Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Film: Humbug.

Digital has eliminated neither art nor craft from photography.

The New York Times has published another in a seemingly unending parade of eulogies to the passing of film: Picturing the End of Analog.

I don't miss film. If I had to use just one word to describe film, I'd say expensive. It was expensive to buy, expensive to use, expensive to process and expensive to store.

And, if you will allow me the luxury of adding just one more word to my description, I'd say difficult. It could be difficult to find when needed, difficult to process and difficult to store.

Close-up, wide angle, telephoto: One digital camera.
One reads all sorts of stories about the artsy qualities of film. Some of the stories are true. But some of the art was the result, not of craft, but of ignorance.

I knew a rather famous photojournalist who was well known for his contrasty colour images. He captured the grittiness of the news, the harshness of those moments with a style unmatched by other shooters. All his pictures weren't rendered with bald, stark highlights, that would have made his approach simply a style gimmick.

Then I met the great man. Working outside the country on assignment for the local paper, I had to have some colour film processed by this famous photojournalist artist. He processed the film by hand, dunking it in stainless steel tanks immersed in a water bath to stabilize the temperature of the processing chemicals.

When the film was dry, I picked an image and stuck the negative into a portable Leaf scanner to transmit three colour separations back to the newspaper. The image I saw on the little Leaf monitor was awful; It was contrasty; The highlights were bald.

See it, shoot it. The power of small, ever-present, digital cameras.
I removed the film from the scanner and examined it under a strong light. The colour film was suffering from silver retention. There was a black and white negative hiding in the colour negative.

At that time, colour film went into a bleach bath before going into the fixing bath. The bleach bath converted metallic silver in the film back into the silver halide it had been before being dipped in the developing tank. Thanks to the bleach bath, the fix bath removed all the silver from the film. Fix only removes silver halide; It does not easily remove metallic silver.

I had learned the reason for the contrasty images this photojournalist was known for. He didn't understand the chemistry involved in processing colour negative film. Most of the time he dumped his bleach before it lost it potency. He used his chemical bath for a set length of time, regularly replacing it with fresh chemistry. But sometimes, if he processed more film than usual, his bleach grew weak and failed to convert all the metallic silver created during development back into silver halide.

At those times he produced art. Film: Humbug.

Digital encourages experimentation. No film, no expense. Just fun.

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