Skip to main content

The Future of Film Photography???

Watching the current state of film-based photography from a commercial standpoint causes me to contemplate the future of film. There seems to be a small renaissance happening driven in part by the Lomography movement and the overall retro trend as shown in the resurgence of vinyl. Part of this is driven from a historical interest and curiosity. So with the collapse of many emulsions from Kodak and Fuji and the complete loss of many film and paper companies such as Forte, Oriental Seagull, Kentmere etc it seemed the industry was in a steep decline from the early 2000's.

This may have plateaued as there is less news of closures and discontinued product lines lately. Indeed Ilford seems to be secure with new emulsions turning up and their re-establishment of direct positive paper emulsions. Foma has introduced a new Retro 320 film and of course Ferrania is heartening in their progress with plans to resurrect old emulsions.

How long this remains a trend will be difficult to predict. This could be a last gasp or a recent fad that fades and without newer generations of enthusiasts to sustain it a decline could confront the industry in a few more years. Ferrania understands the issues as it scales back a plant that had huge production capacity. Kodak fell victim to the huge scale if its efforts to serve a large part of the worldwide market. Ilford seems to have been a small enough player that it fits quite comfortably in its ability to sustain production at current levels and having moved exclusively to black and white some time in the past can satisfy both the amateur and professional segments.

Digital technology is rapidly eating into any residual technical advantages of film. Full frame 35mm DSLRs are now into the range of many enthusiasts and so the 'sensor size' advantage has moved from 35mm to medium format where full frame sensors are still prohibitively expensive (and actually I don't think truly full frame yet). Large format represents its own category (both in terms of resolution and pace). Meanwhile digital sensors offer much more sensitivity and versatility and post processing seems to have moved beyond merely imitating darkroom techniques. Inks are increasingly archival and offer a range of tone and color that adherents at least would like everyone to believe are as good or better than silver-based prints. And finally there is the pure trouble and difficulty of making prints on the old analog way. Digital has conquered all aspects of commercial photography because of simple efficiency and speed.

I suspect that analog film photography will be the realm of artists and hobbyists in the end. Much as photography at its invention reduced but did not eliminate the need or demand for painting and drawing, so analog photography will become an art medium to itself. Some will be drawn to its potential for creative expression, contact with the past, or the desire to 'craft' something rather than just 'produce' it. Personally I have enjoyed woodworking using traditional joinery rather than screws and other fasteners. The enjoyment comes from a intersection of a dialog with the past and the deeper understanding and skills required to learn and master the techniques. A good hobby subject should take years to master and offer one a journey or learning and mastery. I also think that it should also engage both the mind and the body. In an age where we suffer the superficial efficiency of everything a mouse click away we lose touch with the pace and satisfaction of past activities that are physical and mental. At least this is my position.

People treasure and collect the unusual, the old, and those things that take a certain amount of hand crafting. Look at fine watches, cars, clothing, jewelry, paintings. The market is small but prices can be high enough to sustain artists in this space. Indeed we have seen the attempts by digital photographers to appropriate the prestige of analog photography by avoiding the term inkjet with terms like giclée. (Giclée has a funny history related below.)

The word giclée was adopted by Jack Duganne, a printmaker working at Nash Editions. He wanted a name for the new type of prints they were producing on the IRIS printer, a large-format, high-resolution industrial prepress proofing inkjet printer they had adapted for fine-art printing. He was specifically looking for a word that would not have the negative connotations of "inkjet" or "computer generated". It is based on the French word gicleur, which means "nozzle" (the verb form gicler means "to squirt, spurt, or spray").[3] An unintended consequence of Duganne's choice of name was its problematic use in the French language since it is also modern French slang for male ejaculation. 

While considering these ideas I ran across an interesting paper on silver gelatin conservation published by The Getty. The Atlas of Analytical Signatures of Photographic Processes: Silver Gelatin by Dusan C. Stulik  and Art Kaplan. In it they had a short timeline of developments in photography. this was the perfect jumping off point on thoughts about where this is all heading.

A Brief History of Photography
While this is shown as a linear timeline what is really happening is that sometime around 2000 with the advent of mainstream digital photography the arrow of progress has started to turn back on itself and the subject will march further and further back in time. We may see the disappearance of color analog photography first. Eventually we may see our friends at Ilford, Kodak, Fuji, Foma etc fold up as volumes trend down.

The Future of Film Photography?

Will film die before paper? It is hard to say. The hybrid format of taking film photos and scanning and printing them digitally has some appeal for those who like working with older film cameras. (Certainly this is how I came back into analog photography.) The darkroom is a greater investment in terms of time and capital and space. But it is also the place where a lot of interesting creative work is performed and from an artistic standpoint results in a crafted archival image. Digital negatives and printing in a traditional darkroom (sometimes) using alternative processes is the flipside of the film-based hybrid workflow.

If commercial emulsions on film and paper disappear however things become grim (and expensive). But as seen in the diagram above the trend continues it reverse journey and we may find ourselves back in the 19th century where many photographers made their own film/plates and paper emulsions. This is the core of the alternative process movement in photography today but may represent the only way of rendering analog photographic images. Indeed the paper cited above included speculation that the future of darkroom printing may rely on liquid emulsions.

Coating one own's 35mm or even MF film seems difficult. A trawl around the web shows some peoples attempts at this, usually constructing some means of coating a roll of MF film base. This seems like an unlikely path for analog photography in the mass so the reverse journey described above may press ever further backwards and leave us with glass plates as a practical means of creating negatives for printing on paper using various alternative techniques as well as traditional silver gelatin liquid emulsions. As such I have noticed at least one person on the web who has squirreled away a plate setup for his favorite TLR in the anticipation that film may no longer be available one day. (Indeed I have done so myself though I am conscious of sounding like a survivalist hoarding food and guns for the coming Armageddon by admitting it. :))

The only thing that comes to mind to mitigate the situation described above with respect to roll films is the advent of the maker community. This new phenomenon encourages people to build their own products or modify existing ones. With 3d printers and low-cost easy to program and interface electronics it may be possible to combine this knowledge with the dying science of producing and coating emulsions. A collaboration of like-minded people with the requisite skills may be able to create a small film factory that fits on a desktop and coats rolls of Mylar film base with a prepared emulsion. It might consist of a traditional coating line made in miniature or perhaps leverage an inkjet printer mechanism. Microprocessors would control temperature, humidity, film base speed and the coating and cooling process.

It seems unlikely that analog photography will die completely and that it will merely return to its roots. One would hope there would be enough sustained interest however to allow it in its present form to continue to at least tread water.