Can film emulsions be saved?
Most photographers have abandoned those funny strips of celluloid with the row of holes at the sides some time ago and more will do so in the near future. Konica and Agfa are gone, Ilford proudly states that the rate of diminishing sales is itself diminishing to single figure rates, indicating a levelling off to a stable level (we all hope). Kodak is yelling that they are no longer dependent on film sales as more than half the turnover and profits (?) are now from digital products. But they also maintain that Kodachrome will never be abandoned. And Fuji is still selling and believing in films, but is also reducing the workforce worldwide by the thousands to accommodate falling sales.
What future for film?
If film has a future we better take a look at the movie industry where a most interesting debate is raging between the old school and the new school of movie making or between Lucas and Spielberg. Lucas is fully engaged in the digital technology with all the advantages of computer-made animations, DVD recording and easy distribution. Sin City is one of the best examples of what the digital techniques can accomplish in the hands of experimental directors. And digital movies are extremely sharp, of very high contrast and smooth as velvet. The movie atavists on the other hand, value the claim that film has a more human texture, an emotional weight that can be seen in the huge screens in the movie theatres. Celluloid imagery is real and it shines through the grain of the film, the subtle colour space and the depth of the image.
It is this sense of reality that is the defining characteristic of silver halide photography. All magazines are now running stories that film is dead, and Nikon is fully justified in dropping all film based cameras. Only the F6 stays in production, so it is said. But I am sure (just a hunch!) that the manufacture of the F6 will be stopped very soon or is already halted, because stocks are so high that the feeble demand can be met for years to come. One magazine even notes that film may be superior in many aspects, but nobody wants to buy it anymore.
That is not entirely true: there are still celluloid lovers and users, who indeed value the pictorial qualities of film as a different means to depict reality. The discussion which technology is better, should stop by now as irrelevant. Nobody now will start a discourse on the theme of photography versus painting as the best way to represent reality.
It is reality stupid!
For film to survive we need an honest appraisal of its outstanding features and characteristics. A recent claim by the marketing department of Zeiss, that they had succeeded in resolving 400 linepairs per mm with the new 2.8/25mm ZM lens on yet another special and super film (yawn yawn) and developer, this time one of the Spur developers by the German company Schain is far beyond honesty. It is simply impossible. The 2.8/25mm has been tested by me quite extensively and will deliver at most 200 linepairs per mm on aerial (projected) resolution. There is no way that this lens can come close to the mythical 400 lp/mm on film. To deliver 400 lp/mm on film, the lens must be capable of doing at least 600 lp/mm and that is even for a Zeiss lens designed for general photography several bridges too far. This yardstick has been introduced by the infamous Gigabit film/developer, the creator/manufacturer of which simply stated that if you cannot get this result you are not worth using the film. Strong opposition to this type of reasoning came from a small German company that marketed very good developers for TechPan films. They were fully correct in claiming that (a) resolution is not the alpha and omega of film quality and (b) such a high-resolution figure is nonsense. This small company was Schain. It is ironic that the company now supporting the same claims that the Zeiss marketing people make, is that same Schain company!
Zeiss marketing made the same type of claims in previous articles, then for the Contax lenses. The subtle difference is that the statement then was that the resolution could only be made visible by special enlarger lenses made by Zeiss and now the claim is that the resolution is only visible with high magnification microscopes. The pattern in all these claims from Gigabit to Zeiss marketing is the same: the performance is claimed, never substantiated and when challenged the answer is always most evasive.
We should forget about these claims, they do more harm than good in the current climate of assessing film as being fit for the future.
Digital phantasy and realistic painting
Film can survive and even thrive in its small corner of the photographic universe if we capitalize on its unique features: the sense of reality and its emotional weight. This is not senseless nostalgia, but proper evaluation. Writer/photographer Lipkin has published a book called Photography Reborn. Here he argues that the digital techniques support a new art form of image making, analogous to what I have been called the paradigm shift in photography. The intervention of electronic technology has severed the ties between the photograph and the world as David Hockney says. Of course the digital image can be very faithful to reality. But the essence is this: a computer file is a set of numerical data, and a silver halide image is directly produced by the interaction with light. This core characteristic is the defining property of silver halide photography and its sole survival reason. Digital photography is a new technique and a new attitude. The sum of both produces a new type of imagery. The silver halide image is not obsolete, but a welcome antidote to current digital image making. The semantic difference between making an image and taking an image is quite clear.
Lipkin argues with force that the famous dictum by Cartier-Bresson about the decisive moment is irrelevant to digital photographers. Digital photography are tools for synthesizing images in the same way as the traditional still life is composed. Digital photography has a tighter relationship to painting than to silver halide photography. This is not my statement, but is the conclusion of Lipkin's book. I agree and for me silver halide imagery is a valid technique for depicting reality and maybe the only one. If film is to survive we should pay attention to this aspect.
And yes I am aware that digital technology can reproduce finer details than does silver halide technology (I compare quite often film with digital images) but that is not the only aspect that defines the true reproduction of reality. I visited recently a museum where the famous Courbet paintings were exhibited. Courbet was the painter who tried to break away from the idealised reproduction of classical nudity as trained by the Ecole des Beaux Arts. He painted real bodies of real women and gave the viewer a glimpse of what can be seen in normal life without any idealization. He was of course attacked ferociously by the critics of the day. His approach that you can depict reality with the medium of painting was supposedly made possible by his use of naturalistic photographs by among others Belloc.
The current digital culture is leaning to the idealistic approach in painting. Images are elaborate constructs of the mind and the artist uses every digital technique to visualise this image. Realistic reproduction is dead. Here is not only the chance, but the survival mode for silver halide photography.
Traditionally minded photographers now refer to mechanical characteristics as being the true elements of photography. When the new Panasonic 4/3 camera was introduced, many commentators claimed that this camera is close to the tradition of silver halide photography because of the fact that the lens has an aperture ring as on classical mechanical cameras and on the body you will find a shutter speed knob. The conscious setting of shutter speed and aperture is indeed an ingrained part of the culture of classical photography. But I can do this on my EOS 5D too by turning two wheels and seeing the values in the display around the screen.
In this respect we should not confuse form with function. The persons who claim that 400 lp/mm are what is needed for survival of silver halide photography in a digital world are as wrong as the ones who claim that a mechanical aperture ring on a lens defines the proper recipe for photographing in the classical tradition of depicting reality by fixing the shadows by light and chemistry.
The Economist notes in a recent article that digital cameras have rapidly become a mature consumer product with the usual very low profit margins. To offset the low margins new services are needed and the photography companies may not provide them. These companies are betting on the digital SLR as the saviour of their fortunes. If history does teach you anything, then it is this: the mechanical SLR matured in the seventies and then sales dwindled and compact cameras saved the day. Then the AF technology revived the SLR market and a new sales record was broken. Again a plateau was soon reached, sales dwindled and yes the compact camera gain rescued the companies. Then the digital cameras conquered the scene, SLR sales fell to zero and now the DSLR saves the day for some companies. For how long we do not know, but soon a plateau is reached again: when everybody has a 10 Mb camera, who needs an upgrade to 15 Mb or even 25 Mb? It will be tough at the DSLR-top with Canon and Nikon and Olympus defending the market against newcomers as Sony, Panasonic and Samsung. The real battle will be between Canon and Sony. Matsushita, the archrival of Sony will launch its own DSLR, but will be attacked by Samsung itself.
Leica, as partner of Matsushita, has no leverage in this market battle and has to wait for the outcome. Whether it is wise to stay in the Panasonic shadow and not profiling the unique qualities of the silver halide technology that has made the Leica brand one of the most famous in the world is another matter. Fact is that Leica has all but abandoned film as a serious photographic medium.
The value of reality
With Leica not promoting film at all, with Zeiss making absurd claims in the film business, how can the silver halide emulsion survive? Canon in their yearly progress reports makes no reference to film any more. Perhaps we should find inspiration in the movie industry and painters like Courbet: reality is too valuable to leave it to digital technology to tell us how it looks like.