In fact, most modern mini-labs work this way: they scan the film and then print it on traditional silver halide paper, as being quickest, best and cheapest.
For that matter there are digital enlargers, where the traditional enlarger head is replaced with a special enlarger head that allows you to focus a digital image via a lens onto traditional paper.
Holly Lewis, Hollywood style. I shot this with an 8x10 inch De Vere monorail from the 1950s and a 21 inch (533 mm) f/7.7 Ross lens that probably dated from the First World War or a little after. The "high" skin tones result from using Ilford Ortho Plus, which is not red sensitive; you could achieve similar effects with a blue filter.
The film was developed in a Paterson Orbital paper developing tank, which you can still find sometimes at "photo fairs" (photo flea markets).
Then I scanned it with a cheap old Agfa flat-bed scanner. For 8x10 inch film, you don't need much resolution: even 600 dpi allows a 16x20 inch (40x50 cm) enlargement at the photomechanical standard of 300 dpi, or more with an ink-jet printer.
For colour, it's true, I no longer see any consistent advantage in film. Colour negative film processing is standardized as what is universally known as the C41 process: originally from Kodak, though effectively all current colour negative films use the same process, and equally, compatible processes from other manufacturers can be used for effectively all current color negative films. Slide films, alas ever diminishing in number, use the E6 process, again a Kodak standard. It is extremely unlikely that any new colour film processes will ever present any challenge to C41 and E6.
Both C41 and E6 are straightforward, standardized follow-the-steps processes with limited scope for image manipulation. The only reason I process my own C41 and E6 (with Tetenal kits) is that I live about 11 miles or 18 km from the nearest C41 lab and so far from the nearest E6 lab that I don't even know where it is. I could use mail order but it's simply quicker, cheaper and easier to process my own. Digital is quicker, cheaper and easier still, but less fun. If I do shoot colour film, though, I normally scan it myself and print it myself with an inkjet printer (Epson Stylus Photo R3000).
St. Thomas spa, Pyrenees. 1950s Kodak Retina IIa, as seen above, with 50/2 Rodenstock Heligon. Kodak Ektar 100, C41 process, scanned with Konica Minolta Dimage Scan Elite 5400 II. Ektar 100 was introduced in 2009. The reports of the death of film are greatly exaggerated.
Black and white is the real glory of film. Every black and white film has its own unique look, and it is possible to influence that look to a remarkable extent via the development regime: choice of developer, time, temperature, agitation... And then you can make your own prints, either via scanning or (my much preferred route) in a traditional “wet” darkroom. This can be set up on a more or less permanent basis in a basement, garage or the like; temporarily, in a bathroom or other room; or even in the Nova Darkroom Tent, just 42 inches (110 cm) square and around seven feet (just over 2 metres) tall.
At every stage you can impress your own character or vision on the final image, though it had to be said that in all fairness there are often many different routes to the same end. Also, it is all but impossible to appreciate the beauty of a black and white print, or to see the differences between different films, developers and papers, on a computer screen. Once the image has been strained through electronic media, its unique characteristics are much diminished.
Voigtländer Bessa 1, 1950s. Even if you couldn't get film for it, wouldn't you want to own it? It is such a perfect piece of engineering, the epitome of a certain era of beautifully chromed brass, leather-covered bellows and sparkling glass. And 120-format film is still readily available. Something that is hard to convey is just how different film cameras are from one another; they do not suffer from the blandness that so often seems to permeate digital cameras. The same is true of the results.
Of course you can can “re-create” the look of almost any film, digitally. But then, as we all know, you can also “re-create” beef with TVP, Textured Vegetable Protein, or the taste of strawberries with strawberry flavouring. The extent to which these re-creations are convincing is extremely variable; but on top of this, I'm going to wax a little bit mystical and quote the late Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
In his 1871 novel The Coming Race, Baron Lytton invented a “life force” he called vril. Vril permeated everything, and although (as far as I know) the late, lamented Baron never meant it to be taken this way, vril is as good an explanation of any of what makes a work of art. The artist's vril permeates his (or of course her) art, and the closer the work is to the artist – the more intimately he or she is involved in its creation – the more vril there is in the art. Otherwise, after all, why should an original print, signed by the photographer, be worth any more than a modern print by a master printer? The more so as the modern master printer probably has access to much superior materials?
Looking at old prints by the fireside. I'm holding a black and white print of my brother and me from the 1960s. Frances is going through an archival storage box of old family pictures. Most of the pictures on the walls are ours too. It's not like looking at a computer screen, is it?
The very word “artist” leads me to the last point I want to make here. Is photography art? Well, if it isn't, what is it? If you think that a child's stick-figure drawing is art, but that a photograph by Ansel Adams or Sebastião Salgado isn't, there's something wrong with your definition of art. There is only good and bad art. This includes the pictures that you make; that I make; that everyone makes. Even if we aren't consciously trying to produce Art with a capital “A”, we're still trying to put as much of ourselves as we can into our photographs: our moods, our feelings, our emotions, our sense of wonder or even our sense of disbelief. Vril, in fact. This is where film, because it allows us to engage ourselves in almost every step of the process, offers unique opportunities. If the possibilities intrigue you: well, there will be more in this series.
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All text and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks Ltd. 2016.