Developing Process

August 12, 2015

By Harley Cowan

"Wow, you can still get film for that thing...?"

Did you know there have only ever been five factories in the world capable of making color film? Kodak and AGFA came first, followed by Ferrania in Italy, the Soviet factory Svema, and finally Fuji. AGFA was broken up, Svema disappeared with the Soviet Union, and Ferrania (bought by 3M in the mid-Sixties) closed its doors about ten years ago, the consequence of unscalable manufacturing sized for a market a thousand times larger than it is in the post-digital world. Fuji and Kodak survived by killing off many of their emulsions which are very expensive to change out in production. (Mama took my Kodachrome away!).

But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the report of film's death was an exaggeration. A search for the word "film" on Flickr yields over 13 million results. In the past three years film sales have grown and "right-sized" companies have emerged. Impossible is manufacturing formerly extinct film for Polaroid cameras, Lomography film is in Urban Outfitters throughout the world, and Ilford, with its 200-employee facilities (down from 2000 in pre-digital years), has had its best three years on record for black & white film and paper sales in all formats attributed to emerging users. Best of all, the Ferrania factory is reopening and will be producing new film this year! Its Laboratorio Ricerche Fotografiche (photo research lab) where scientists experimented with new film chemistry included a scaled-down version of the larger factory's production line in order to not interrupt production. Serendipitously this smaller production line is sized to the current film market. (I am proud to say I was the twenty-first of their 5,582 backers who raised over $322,000 to save the L.R.F. from demolition.)

Today, a person buying and developing a single roll of film has the impact of someone who bought and developed a thousand rolls in the Eighties, which is why I encourage everyone to go process at least one roll of film a year. Living in Portland it couldn't be easier with great people like Jake & Zeb at Blue Moon Camera and Greg & Jim at Citizens Photo to help you out.

Clearly I love film photography. But I didn't know how much I loved it until a couple of years ago, after a long, long absence. Like most of the world, I jumped on the digital train and before long had amassed thousands of shots, spent thousands of hours in Lightroom and Photoshop, and thousands of dollars in hardware and software. The shine of new technology wore off quickly and I was left feeling further than I once had from whatever it was that I enjoyed about photography...

...until my friend, Michael Parker, PFLA, (whom I've written about before) suggested I try medium format photography and gave me his Mamiya 645. At three-and-a-half pounds, it is a brick. Sixteen shots on a roll of 120 format film* and each 1-1/2" x 2-1/4" frame is nearly three times the size of a 35mm negative (Millennials, think 40 megapixel). It took deliberate, manual steps to operate but I was having fun and making some of my best pictures in years. Before long, I could once again press the shutter button and know intuitively whether the shot was good or needed a retake.

I really wanted a camera which made a square photo, which is superb for composition. (In architecture school in Russia, our drawings were always composed on square, not rectangular sheets, but that's another story...) So my next camera was a bona fide professional's: a 1954 Rolleiflex Automat. I am the second owner. It is my constant companion. We commute to work and back every day. We go to the park and out for drinks and dinner. It has that German pedigree of mechanical perfection, ergonomic long before the term had been coined. No lenses to change, no light meter to establish exposure. (I often use a light meter app on my iPhone.) It also takes 120 film and you get just twelve shots per roll. This changes the way that you think about a photograph. Slow down, choose the aperture and shutter speed, focus, evaluate the image on the ground glass viewer, compose . . . and maybe not even click the shutter.

I turn down photographs all the time, pictures I would not hesitate to make with my digital camera. In fact, when every shot has an associated cost, you learn to edit. This is a good thing. Now, I take a shot as if it matters.

Budding photographers are spoiled here in Portland! We have unfettered access to incredible teachers. Seriously, in what other major city can you, more or less on a whim, schedule a workshop with its Art Museum's Photography Council President? (which you really should, by the way). Maybe it's lucky that I had never been in a darkroom until signing up for Ian Beckett's excellent class at Clark College a few summers ago. I might have dismissed it as 'been there, done that.' Now I look forward to the challenge of loading exposed film onto a reel in pitch black darkness without the benefit of sight. The high school chemist in me loves mixing reagents to get a particular reaction with this film or that paper. The trial and error of printing quite literally puts your hand in your work, casting shadows to dodge exposure in one area and burn in another, (hopefully) getting a better picture at each attempt. There is a little magic each time an image rises up on that blank sheet of paper under the monochromatic glow of safelights.

Last year, I put my laboratory planning skills to use and remodeled part of our house into a real working darkroom. We had a fifty square foot space that was essentially a glorified vestibule to a bathroom, a plumbing closet, and a storage room. A new wall and pocket door captured the unused space to become the dry side of the darkroom, while switching out the wall-hung lavatory for a wall-to-wall stainless sink allowed the bathroom to perform double-duty as the wet lab.

The darkroom is all about honing your craft and executing it. The final print (hopefully) matters to the viewer. But the process, that is owned entirely by the creator. And that is what had been missing: the passion was in the process! And isn't that the dictionary definition of art? Creative expression through physical application of skills? The missing piece was being physically engaged, hands-on. Overall, film photography is a lot like playing an instrument: in practice there is always a do-over, but never an undo. When you know that, it changes your approach, your investment in the process...

...which, in the oh-so-digital practice of architecture today, makes me think of a note Dick Campbell, AIA wrote while sketching a 12th century church in Normandy: What have we lost?

Who amongst us doesn't appreciate a hand-drafted set of documents and all that it took to create? But outside of school, I have never designed a building without a computer. Yet all the greatest, most timeless buildings I've admired were created by holding a pen or pencil to paper. Much like the greatest, most timeless images ever created were by exposing silver halide to light.

So picture this...

A project team announces to the office that they are setting up some boards with borco, drafting machines, and pin bars and are looking for people to follow them through a traditionally drafted project on vellum. I don't know about you, but if I heard this, you would see me running across the office like John Heisman with a pounce bag in my left hand, stiff-arming anyone in my way. Honestly, it wouldn't even matter what was the building - that would be a project to remember!

**Sometimes this will erroneously be referred to as 120mm film; it is, in fact, nominally 60mm wide. 120 was Eastman Kodak's name for this film format because, by its introduction in 1901, it was the twentieth film type they had created: 101 format was the first in 1895, 102 was the second, then 103, etc. Other manufacturer's had their names, AGFA called it B2, Ansco called it 4A, but the industry eventually settled on the Eastman designation.

Harley Cowan


Harley Cowan


Senior Associate