This started with an interesting thought experiment in a podcast conversation I heard with Tim Urban. He asked ‘imagine a wicked witch removes everything we have made. How long would it take us to make a working mobile phone?’. Once we make one, we can have all our stuff back.
You might think ‘easy, assemble the chips and case’, but you have to make them. And the further back you go, the more you realise you need to take another step back. Then you realise you have to mine the raw materials, but first you have to make the tools to dig the mine. The same idea was explored in Lewis Dartnell’s book The Knowledge. He started with the question that, if you had to rebuild society from scratch, what do you do first and then next?
To give this a little relevance, Dartnell included in his book a section on how to reboot photography. His author picture in the book was made using his simple startup method, so it works.
The point that Urban was making and Dartnell trying to resolve, is that we are massively interdependent and very specialised. The other point is that some knowledge is declining. For a long time cameras had clockwork shutters. They were made in huge quantities and spares and repair skills were common. Then we started using electronics. And then we dispersed the manufacturing and assembled cameras from modules. Very few manufacturers now still need shutters and Copal might be the last company making 35mm type focal plane ones.
Why do we care? Because film photography is dying. It’s had a bit of reanimation recently, but the long term prognosis is poor. The reason is that we can’t make film or analogue cameras any more and we are losing the ability to repair them.
Yes, I know that Kodak and Ilford are still going and that Lomography make cameras, but you can also still buy a cut-throat razor or a valve amplifier if you really want one. But they are niche products. Of the two, the valve amplifier is probably the better comparison – valves are difficult to make*. Mechanical cameras and photographic film are also hard to make. Electronics, at least now, are easier.
There is a massive initial investment, for sure. But then you are effectively making small computers and as we know, you can make a computer do a different job with a change of software. Indeed, you can reinstate the functions that Canon switch off in their compact cameras using a hack. They don’t build different processors for each model – they use a single processor and switch off the functions that the lesser models shouldn’t have.
If you want another example of the loss of skills, look at film. Polaroid stopped production and it has proved almost impossible to recreate what they did. I understand that it’s even nearly impossible to recreate the clever origami that some of their film packs used. Kodak might also soon be the only manufacturer of colour film.
So what are we left with? If we want to use analogue methods we will probably have to do the same backwards walk through history and technology as Tim Urban suggested, to get to something we can easily make and sustain.
I expect that electronic film cameras will break first. The most recent ones may be the first to go, as the components are smaller, harder to replace, and designed to remove excess cost. It’s a bit like the perfect racing car, which should cross the finish line in first place as every component simultaneously wears out. As the designers say – if it broke, it wasn’t strong enough; if it didn’t break it was too heavy.
Next will be the vast army of clockwork cameras. The higher value ones may continue longest as broken ones are raided for spares. Their perceived value or goodness may make it worth the effort. Strangely, one of the simplest mass-produced 35mm cameras may end up being the last that works. Take a look at the Argus C3 – it could be serviced and repaired by a soldier.
If we lose 35mm film we are back to large format, which is simple enough to go on forever. A basic box that can be built or repaired by a carpenter and tailor. A basic lens that doesn’t even need a shutter. Sensitive material that can be made from paper, glass or metal. Some processes don’t even need silver. Perhaps we should start referring to large format photographers as preppers?
Of course digital cameras will continue for as long as people want them. They too need an infrastructure to make them work but they are riding the crest of the innovation wave. And if you fall behind that wave, you fall far. Does anyone still remember the floppy disks used for computer storage? Try reading one now. Or a backup tape, or Zip drive. How about the big laser disks that the BBC micro had and that a complete Domesday Book was stored on? At least I could scan the old negatives I inherited from my grandparents; I’m glad that I didn’t get a bag of obsolete memory cards.
So what’s the punchline? I can hope that a clever Chinese factory starts making knock-off copies of the Copal Square shutter and that film continues to be made. Or I could find a cheap large format camera and learn to make my own glass plates. But unless someone starts making analogue cameras again (and why should they**) then film photography is dying. So now is the time to plan your retreat back to a simpler time that can continue to function when our sources or support networks dry up.
* … and the Russians might be the only people still making them. So buy them at your moral peril.
** we may get lucky.