What you have caught on film is captured forever… it remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything. —Aaron Siskind
Film photography is wonderful, and in many ways, I still prefer it to digital. There is an artistry to using a film camera that is lost with a digital box that does most the thinking for you. Clients have to trust their photographer more, a lot more, and the photographer’s own talent and skill set actually matter. Working with film requires a bit more imagination, a bit more creativity, and a lot more precision. I love it.
So, you’d think that when Business of Fashion publishes an article headlined, “Fashion Photographers Return To Film,” I would be thrilled, right? Get out the old analog cameras, drop some Kodak TMax in the back, and let’s get rolling, right?
Hold on, not so fast. There are some issues here before we all dump our digitals. As enticing as the article makes film photography sound, and it does do such a good job of highlighting the positive aspects of using film, We have to consider whether this trend is sustainable and, beyond that, whether or not it even makes good sense. Let’s take a look at the issues the article doesn’t mention.
- The article highlights the work of four very talented but nonetheless young photographers. This looks like fashion photography’s hipster movement and, like everything else hipster, just because the elements are “retro,” doesn’t mean we “old folks,” you know, the ones with all the experience in film are invited to participate. Nevermind that we begrudgingly made the switch to digital some twelve or so years ago. This is a youth-focused retro moment and just because we old guys can do film better doesn’t mean anyone is going to pay attention.
- The retro styling of film photography matches the retro movement within the fashion industry itself. Void of any serious creativity for the past several seasons, fashion has gotten stuck looking back, especially at the late 1960s and 70s stylings. The film look works for those fashion lines because it matches the clothing lines. Should fashion ever decide to snap itself out of this ridiculous trend and actually do something creative, that film look isn’t likely to be as appropriate.
- The support system is no longer present. When photographers made the switch to digital, and we all did it pretty much within the span of three to five years, we killed off a lot of people’s jobs. Prepress shops are virtually extinct now. There are still a handful of color houses running around the country, but the dramatic decrease in volume has forced them to severely increase their prices. No one even makes black-and-white paper anymore and the film options themselves have severely diminished. 20 years ago, AGFA and Kodak were invested heavily in imagesetters, but neither company even sells those behemoths now (though you can still pick up used devices if you’re really desperate). While I suppose that support system could be revitalized if everyone started using film again, there’s no indication that’s about to happen.
- Even if one shoots on film, magazine layout is still digital. Again, the extinction of prepress shops is critical here. Everyone uses digital layout methods now and going back to analog just to accommodate a photography style doesn’t make sense. That means, even if the image is shot on film, it still has to be scanned and digitized and is likely to be photoshopped. That means the images being used are no more “pure” than those shot with a Canon EOS 5D. Bodies can still be reshaped, colors can still be manipulated, errors can still be fixed. So, what’s the point in using film, again?
- The photography industry, as a whole, no longer supports film for general professional use. Canon has been showing off a 120-megapixel prototype that could, allegedly, be on the market later this year. Hasselblad’s H6d also offers a 100-megapixel option in full-frame medium format. Meanwhile, Sony continues pushing mirrorless options that grow increasingly sharper with each new update. Even the quality of cell phone cameras is growing rapidly. The photography industry is done with film and has moved on. I don’t see it backtracking. Ever.
I gotta admit, though, the lure of going back to film sure as hell sounds enticing, doesn’t it? To hear that click/whir of an auto film advance, the ability to get really creative and do multiple exposures on camera, trading backs from polaroid to TMax, and just the way a good, solid film box feels in your hand are all pieces of photographic nostalgia that I sometimes miss.
But without prepress and color shops, we’d all have to do our own processing. I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t have room to safely set up a dark room anymore. Even if I did, do I really want those highly-flammable chemicals in my house? Yeah, I know we didn’t give it a second thought 30 years ago, but once we came out from under the influence of those fumes we started seeing just how dangerous an improperly ventilated dark room could be. Then, there are the costs. Products more difficult to find, there aren’t as many options, paper is horribly expensive, and you still have to pay for a high-end drum scan to have the image digitized at sufficient quality. My estimates are a final price tag of about $150 per 8″x10″ image! I don’t know about anyone else, but that’s well outside my budget!
I love the idea of using film for fashion shoots; it certainly fits a number of different styles currently on the market. I fear it’s little more than a pseudo-hipster, anti-establishment, anti-capitalistic trend, though, and like all trends, this will pass. The world is digital now. The world relies on digital imagery and the information a picture can carry in its data packets. As much as we love film, we’re not going back.