One of the most dynamic and evolving mediums today is photography. What was once a scientific tool developed by chemists and the privileged rich is one of the most accessible fields of art. While not every photograph is artistic (or worth a thousand words), photography is perhaps the only artistic field equalized and available to all. Still, while technology has allowed for so many improvements, the death of old methods is happening quicker than expected.
Photography is a staple of daily life, as well as an important part of museum and gallery collections. This dynamism comes from a rich history of evolving minds and technological gains towards mobility, affordability and accessibility. Photographers exploring science (Eadweard Muybridge and his shutter experiments); those interested in the human condition (Jacob Riis and the documenting of New York slums) and the artistic side (Julia Margaret Cameron and her portraits) all have been pioneers in the medium and early masters at their field. The photograph’s diversity has allowed for so many new ways of seeing.
From the time of the great frontier photographer Timothy O’Sullivan to the French street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, the medium had already seen a movement in formats. The movement from large land-camera — the kind with the dark cloth draped over the back — to the handheld 35mm format allowed for life to be captured instantaneously.
Kodakrome, the slide film of the ’60s and ’70s, saw its last roll developed in 2010. All but one of Polaroid’s processing plants shut down. Change has edged out traditional methods for new ones, but the end of the film process is coming faster than we thought.
I struggle with the decline and eventual extinction of this medium. What matters is the amount of time that I have left with traditional, chemical-based photography. I prefer using film cameras — a Canon F-1, a Hasselblad 500C, a Holga 120 — as different tools to create photographs. I watched, in a very short time, the rise in price of chemical papers for printing and the end of pre-cut paper sizes for color paper. In the four years of studying photography, I saw the techniques that I have come to admire and try to recreate become less and less promoted as digital photography takes its place.
Don’t get me wrong, it is a costly venture to pay for each negative produced (my rate for 120 format film is about $1 per negative). Yet snapping 150 photos with the digital camera only to delete 145 of them in favour of the few good ones does not teach one to be a better photographer, only a lazier one. The price-prohibiting nature of film does deter the less adventurous ones from honing their skills, but isn’t that the price to pay for improvement?
I feel the quality of chemical prints to be superior to that of inkjet prints and do not yet find an adequate comparison. Until the difference becomes null, I feel a stronger adherence to photography coming from chemicals. I am perhaps more process driven than I think I should be, especially since I am struggling to prove the worth or value of printing in this way.
Is it worth my money and time to be making a dying art to show to an uninterested audience? Do the viewers of my work really care how long it took to make the piece before them, and would knowing that improve their enjoyment of it? These questions continue to gnaw my days away as I flit through negatives and photos, digital files and scans.
There is a part of me that wants to maintain that I have a deeper purpose in the process of chemical photography — that it links me somehow to craft that has a great lineage of wonderful artists: Adams, Friedlander, Bresson, Atget, O’Sullivan, Frank, Stieglitz and Steichen. The haunting work of Hiroshi Sugimoto; the opulence of Gregory Crewdson; the bombast of David LaChappelle; the compelling tableaux of Jeff Wall; the vastness of Andreas Gursky or Ed Burtynsky, all form a rich collective of photographers.
Perhaps I suffer from a kind of “conversion fervor”; I came late to the film photography game and I have to stake my claim with the past greats, claim direct lineage to them. Only then can my reasons for wanting film to have a standard set above that of digital seem relevant or noteworthy.
I worry that this way of photography, once gone, cannot come back. Nineteenth-century practices are still available, but they were abandoned for safety reasons and to make photography more accessible. What will the end of film mean to the medium of photography?