By KATE TAYLOR
Saturday, May 19, 2018
Conversations with my teenage digital native about chemical photography did not begin promisingly. Since he was little, my son has enjoyed fiddling with an old 35 mm camera I keep in my office, clicking the shutter as though it were a toy.
"That's not a toy," I would say.
Last year, at the age of 13, Jed picked it up one day and asked me in passing how it actually worked. I explained how you shoot pictures, unload the film and develop it with chemicals in a darkroom and then repeat a similar process to produce prints.
"Sounds complicated," he said, putting down the camera and picking up his phone.
But he was intrigued by photography, so his father bought him a digital camera and Jed became more and more interested in seeing the world through a lens. He's an engaged and curious personality, always jumping on the next project: Inevitably, he returned to the subject of the old camera.
Could we try it out? We could, but then we would need to find a photo store that still developed film and pay for prints and it gets expensive. But couldn't we develop photos ourselves? There were still some old darkroom supplies in the basement, but I had given away the daylight tank used for developing film, thinking it would never be used again. Besides, to make prints, you need an enlarger, a big piece of equipment I had never owned, relying instead on a camera club. But if we got a new daylight tank, Jed reasoned, we could develop the film and just look at our pictures that way. It dawned on me that, now 14, he did not understand what a negative was.
And why should he - or any millennial for that matter? The developed piece of film, on which black represents white and vice versa, is a 20th-century artifact, an analog curiosity. And yet, in the midst of this triumphantly digital era, there are also many enthusiasts such as my son, intrigued by old-fashioned film-and-chemical photography. It's a niche interest, but a growing one.
I had not done any serious photography in decades, but in my 20s and early 30s, I had been an occasional hobbyist, printing up black-and-white shots of architecture, trees and landscapes: I specialized in subjects that could be relied on to neither move nor speak. It was a creative outlet, a way for someone with no talent for drawing or painting to try making visual art.
As with many a young person before me, I discovered a camera was both a way of seeing the world and of keeping it at bay. Meanwhile, in the darkroom, I fell in love with an alternative kitchen, an alchemist's laboratory where images materialized from pans of water. Shooting pictures was fun, developing them was magic.
But life got busy and one of my last subjects defeated me: I had come home from a trip to the U.S.
Southwest with pictures in which the desert only looked dull. And then, in 2003, something happened that ensured I no longer had any time nor any technological inclination to shoot and develop film: I got pregnant. My husband and I were going to have a baby. Clearly, it was time to finally buy a digital camera.
Today, that camera sits in a drawer somewhere and I only take photos with my phone. They are snapshots of family gatherings, flowers in the garden or the dog at play - and many, many pictures of my growing son, the very personification of our break with the analog who was now demanding its revival.
Evidence of the passing of analog photography is all around us. Some markers are banal: The corner store no longer sells film. Others are dramatic: In 2012, Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection. For a generation for whom the distinctive yellow-andred logo symbolized leisure, memory and ritual, it seemed unthinkable that there might be no more Kodak moments, but the slimmed-down company that re-emerged in 2013 specializes in commercial printing and imaging. Meanwhile, in the school of image arts at Toronto's Ryerson University, a centre for training the next generation of image makers, workers keep ripping out darkrooms: There used to be more than 100; then 35. This summer, the remaining 25 will be reduced to four.
And yet, in the midst of this decline, there are also many signs of analog's persistence. After killing it off in 2012, Kodak reintroduced its colour transparency film Ektachrome last year - to the delight of the enthusiasts who value its vivid colours.
And the venerable British brand Ilford, rescued from bankruptcy through a management buyout in 2005, reports that sales of its products - black-andwhite film, and the papers and chemicals with which to process it - are rising at an annual rate that has now moved into the double digits.
"Film bottomed out in 2012 and it's been growing ever since," Ilford sales and marketing director Giles Branthwaite says over the phone from Mobberley, in Cheshire.
When the company did an online poll of its customers in 2014, it found 30 per cent were under the age of 35 and 60 per cent had only started using film in the previous five years. That trend shows no signs of slowing.
"Why?" he asks. "It's very tangible; it makes you slow down and think. It's all about the counter movement to everything being immediate and convenient."
It is also produces a physical object. Here in Canada, Deanna Pizzitelli, one of three winners of the inaugural New Generation Photography Award announced in March, has worked exclusively with film since she was introduced to darkroom photography 14 years ago at a high school in Orillia, Ont.
"I have always been interested in the photograph as a physical object and its relationship to touch," she said recently. "With the advent of digital we have seen more pictures than ever, but we have seen fewer prints. We tend not to print our images, we just see them on screen. What I love about photography is holding the images in your hands."
This winter, my husband hunted out the best of our discarded analogue cameras and I loaded it with black-and-white film. We both delivered lectures about how, since each image would cost money to process, one had to think before one clicked. And so Jed set off to shoot film.
In the meantime, I sought out an authority on the status of analog photography. In The Disappearance of Darkness, Toronto artist Robert Burley published the results of a decade spent photographing the remains of the chemical photography industry: the abandoned Polaroid plant in Waltham, Mass., the empty expanses of the oversized Agfa-Gevaert plant in Mortsel, Belgium, and, most memorably, the implosion of buildings 65 and 69 at Kodak Park in Rochester, N.Y. Those implosion images, and similar ones from a Kodak-Pathé factory in France, had stayed with me since I saw them in a Toronto gallery in 2008. They showed former Kodak employees recording these melancholy events on phones and digital cameras, deploying the very technology that had destroyed their jobs. The images seemed to summarize the cultural paradox we are living in, or "the creative destruction of the digital age," as Burley calls it.
Turns out my timing is perfect: This year, for the first time in his 20-year teaching career in the photography and digital-media program at Ryerson, Burley signed on to teach first-year students because he wanted to see digital natives react to the compulsory analog assignments in these introductory classes. Film cameras draw back the curtain, showing students how lenses, shutter speeds and F-stops physically work.
When I meet up with Burley at the school of image arts, he's worried, however, that I might be writing a nostalgia piece about the good old days of chemicals and film. In his artistic practice, he's steeped in digital; his recent work includes The New Suburb, suburban cityscapes inspired by the multiple viewpoints of Google Street View. I reassure him that I, too, want to know what attracts the digital generation to an analog technology, but as I step into one of the student darkrooms, it's a Proustian moment: The amber safe light and the vinegary smell of the fixer transport me back 20 years, to time spent in these sheltered, measured places where exposures were counted in seconds, yet hours just seemed to evaporate.
"It becomes physical, the smells of the chemicals; the touch of the materials and the subdued light," Burley agrees.
At home, however, our darkroom experiments are not going well. I pull out the thermometer and measures used to correctly mix the developer and fixer and I buy a new daylight tank to shelter the film as it develops; in a windowless basement bathroom, I reacquaint my fingers with the process of loading film onto a reel in utter darkness. Jed follows along, carefully timing the developer, stop bath and fixer with a phone, but the first film, supposedly exposed to the light of a March break trip to Boston, is entirely blank. I hadn't loaded the camera properly and the film has not wound through it.
"The future of film photography is bright," the sales clerk at the photography store tells me as he hands over another roll of 36 exposures. The place is packed with funky little instant cameras in pastel plastic that produce a paper photo half the size of a postcard. Film cameras for the selfie generation, they remind me of the technological gimmicks of my youth, the transistor radios or portable record players that were all the rage one Christmas and forgotten the next. Maybe this new-old analog thing is only a fad.
Certainly, I'm ready to give up after our second fiasco. Jed wants to try loading his film, filled with pictures shot in a Toronto ravine, into the daylight tank himself. I step back and, in the confines of the bathroom, brush against a light switch. The split second of light is enough to completely fog the film.
We now have the props for a basic lesson on the negative - one completely clear film that has never been exposed to light and one black film obliterated by it - but we don't have any pictures. We buy a third roll and hit Cabbagetown, where Jed shoots a neighbourhood that dates back to the age of the daguerreotype.
Of course, we could just take the film to a commercial processor. Digital gadgetry has taken over the shelves of most camera stores but a few have decided to make analog their specialty.
"It's not an easy thing, but it's a beautiful thing," says Claudia Mac, assistant manager at Toronto's
Downtown Camera, where staff still process both colour and black-and-white film, keeping the aging equipment in working order by using it daily - whether there's demand or not.
There's no point exaggerating the growth here - at Ilford, Branthwaite estimates the current company is less than one-10th the size of its predecessor - but enthusiasts are working their furrow.
"We spend all day on our computers - who wants to do a hobby on a computer?" asks Jacques Brodeur, who launched Argentix, an online supplier of black-and-white photographic supplies, in 2010 in Racine, Que., and has attracted an increasing clientele of returning hobbyists and newcomers.
At Ryerson, Burley introduces me to two of his second-year students, committed analog photographers who explain how the attraction happens. In first year, they are required to try out a large-format camera that uses 4x5 pieces of film. Mounted on a tripod, it's tricky to deploy: You even have to pop your head under a hood to see into the viewfinder, the way photographers did in the 19th century.
"You either fall in love with it or you hate it," Lucy Alguire explains .
For her and classmate Cole LeGree, it was the former. He's a landscape photographer and naturelover who hails from Canmore, Alta.; it takes half an hour for him to set up and take a picture in the outdoors: "You can't just show up, take a few shots and go home. You have to be more methodical and each one of these sheets [of film] costs $4. You have to be sure you want the photo. ... You have to be there, you have to be present."
Meanwhile, he has also found that his first experiments with portraiture work better with analog: The photographer is not continually looking away from the subject to check the camera's screen.
Alguire has started shooting nudes and believes they are only possible using film: "They can't see the photo until they have a print. It's about trusting the photographer."
Yet, both students agree with Burley that the best results require both analog and digital technology: You shoot film for the special quality that it offers, but scan the negatives so the images can be manipulated digitally.
"The students see photography as part of this wheel of digital media," Burley said. "There's photography, print media, video, the web, social-media platforms. They see it as an integrated whole. No one is allowed to stay in their own medium-specific world any more. As an old grey professor in the photo department, I don't have a choice of remaining in the light-sensitive world. Nor would I want to."
On a second visit to Ryerson, I bring Jed along - as well as some successfully developed negatives. The big darkroom that Burley shows us is a fabulous place, with hoses like elephant trunks to suck out the fumes and light switches placed so high nobody can bump into them. He instructs Jed how to mount one of his negatives in the enlarger, shine the light through the film onto the photo-sensitive paper and develop the image in the trays of chemicals. As the black-and-white film holds back light in some places and lets it through in others, negative will become positive. Jed concentrates furiously to get it all right and his picture of an iron railing, shot a few days before in Cabbagetown, slowly appears in the pan of developer. It's that magical moment, captured so often in the movies, as the image, ghost-like at first, then increasingly solid, appears out of the chemical bath.
But perhaps the digital natives have seen too many technological miracles in their short lives because later, when I ask Jed what impressed him most, he says developing was "cool," but what he really liked was when the lights came on and he could see the photograph he had taken. At home, he holds it in his hands, as though weighing his work.
These days, he is debating how much analog he might add to his digital mix and hoping to use a darkroom when he starts high school next fall. But he is also talking about typewriters. I find myself explaining how the IBM Selectric worked and reminiscing about anxious typing tests where one mistake cost you 10-words-a-minute off your official speed. I tell him the technology is cumbersome and obsolete, but he won't be deterred. He wants to buy a typewriter. He thinks it will help him write.
Ryerson University photography student Cole Legree looks at negatives on a light table inside one of the few remaining darkrooms at the the school's Image Centre in Toronto. Despite analog's decline in the face of digital technology, there are many signs of traditional film photography's persistence.
J.P. MOCZULSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Kate Taylor and her son Jed check a proof. When the writer asked what impressed him most about analog photography, he said developing was 'cool.'
The image, left, from the Urban Landscape series, was shot on 4x5 colour film and developed by Toronto Image Works.
The implosion of buildings 65 and 69 at Kodak Park in Rochester, N.Y.: Former Kodak employees recorded this event on phones and digital cameras, deploying the very technology that had destroyed their jobs.
Ryerson University photography students Lucy Alguire, left, and Cole LeGree are seen with their film cameras at the school's Image Centre in Toronto. The two students are fans of analog photography because of the connection this technology engenders between photographer and subject.
J.P. MOCZULSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Jed concentrated furiously to get it all right with his picture of an iron railing in Toronto's Cabbagetown neighbourhood.