Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Ode to the Lowly Sprocket Hole

One of the overlooked casualties of photography's digital age is the death of the sprocket hole. Just a few short years ago sprocket holes roamed the world of photography in multitudes like the great buffalo herds of pre-colonial America. Now they are an endangered species. Digital technology has rendered them obsolete.

In one sense this is nothing new, since sprocket holes have always been superfluous in still photography. When Edison's lab developed 35 mm film from 70 mm film stock by splitting it down the center, perforations were added to aid film advance. They were a functional byproduct necessary for film to function, a bit like the dissolvable cap surrounding a pharmaceutical. They were not meant as part of the image.

But the lowly sprocket hole wasn't content as a background figure. Even as byproducts they worked their way into final production. If film is agitated excessively during development, sprocket holes will ghost into the frame.

Salish Park Blog

Even with proper agitation, sprocket holes can manifest in unexpected ways.

Sprocket Hole Allison, 2005, Patrick Power

But these were accidents and deadends. In the early days of 35 mm photography, the main path to glory for sprocket holes was more straightforward. The first Leica models were not always well centered. Sometimes they exposed frames up to and across the sprocket holes. When printed full-frame, these photos helped sprocket holes gain widespread recognition, or at least potential visibility.

India, 1948, Henri Cartier-Bresson

Closeup showing sprocket holes lower right

Sometime sprocket holes made even more serious incursions into the frame. Looking at the contact sheet below, Robert Frank's choice not to print The Americans full-frame is perhaps more understandable.

from The Americans, Robert Frank

And the effects weren't limited to film. With enough use, the camera itself could become indelibly sprocketed.

Garry Winogrand's M4 with pressure plate sprocket hole marks

In the 1960s Barbara Crane was among the first to intentionally integrate sprocket holes into finished work as a formal compositional device, through her Whole Roll series.

Cosmic Forms II, 1968, Barbara Crane

This method has been carried into the present by photographers like Thomas Kellner and Martin Wilson.

Washington, Capitol I, 2004, Thomas Kellner

A Message From The Bears, Martin Wilson

Although the actual holes are difficult to see in these small web jpgs, they are there. Perhaps more important is the idea of film being integral to the image. Instead of cropping out holes and frame counts, these artists consciously include them. Today's digital equivalent might be a photograph with Metadata information printed along the border. Can you imagine the cover of The Yes Album

The Yes Album, 1970

Converted to this?

The Yes Album with Metadata

Not quite the same. No, there's a romantic quality to film and sprockets that seems lacking in digital. Even though most modern 35 mm cameras expose the frame far clear of the sprocket holes, some folks still go to great lengths to include them. It's part of what makes film look like film.

Self Portrait, Faulkner Short

Lately this urge has gotten a boost from the toy camera craze. There's a movement to load 35 mm cartridges into Holgas designed for 120 film.


The entire emulsion is exposed, sprocket holes and all. Sometimes the holes interact with the image in unexpected ways.

Lundi Matin, Flickr


Slimmer Jimmer, Flickr

Lomo has embraced this technique and incorporated it into their latest model, The Spinner. The camera uses 35 mm film in a wide body, and is perhaps the first camera intentionally designed to incorporate sprocket holes in the final image.

from Spinner Lomo Promo

Despite these countertrends, the main path of photography is running fullspeed the other direction. If sprocket holes were at one point extraneous, with digital they are completely obsolete, although attempts have been made to emulate them. To me, the results seem as soulless as intentionally distressed furniture.

For me, sprocket holes symbolizes one thing: Imperfection. This is ironic considering their precise mechanical nature. But in a photo they are the opposite of precision. They signify sloppiness, excess, or accident. Perfectionists (if they bother with 35 mm film at all) will always crop them out. So when I see those lovely holes in an image, it's a reminder that reality is imperfect and that any visual record of reality should probably follow suit.

9 comments:

Joe said...

Sprocket holes rule!.

Andy Wilson said...

Very interesting article, but being unreasonably pedantic about a handful of words in it, the Blackbird Fly intentionally exposed 15mm film right up to the edge some time before the Spinner, as does Lomography's own Diana Mini I think.

Blake Andrews said...

Thanks, Andy. You're right about the Blackbird Fly being before the Spinner. My oversight.

As far as I can tell the Diana Mini doesn't expose across the sprocket holes, but I don't have one so I'm just going on secondhand info. Anyone know for sure?

The sprocket hole torch burns strong at Lomo.

Hernan said...

I like your article. Just to add a few more examples, Jim Lo Scalzo who, i suppose, used a Mamiya 7 without the mask.
http://jimloscalzo.com/html/galleries/115/stories/a-line-in-the-sand/0
And, ejem, me. I did a humble tribute to the 35 mm.
http://zenteno.photoshelter.com/gallery/35-mm/G0000FUfJ25o9L7A
and
http://zenteno.photoshelter.com/img-show/I0000VEl2nePyu0o

Anonymous said...

"Garry Winogrand's M4 with pressure plate sprocket hole marks"

It's been many years since I put a film in a camera, but I'm confused about how heavy use could leave impressions of sprockets holes on the pressure plate. Surely the film goes in a slightly different place each time. Was this maybe due to a film being left in the camera for many years?

Blake Andrews said...

I'm not sure. I suppose the marks could be from film left in the camera but that seems unlikely. Why would a roll of film be left there that long? And how would it leave an imprint?

On the other hand, as you point out, film advanced with the Leica winder wouldn't leave such a precise mark either.

I guess it's a mystery.

Or a clearly described fact.

Tim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim said...

Sorry, I deleted my previous comment because the link didn't work,I edit it, hope it works now...

Good article!

I own a Blackbird Fly and I love it. It's not only the holes in the picture, under certain conditions the light leaks around these holes, creating an effect somewhere between the ghost images of excessive agitation (which you described) and lightleaks. I hope noone will ever try to emulate the randomness of this effect digitally - it would be truly soulless.

I have a small collection
on photocase.

Thomas Kellner said...

nic article, also check
http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/AFewFrames