Sunday, March 25, 2012


Stanley, Virginia 3 March 2012


What most of you don't know about me is that for the past couple of years, I have just about quit shooting film. This trend probably started with my purchase of the Canon 5D2. I haven't exposed a single sheet of 8x10 in at least five years, and it's been almost two years since I last shot any 4x5. I have been shooting some 120, but have not owned a 35mm film camera for almost 10 years. I've been moving more and more towards the digital world.
In 2005, I established the digital photo lab at Clark University, and I teach the day-time digital photo courses. After my experience of not being able to buy 120 b&w film in either Dallas or Ft. Worth last spring (Grrrrrrrrrr), I knew that I should thinking about what was possible in the digital world. Scanning and printing digitally has been my norm now for at least three years. I have now added a digital medium format camera to my stable, and have a great digital darkroom. Time to move on. The magic is merely happening in a different way now.

I have never lost the need to make images. What I've always searched for is control over both the inner and outer process of image making. Unlike many of you younger photographers, I have lived through 50 years of constant changes of the equipment and materials of the photographic medium. It seems as the equipment became more refined, the films and papers became less so. 25-30 years ago, I was already making beautiful silver prints with materials that even then were not up to the standards of the previous generation, but I was happy. I became of age photographically in the mid-1960's, and the choices of films and papers and chemistry were abundant and commonly available. As I look back over the prints I made then and the prints I can make now on very limited current materials for the darkroom, I become depressed. I learned Zone from the early publications of Ansel and Minor, worked as an assistant in a Zone workshop sytem. I shot sheet films like Super Pan Press Type B and Versapan. Films 90% of you have never heard of. I printed on papers like DuPont Velour Black and Kodak Medalist or Kodabromide or Agfa Portriga Rapid. With current papers, I cannot come close to those prints when printing my older (and newer) negatives. It's very disheartening

There is, however, a light at the end of this tunnel, and that bright spot is called digital. I am now making digital prints from my scanned negatives that rival, and in most instances better, than anything I was ever able to accomplish in the darkroom. As the analog darkroom disappears, the digital darkroom emerges. Tried to purchase a new enlarger lately? The films, papers, and chemistry that shaped my formative years in photography are no longer available to me – like 8x10 Tri-X. I'm 76 years on this earth, and I just don't have time, nor energy, to expose enough alternative film like HP-5 Plus to learn to control it like I did Tri-X. Besides just as I get comfortable with it, it will either be changed, or discontinued. I had a pretty good grip on T-Max 100 until they change that film a couple of years ago. If I were 30-40 years younger, I would probably (or not) tell a different story. But at this stage of my life, I want and feel I gotta' change with the times.

All I said above had to do with b&w materials and images. The recent history of color photographic films and darkroom chemicals is even more drastic. In the past 10 years, the crop of color films, both positive and negative, have been great, especially the advances in the color negative emulsions. Up until 7-8 years ago, you could easily get the chemical kits for processing your own color prints. Flexicolor kits for processing C-41 films and E-6 kits for processing transparencies are gone. While you can still obtain color negative and color transparency stocks, finding somewhere to process these films is becoming extremely difficult. And finding a good printer to make color prints chemically (RA-4) even more so. In fact, most labs doing color printing are first scanning your films and printing them digitally. I've always believed that finalizing the process of making an image was to make your own prints. I just couldn't see someone else making prints of my images to my satisfaction. Still can't.

As I said before, it seems as the picture taking equipment got better, the analog means to finish the photograph diminished. Thankfully the digital side of the fence has improved exponentially. The past couple of years have seen papers and the printers come to the point where the prints are better and years more permanent then any chemically made print. All of the major paper manufactures have ink jet papers that not only mimic the best of the analog paper, but in some ways surpass it. Harman, Hahnemulhe, Arches (Canson), Red River, Moab, Ilford, Museo (Crane), etc., all make wonderful papers for printing digitally. Epson, HP, and Canon make printers from small to large that produce exquisite prints, both b&w and color, on these papers.

So I've gone digital. Big deal. I'm not the one who “pissed on my rainbow” (as a friend of mine put it so succinctly), but rather companies like Kodak who couldn't see their rainbow because of a yellow filtered bottom line. If anything you can probably trace the demise of analog photography to the introduction of color photography to the masses post World War II. I didn't say the demise of photography, but rather the manner in which it is produced. And probably the really big nail in the coffin was the invention of the transistor which in turned revolutionized electronics. It was this miniaturization and ease of control of everything that put the cell phone in your hand, and therefore a camera in every hand. It is estimated that several billion images are made each hour of everyday around the world whether with the largest film cameras down to 2-mega-pixel cameras available as a child's toy. We live in a world of technological revolution, so why would we suppose it would not include photography?

I'll still willing to get my feet wet to make an image, I'm just no longer willing to get my hands wet to to process film or make a print.


Simon Goodacre said...

I just left the longest comment ever but then Google deleted it - brilliant.

Anyway, what I was trying to say was that I wonder what affect digital will have on future photo students. The nice thing about analog photography was that it forced you to think about what you were doing. I remember a guitar teacher told me that you had mastered the instrument when you could make it sound the way you had it in your head. I think photography is much the same way.

Now it is so easy to just keep shooting and shooting until you get a great image. I wonder how many people in the future will know how to actually make a great image - like the one that is in their head.

Hope you are doing well. Congrats on the latest acquisition. I have moved to a full time multimedia role at work, so I finally got hold of a 5D2 from the office (as well as Adobe's production suite). Good stuff. It's all videos, pictures and podcasts. I just posted some pics from my trip to South Africa if you are interested:

pitchertaker said...


The whole idea of learning the Zone System was to be able to predict results depending on decision made before the image was made. And it allowed a photographer to push the limits of the materials through magic chemical formulas and techniques both in film and paper processing. On top of that, films and papers were far more capable of being manipulated. Most of that magic is gone with current crop of films and papers. Having experienced what was previously available to me and what I have now, I can do more digitally. Now what effect that will have on the future photography students, I don't know. The good side of digital is that it's finally caught up with film quality wise, software is finally able to manipulate in very strange ways, so maybe with enough time, we can emulate the past. Should we? I don't know.

Simon Goodacre said...

Fair point. I am glad that the quality has finally caught up. It's amazing to think of how far it has come. When I moved to the US, digital cameras were still very expensive and only gave you a tiny image. Obviously the convenience was immediately attractive. I remember in college you saying that the cameras had caught up to film with the 5DII. I suppose now the papers are there too. Are they even better now that they were in 2005-2009? I do not have access to a decent printer at the moment, so I'm a bit out of the loop there.

Pat Tillett said...

This is one of the most educational posts I've ever read. Its totally interesting and it's part of our history.
Hope things are going well for you!

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