Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Chumps

I'm not too picky about film. I usually buy whatever's cheapest. For the past few years that's been Arista Premium 400, $2.69 per roll from Freestyle. I don't know much about this film except that it behaves like Tri-X (it's rumored to have identical emulsion) and it is consistently the cheapest stuff out there by a wide margin. I go through a fair amount of film so cheap is important. Within reason. I mean, Fomapan and Arista EDU are also cheap but they're lame. So there's a balance. And Arista Premium hits the sweet spot. It's cheap and good. 

Make that was. Because Arista Premium is no longer available. Sure, you can still buy the 24 exposure version but I'm not sure why you'd want to. I've never understood 24-exp film. To me it's like a pint glass filled to the 2/3 mark. What's the point? You've poured most of the glass. You're there by the tap. Why not fill it to the rim? Does anyone out there understand 24-exp film?

That's probably why Freestyle still has plenty of 24-exposure Arista Premium in inventory. But the 36-exposure version, my bread and butter since 2009, has apparently gone out of stock forever. I guess the rumors were true. They made 10,000 rolls of it or something, then stopped. Now the film has moved up to that great eBay second-hand store in the sky.

Most of it anyway. Actually a good chunk of what's left is in Troy Holden's closet. He was smart. He saw the end coming and he even tried to warn me, but it fell on deaf ears. So he shrugged it off and bought 2,000 rolls for himself. Don't bother asking if he'll sell you a few rolls. He plans to use all of it. Here's some of his stash.


Of course there are other films, just as there were other ones before 2009. I've tried just about all of them at one point or another. I lived for a few years on grey-market Tri-X: $2.19 per roll. I'm still not sure what grey-market is, but it was cheap. Anyway that was discontinued. Then came a few years of wandering in the film desert, trying first this film then that one, whatever I could find. Tri-X, TMax, Delta, HP5, Neopan, Kentmere, Fomapan, Agfa. I can't remember them all. As I said I'm not too picky, and it didn't matter much. They were all fairly inexpensive.

In the late 2000s prices began to climb, and they haven't stopped. Yes, demand was falling during that period, which normally would've led to lower prices. But so was supply as companies exited the film business. The price point crept up, and up and up. But amidst the upheaval Arista Premium was like a film oasis, holding steady for years at $2.69. Until now.

The cheapest decent film is now Kentmere, $3.50 per roll. But that's been out of stock for several weeks. Maybe they've stopped making it. Next cheapest, HP5, $4.80 per roll. I've just ordered enough for a few months, but I can't help wondering where does it end? $6 per roll? $10? $20? I know bulk film is an option but I'm lazy, and that stuff is creeping up in price too. All roads lead in one direction. At some future point the price of film will become a factor in shooting decisions. You're going to look through your viewfinder and say to yourself, "that has potential, but is it worth 45 cents to find out?"  I think that when we reach that point, you can kiss 35 mm film photography goodbye. 

We're not there yet but it's coming. Every time a film is discontinued that day is a bit closer. We can move on to some other film and use that until it's depleted or too expensive, but it's just deferring the inevitable. We all know the endgame here —most of us have already reached it— and it's digital.

OK, big whoop. The writing's been on the wall for a while. Color shooters have already made the switch. They've been forced to because color film has become ridiculously expensive, and there are very few darkrooms for printing. Black and white is next in line

No surprise there. In fact this is a fairly minor blip in the context of photo history. Obsolescence is integral to photography. Every photo tool becomes obsolete eventually. It was true in 1839. It's true today. It's just that the pace has quickened of late. It took daguerreotypes 25 years to become obsolete. Now the rate is measured in months. If you are a photographer now, every tool in your photo bag will be obsolete by 2020. Probably sooner. I'm not saying those tools will be useless. But they will be hopelessly outdated and unserviceable in the very near future.

So what's a photographer to do? One option is to keep changing with the times. Stay current with new devices and updates. Option two is grab something that works and hang on.


41 Rue Broca, 1912. Photo: Eugène Atget.
This was Atget's strategy 120 years ago. Well, I'm not sure if was a conscious plan. Probably more the result of him being set in his ways. He was in his mid-30s by the time he became serious about photography, an old dog learning new tricks. It was the tail-end of the glass plate era, so that was the technique he learned. Over the next few decades glass plate photography became obsolete. But Atget knew what worked for him. He shot them until he died in 1927, long past the time when everyone else had switched to film. Sometimes when I worry about the world passing me by I think of Atget. Poor chump stuck with his old-timey methods. All of the other photographers were running laps around him. Surely he knew he was a dinosaur. Did it bother him?

A few weeks ago in San Francisco I stumbled on John Chiara's photos. Chiara drives a large camera-van to various parts of the city, using as a mobile camera obscura. He records images on large sheets of Cibachrome. Talk about a dinosaur. No one makes Cibachrome anymore, but Chiara planned ahead. He bought a large supply while it was still being produced, possibly enough for the rest of his life. So he's committed to option two.


167 Somerset at Felton, 2013, John Chiara

Last week I met a couple in the darkroom developing photograms. They'd exposed them underwater at night in the Columbia. That would be complicated enough, but what really set them apart was the size of the prints. Each one used an entire roll of silver gelatin fiber paper, maybe 5 feet by 7 feet. Actually 7 feet is just a guess. The prints were rolled up and I never saw them opened up. But they were huge. The couple had it down to a science. They'd built special holding tanks and darkboxes and drying racks. Watching them work all I could think was, I sure hope you bought good supply of that paper. Because I don't know how long Ilford is going to keep making it. 

My friend Bobby Abrahamson has been working on borrowed time for a while. For the past few years he's been making portraits using Polaroid Type 55 film. That film has been out of production long enough for eBay prices to climb through the roof. So he mostly uses donated stock. I think he has enough for now. But how much longer?

These folks are out there. Poor chumps. But happy chumps. More importantly they are chumps making good work what will probably be around a while. The alt-process revival has been well documented in other places. It seems natural to conclude that it's a reaction to technology. As the pace of innovation increases and it becomes harder to keep up, older techniques look more inviting. They may be outdated but at least they're static. They're not moving targets. 

Or maybe they are? I think part of the alt-process attraction may be rooted in the end game. It's exciting to work with a finite supply. The hammer might come down at any time. You might look for more and find that it's out of stock forever. So you'd better make it count.

11 comments:

paul h. said...

Shooting 120mm means that I'm always thinking, "is this frame actually worth $1.60"? I can't imagine shooting film and not having this internal debate every time ... even with 35mm, buying in bulk only saves you so much money.

Also I feel like there will always be enough people shooting 35mm to make it worth Kodak/Ilford/etc's while to keep producing it, no?

njwv said...

I use 24exp film in my Retina IIa and Pony 135c. They can both take 36exp film but the way the frame counter counts down in them makes it kind of fiddly to go over 24.

David Simonton said...

And then for some of us it's into the darkroom we go — ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching.

Thank goodness for the occasional good picture. And an accommodating freezer for film and paper. And booze.

Hernan Zenteno said...

I started to migrated to a hybrid choice. I still use my film cameras but I started to use digital too. The first place I started to visit digitally is the darkroom because is where I lost more fast my supply of paper and chemicals and because is a pain in the ass to wash fiber prints. I liked Forte warm fiber paper and Agfa Neutol WA, several years ago disappeared. Same problems with BW film developers. I have two bottles of Rodinal (made by new manufacturers) but have not more metol to prepare D-23 developer. Imported items are forbidden now by local policies. By the way, now I have problems to get include ink jet print paper because this government decisions and costs are increasing too because of the value of dollar here.

John said...

mostly just thanks for booze

Stan B. said...

If digital looked like film, I couldn't care if film disappeared tomorrow. As it is, it looks great made in the shade, but can still come off as absolute crap in contrast/sunlight.

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Chris said...

In the late 90's at school the darkroom seemed a bit of a chore, now I'm dying to get back in. Damn kids. I'm going with the Kodak GC 135-36 color neg at $2.70/roll -- $2.50 to process -- then scanner. A hybrid of sorts. I might have to buy out their inventory after reading....
My Dad had 10 boxes of AGFA 220 in his meat freezer that he gave me after asking why - I'll take it where I can get it, lately.

Lets not jinx the Instax....

- CJ

Tom Leininger said...

I did not realize they stopped making the film. I just ordered 100 feet of Kentmere because it was significantly cheaper than HP5, which seemed to go up. Paper is not cheap either.

Chad Thompson said...

Alt processes are far from static. Wet plate (and b/w) is tied to the cost of silver I'd imagine that is the bulk of your cost increase. My chemicals come from only a couple of sources and if one dries up I'll be sent scrambling as well. I can't buy 190 proof Everclear in CA so trips to AZ are required, silver nitrate I buy in bulk from New York, and Cyanide I can buy locally but now I'm on yet another government watch list. Cyanotypists are okay for a while, chemicals for them are relatively inert and cheap. Platinum/palladium printers have always known the pain and suffering of expensive materials. Daguerreotypists have a self hatred none of us will ever know.

Lee said...

Someday SD cards, SD card readers, and the JPG file format will be obsolete.