The fine prints

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The fine prints

 Romancing the camera in the pre-digital age.On June 22, 2009, Kodak announced that it was going to retire Kodachrome after a seventy four year run. Photographers have moved to other, newer films and digital. In economic terms, sales representing just a fraction of one percent of all film sales sounded the death knell for this ground-breaking emulsion.

We should be mourning the passing of a ground breaking film which spelt the coming of age of colour 35 mm photography. It’s saturation, sharp edges and archival qualities beat off any rivals that relied on a chemical dye-coupler process. Gigantic hoardings filled Times Square in New York. It was hard to believe that those images were born in a frame just 24x36 mm in size.

The other innovative aspect of the film was that it was deemed an “amateur” film. It came with an envelope to post the exposed roll back to a Kodak lab and eventually they sent you mounted slides back. Suddenly enormous imaging power was in the hands of everybody not just the “professionals.”

In 1973, the singer-song writer, Paul Simon, produced a hit with a song called ‘Kodachrome’. Not many films can boast that kind of cultural recognition. The song said:

“Kodachrome
They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the worlds a sunny day, oh yeah
I got a nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don’t take my kodachrome away...”

For us in India, it also meant that the film didn’t just die on you if it wasn’t kept in a fridge like most dye-coupler professional films which are extremely sensitive to temperature and humidity shifts.

I used to travel around India in the 1980s with one hundred rolls of Kodachrome at a time and they all survived and gave me results that to this day are as vivid and saturated. Using another amateur dye-bleach process to make the prints called Cibachrome gave colour photographs that were unrivalled in detail and colour saturation and had archival qualities that have become the Holy Grail of digital today.

Early colour innovators using Kodachrome were the likes of Ernst Haas, one of the first photographers invited to join Magnum by Robert Capa. A Magnum colour tradition that continues to this day in the hands of Alex Webb who is known for his very strong colour photo essays and books.

Haas used the slow sensitivity of the film for many experimental exposures that were deliberately out of focus or blurred. Webb on the other hand has developed a style of shooting wide angles with everything in focus letting the hard light of the tropics create a three dimensionality by using very hard edged shadows.

Colour code

In between, the magazine National Geographic created a house style based on this film. The art world though remained sceptical of colour photographs for quite some time, in fact, not till after the Paul Simon song did the “new” colour photography shows appear in the Museum of Modern Art in the mid-1970s. It’s archival qualities were very suspect and only rigourous and expensive dye-transfer prints were allowed.

In India, of course, black and white photography reigned supreme till very recently. It still carries with it an “art” mystique. Although the medium arrived very quickly in the Subcontinent around 1840, it remained the privileged possession of the ruling class and professional studio photographers till well into the twentieth century.

Where colour was needed it was added by hand. A tradition that was carried over from miniature paintings. A photograph would be painstakingly hand painted and flattened much like the miniature leaving perhaps just the faces visible as a likeness of the sitter.
All this handiwork and the intrinsic quality of a black and white photograph to abstract form through light and shade from reality has given it a special appeal.

Aim and shoot

Of course, economics played a strong hand. For many of us in India, the only process we could afford to indulge in was black and white. In the sixties, as cameras began to trickle down into the possession of the urban middle class some of us began to teach ourselves how to process film and make rudimentary prints. By then, cinema had already switched to colour as had professional photography in advertising and magazines.

The rise of the camera club in the earlier part of the century and its legacy in the latter half was all about making one’s own black and white prints.

Magnum made an impact in India with the emergence of Raghu Rai following in the wake of the original master photographer, Henri Carier-Bresson. Rai made a huge impact with his early black and white work and it was left to Raghubir Singh to go the colour route.

Rai has become a household name in India, however, Singh’s colour work and books have an equal international reputation. He was the first Fellow of the newly-formed Museum of Photography, Film and TV in the UK. All of this work was done on film.

Digital invasion

The arrival of digital in Indian gave birth to India’s “Box Brownie” moment. Now everyone has the ability to make an image and share it with their friends and family without an ounce of technical knowhow. It’s also much more affordable and comes free with most mobile technology today.

Suddenly, everyone is taking pictures of everything and posting it on the Net. So why are some people clinging to film? “Digital photography is, by definition, unfinished. You don’t feel that after every 24 or 36 shots you have to change your film – you know you can go on for ever if you want. You can see the result immediately, and find out if your original idea is worth going on with or not, whether it can be corrected, whether it can be improved. Photographing with film is more thoughtful and reflective; you have to be sure, and define your time more precisely, before starting work,”  Abbas Kiarostami, Iranian filmmaker, once reportedly said.

But he is talking about a project he shot on digital. There are things you can do on digital that you cannot do on film. Or so he is arguing. You can take pictures that you thought were not possible. You can experiment to your heart’s content without worrying about breaking the bank balance.

A lot of art photographers (a modern and more acceptable notion of the amateur) still use film. They argue that they need that time to be reflective. The time between exposure of the film and it’s developing. There is a heart-stopping moment when you get your films back. Is there even anything on there?

Then you see things that you never saw at the time. Things that make or break your picture. As you accumulate this negative-based archive, you come back to it periodically to see if there was anything missed. The indefinable quality of what makes a good picture changes over time. A picture seen as “bad” 20 years ago suddenly seems “good.”
There is a craft to making the picture, the final print. A print that relies on the intermediary stage in the camera whether it is digital or film. How that’s dealt with is equally significant. For many professionals, the shoot is the single most important activity, but for art and amateurs it’s the print. After all it’s what we actually see and may want to hang on our walls.

Kodachrome legacy

So is there much difference in how it got there? Personally I don’t think so. However, I do carry the legacy of Kodachrome and dye bleach processes which give you an image based on a continuous tone, so I can’t help feeling that anything to do with pixels or dots has to be a facsimile.

It might be a very good facsimile but it will never be a continuous tone such as that produced by silver gelatin or dye transfer. Unfortunately, due to economies of scale these have now become very esoteric and specialised pastimes. But I doubt if they are going away for good. I’m a visiting professor at the new photography course at NID, Ahmedabad, where students arrive knowing purely digital but they are being asked to experiment with film. Very few want to go back to being exclusively digital. It’s all very well having everything done for you but in the end you have to know how to use the tools of your trade.

Finally, what digital has done is to liberate photography from the hands of the few and deliver it to the masses. This in turn has created a very welcome audience and user group for it. I believe that in time more of them will want to know more about film.
One only hopes that it hasn’t entirely disappeared from the market place by then. Maybe we’ll have to return to the 19th century roots of photography and coat our own plates and make our own emulsions. And that might not be such a bad thing, as it will give us plenty of time to reflect over the kinds of pictures that we want to make.

(The writer is a photographer, curator and visiting professor of photography at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.)

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