Does anyone remember Jimmy Nail advertising Kodak film on TV? Would anyone believe that colour print film was a big enough competitive market to be worth advertising? Will it come back?
Like a lot of people who predate the smartphone, I started out on film. It wasn’t being worthy and I wasn’t a hipster: film was what made photographs. If I started now I would surely have begun with digital.
Film came in little boxes and many types, with strange names. You could buy film from a camera shop or a chemists, but it was like buying condoms: you wanted to appear like you knew what you were doing. I would learn the name of a film from a magazine then ask for one roll in the shop. I’d gulp at the price, keep a straight face and rush out to play.
It was always black and white film: that’s what real photographers used. The magazines said so. I was also working in a testing lab, so I had access to chemicals. Pretty soon I was making my own developer, then buying proper developer and processing my own film. Yet another reason to use mono film. My best friend had an enlarger, so I could print the occasional worthwhile negative.
Then I went off to university. Amazingly I had more money and film seemed to be cheap. I even shot colour, although as a purist this was obviously slide film. Then the madness began: I started experimenting with cheap film.
Lith film looked like an arty choice – 6 ISO, orthochromatic and develops in paper developer. Imagine a film that records only the highlights, and these are blocked and featureless. If it records anything at all. Or it might just have been that I was incompetent.
I bought a reel of motion-picture mono negative. It was somewhere around 250 ISO. It had also either expired in the Jurassic or been left on top of a radiator. Imagine a range of tones that ran from sludge to scum with a level of fog that looked like the camera was broken. Or it might have been that incompetence thing again. [I found a set of negatives from this recently when looking for something else. They had the film batch or serial number punched into the film as perforations every so often. Usually in the middle of an important shot]
Developing your own film is a joy and pleasure and a further step to achieving the apex of one’s craft. Unless the reel is damp or your hands sweat. Then you get marks where the film got creased and clear spots where two layers were touching. This is easily cured by putting the fixer into the tank first.
Film cassettes at the time were obligingly made so that the ends popped off to make them easily reusable. Unless you kept reusing them. Then you got scratches and eventually light leaks. Fighting a curly length of film from a dodgy cassette onto a damp reel in a snug changing bag was both formative for the character, developmental for the vocabulary and could result in bits of emulsion being gouged off the film base. It takes a lot of effort to achieve that, but so does winding a jammed film so hard it tears.
I stocked up on an unknown colour slide film for a holiday because it was cheap. The Orwo Chrome also came in neat alloy canisters, which were a tight fit for the film, especially when dented. These days you could just wave the Lomo name at pictures with extreme contrast and weird colour shifts. In those days I had fup duck.
I did go through a period, like everyone else I expect, of shooting only colour print and sending it off in a plastic envelope to get a set of prints and a replacement film. Eventually I learned that colour print likes plenty of light and low contrast. I had a Canon waterproof point and shoot camera that had the flash on by default. This did a brilliant job of fill-in and made great prints until the rear door catch broke off. Strangely an old Agfa Super Silette also did a great job and probably still does, but real men shoot mono, right?
Eventually I settled on a set of films that worked. Thank you Ilford. I also found and loved the best colour slide film of all time, Agfachrome 50s. If I could choose one film to be resurrected… I’d happily forgo a rebranded mono surveillance film or two.
So having tamed my competing desires for the cheapest possible film and the strangest emulsions I could find, what else could possibly go wrong?
Loading film into the camera is always an opportunity for a duck moment. I have learned now to take up the tension on the rewind so that I can see it revolve on the first wind-on. Previous to that I used to enjoy the occasional everlasting film. I had one camera, a Praktica with their weird bit of wire on the take-up spool, that I never did get to load successfully.
I had a Zorki for years that was bottom loading, like an old Leica. The only way I could get the film to lie properly across the gate was to load it, set the shutter on B, take the lens off, press and hold the shutter release and work the film into the right position with my thumb. I did wonder how Leica had a good reputation amongst photojournalists: I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to reload like this in a hurry. It was years later that I learned about the long leader – and what a joy when it worked. I did feel guilty about the extra couple of frames I lost though.
So I buy film that works and load it properly. What else could possibly go wrong? That’s when you forget what is in the camera. Oh, I’ve got a clever Pentax with a little pocket that holds the end of the film box as a reminder. I’ve got another camera with a sticky pocket that came with a magazine. But who sticks to sensible cameras? After many a fup duck I discovered white insulating tape (electrician’s tape). It sticks well but not too hard and doesn’t leave a glue residue. I can write on it with biro or marker. If I do something weird with the film, I can stick it to the plastic carton. Go me! It’s only taken a donkey’s lifetime to bring me close to competence.
Oh, and I still have a bulk film loader and some ortho lith film. I can hear the siren’s quack…