BitDepth 515 - March 14

Photography once was film. Now film is history...
A eulogy for film

Scanned from film but assembled digitally, my coda to film, which will live on with dedicated enthusiasts. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

Over the last few months I've been working with film again. Not shooting it, though, the last time I did that was in early 2004, for Carnival that year, but reviewing archived photos decades old for a project and choosing images accumulated over the last eight years for scanning.
I've also been wondering what to do about all the film stored in my studio refrigerator over much of that time, an era when photography sat simmering on the backburner of my working life and the way we take photos changed forever.

Film served me well for the first twenty-five years I worked as a photographer, offering a fertile learning ground for my explorations of light, shape and composition as I came to grips with the tools of the work.
When I started shooting, a lightmeter and an understanding of the controls of the camera were crucial to getting something usable on those rectangles of gelatin. The equipment is much smarter now, using sophisticated programming on chips that deliver images that are almost unerringly well exposed and focused for millions of camera users.

So a career arc that began with a fight to get good images on film has curved around now to a fight to distinguish my work from the legions with slivers of silver between thumb and forefinger snapping away all around me.
Snapshots are now the dominant form of visual communication in still photography and even the subjects of our photography no longer look to the cycle of coverage, editing and publication as the ultimate record at Carnival. That came home to me this Carnival when eager hands with little digital cameras would suddenly pop up in front of me as I framed a photo and masquerader after masquerader kept asking me which website I was shooting for.

These online web collections of parties and celebrations are made possible by the new economics of photography, which allow marginally skilled and admirably enthusiastic young people to shoot hundreds of photos, from which dozens are culled and posted and the final selection is left to the consumers; who scroll through page after page of these lusty records of public party abandon to find themselves and their friends.

Film, which slows the editing process after photography to a cycle of processing, viewing and printing (or digitizing) seems buggy whip antiquated in this new era of instant visual gratification.
But don't blame the rapid rise of digital photography for the demise of film. Photography has been speeding up ever since the days of the tintype, which required exposures measured in minutes and deadly chemicals for processing.
I don't miss the hours I spent over the vile chemicals I'd mix to process and print in the darkroom, but I wish that more of today's photographers had to go through more of that kind of discipline to see their first images.

There was something enormously gratifying and quietly zen about watching a black and white image slowly fade in as it lay soaking in the developer tray, the gray outlines solidifying into crisp black as the picture oozed into view. After all that effort, you felt as if you'd earned it when things turned out well.
Perhaps that's why digital photography didn't really feel real to me until the RAW format migrated down from high-end studio cameras into the realm of the everyday working photographer.
Once Adobe's Photoshop had a plug-in that made it possible to shape images from the raw stock of the initial digital capture and control could be wrested from the busybody automation built into every digital camera made today, photographers could get back to the work of making pictures, not just taking them.

But photographing in RAW, like cyanotypes, albumen prints and dye transfers in their day, remains firmly in the realm of the committed. Most of the photography in the world follows the simplest path to a successful photo, whether it's Kodak's Brownie, Mr Land's Polaroid camera or the billions of images churned out by the "one-hour" labs that serviced film cameras at their peak.

Last year, digital camera sales formally overtook film camera sales, Minolta quit the camera business, Kodak began scaling back on the photographic papers it produces and nobody's asked my advice on buying a camera that shoots film for years.
Stageside on Carnival Tuesday, as photographer Rattan Jadoo and I glared haplessly at a phalanx of photographers and security people on the stage blocking our angle, I looked around for something to toss at them, then I grinned and bellowed in Rattan's ear over the roar of soca, "at least in the old days, we had empty film canisters!"
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