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Polaroid 55 and the Slow Death of Film

I'm going to wax a little techie and a little nostalgic today.  So forgive me in advance.

I started taking pictures just a handful of years ago, and only about 2 years ago with any seriousness so you could say that I'm a child of the digital age.  That said, I've got 35mm, medium format, and large format film cameras as well. Switching between formats and cameras really does help improve your eye, as I wrote about the other day.

So last weekend my sister's friend Pino was in town and wanted me to take his portrait. Which I did on my 4x5 camera with Polaroid 55 film.  Now, the cool thing about this film is that it is instant black and white film (or nearly instant, 30 seconds to be exact) which gives you an incredibly detailed negative right out of the camera (I heard that Ansel Adams himself helped design and test it back in the day).  You've got fix it with a sodium sulfite bath and wash and dry them, but at least you don't have to go to the lab.  Not that 55 is perfect, it needs a ton of light (the negative is rated at iso 25, think 4 times the amount of light you need for 100 speed film and on a camera who's maximum aperture is 5.6) and it's not cheap.  Works out to about $4 a frame.

Anyway, I was running out of the film and so shot my remaining 3 frames of Pino.  Come monday I ordered a new box from this place on long island called ecamerafilms.com, and they were delivered today.

55Sticker I opened up the package and right there on the brand new box of Polaroid Type 55 is the dreaded yellow/orange sticker.

Look, I'm a pragmatist, and I understand that being in business is about making money, and I also understand that there can't be too many people shooting type 55 large format images anymore.  It's probably a group of landscape photographers and me.  However I really have to admit that it makes me sad.  A few months ago I bought a box of a similar film for medium format called type 665 and that had the same sticker on it, and now it's long gone.

I went online and found a few people who had called polaroid and asked and they said they were going to keep making the film, but either they're misinformed or the sticker is incorrect.  I'm going to be optimistic, but I think it's more likely that they're out of the loop.  The worst part about it is that polaroid film doesn't keep for years like normal film, so it's not like I can stock up on a few cases and I'm set for the next decade.

I discovered another cool film called Scala by Agfa a couple years ago, right after it was discontinued and Agfa went out of business.  It's gorgeous b/w slide film, and I've got a few rolls left, but here is only one place in CA that still develops it. Which means it's expensive and a pain in the ass.

While I don't think that film is going away entirely any time soon, I do believe that we're watching a long drawn out death.  Piece by piece, type by type they're going to go away, until there are a couple of boutique shops that custom make rolls of 35mm b/w for prices that only rich and crazy people can afford.

If you go visit one of the big photo stores in NYC where I live you'll see that the film dept has shrunk and that the darkroom equipment and chemicals area has gone from 3 isles just a couple of years ago down to 1.

I'm having a pretty down, crappy week and type 55 is the only reason I really like using my big camera.  Which makes this news all the more frustrating.  I've got some serious photoshop skills and modern digital images look great by almost anyone's standards.  But there is something about film, especially more niche formats, that makes being a photographer as much being a scientist as an artist.  Or perhaps something in between, like a visual alchemist. I fear that it's this part of photography that's being lost.  What do I know, I'm cranky tonight.

For those interested, there is a small gallery of type 55 images on my main portfolio at billwadman.com and I'm sure you could find a ton by other people with a flickr search as well.

Tools for Framing

Even though I finished the 365 Portraits project a few weeks ago, I've still been shooting a fair amount. Let's figure half and half between the 5D SLR and the Leica I got on the 31st (I really can't put it down.  Ask anyone who's seen me in the last month, I've made them all try it).

The thing that I've noticed is that my photos from the two are different, and I mean this beyond the differences between film and digital, or canon versus leica, coated versus uncoated lenses. I do have a small hunch that it may have to do with the fact that eachphoto on film costs $, so I take more time with them, but I think there is more to it than that. I just frame things differently with each of them.  And I'd go so far as to argue that I prefer the composition of my recent shots with the Leica.

It being a rangefinder, you can see AROUND the picture that you're taking.  You can see how you're putting a frame around reality, and perhaps more importantly, you can see what you're leaving out.

For those who have never looked through one, here's what the viewfinder on a rangefinder looks like..  I've stolen this from the Leica site:

The white lines are called frame lines and show the edges of the picture that the attached lens is going to take. So if you attach a wide angle lens then the box takes up more of the view, longer lens then the box gets smaller.

Now, see how you can see around the image you're going to take?  It makes you think about the composition that much more.  If I was taking this shot I might say, "Ooo, I should pan up, have the buildings coming into the frame from nothing and get more of that super cool cloud in the shot" or maybe, "Ooo, that would look much better in vertically, I should turn the camera and get more of the sky", or maybe even "Screw the city, that cloud is f*cking cool!"  Ok, so I've got a cloud thing.. we've all got our weaknesses.  There are also composition options which involve that barge in the foreground, or maybe the trees on the left side.  You get the point.

You could certainly just pan around on your SLR and see all these things too, but for some reason which I can't quite put my finger on, I don't. Or rather, I don't see them as easily.

That said, this also goes for all kinds of other cameras.  I frame things differently on my Hasselblad too, and on my big 4x5 camera.  It just amazes me how much the tool effects how you see the world.   However I have started to notice a bit of cross pollonization happening, where my overall skill at seeing the picture has improved by moving from camera to camera, and format to format.   Maybe it's like working out on different machines at the gym.  Strength training for your photographic eye.  Just a thought.