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In a Digital Era, Film is Not Dead

By Kames Narayanan

Until the early 2000s, film photography was the primary form of photography. Even without colour, portriats captured on film, like that of Suzy Parker’s, encapsulate the emotion behind the photograph.

Time is a loop — a continuous cycle where every now and then, hallmarks from years aught are paid a revisit. These nostalgic returns have littered the contemporary cultural landscape with visible trails in multiple facets. As the generation ruminates on bygone eras in search of a paradoxical new, the visual vocabulary of the past often shows its head. The runways are littered with the eccentricity of the ’70s, period dramas mimic the yesteryears and interior design tips its hat to the ’90s as it takes a liking to velvet-covered furnishings. These reminiscent throwbacks have long been acknowledged as a recurring phenomenon in today’s cultural zeitgeist. Much of it bears little wonder, but the resurgence of film photography in recent years may have taken the industry itself by surprise.

A little over a decade ago, Kodak, a behemoth in the photographic film manufacturing industry, has demolished more than 40 buildings at the Eastman Business Park, New York. Formerly christened Kodak Park, the sprawling 1,300 acres (about 526 hectares) of land was once the largest photographic product manufacturing facility in the world. Today, what remains is a fragment of an empire, that quite literally, was driven into the ground with every production facility that ran derelict and was subsequently blown up. Bridled by a fall in demand matched with production costs that remained high, the future of film in the digital age was bleak.

At the turn of the 20th century, the photography industry went through an industrial revolution of its own. The bulky, cumbersome mechanical operations of analogue cameras ran obsolete as digital cameras of superior quality were introduced. And photographers were quick to jump on the bandwagon. Even Bill Cunningham, fashion’s beloved street style photographer who was known for being a stickler for simplicity, at one point made the switch from analogue to digital.

The grainy, time-stamped photographs of old family albums were phased out by crisp, sharp megapixels. If the fate of film was not already sealed, the later introduction of phones with cameras sealed it. While the cost of a digital camera is a one-time purchase, film cameras incur subsequent expenses in the purchase and developing of films. Paling in comparison in the areas of quality, convenience and price, film fought a long-drawn-out battle for survival.

Today, the film photography landscape has taken an unexpected turn. Where technological advancements are concerned, a move in the direction of film appears to work against logic. This then begs the question: What is film’s newfound appeal?

The younger generation, one whose initial introduction to photography stemmed from digital devices, is increasingly turning their attention to analogue. Taken in partly by the novelty of the experience and partly by curiousity, millennials have gradually retired from Photoshop perfection and Instagram filters.

“We have Photoshop or Lightroom applications that can alter photographs but there is no way you can replicate the experience of the darkroom. That jittery feeling of making sure that every step is carried out properly and the prayers mumbled in hopes of images appearing on the film is a very satisfying one,” says Juhardi, educational programme manager at DECK, an independent local art space in support of photography in Singapore and the Southeast Asian region.

Simple to use, analogue cameras, vintage or disposables, are built with few controls for their users to toggle with. But the results are vastly different. The intangible emotions and nostalgia evoked by the colour tonality and initial mystery of not being able to preview an image is undeniably film’s greatest appeal.

Film is back and has duly announced its arrival on social media with an array of hashtags. As of press time, #filmisnotdead and #filmphotography have been tagged to more than 5 million photos, while #ishootfilm trails behind with more than a million tags. The medium itself has, for the most part, remained unchanged. The only notable difference is its graduation from dusty, old albums to virtual galleries like Instagram.

On the business front, Dennis Olbrich, the president of Kodak Alaris’ imaging, paper, photo chemicals and film division has confirmed that the “professional film sales have been increasing over the last two or three years” in an interview with Time magazine earlier this year. Giles Branthwaite, the sales and marketing director at Harman technology, manufacturers of the wel-known Ilford black-and-white films also reported a similar increase in film growth.

In Singapore, the analogue photography workshops conducted by the House of Photography (HOP) have consistently sold out.

“The classes conducted are often kept small, with each group ranging between four to 20 participants. Often, these classes sell out with about 40 to 50 participants each month,” says Gwen Lee, co-founder of HOP.

“Most recently, we have taken HOP to the Aliwal Night Crawl (a night festival event), where all the workshops were also fully booked. Schools have also collaborated with us to conduct month-long sessions on analogue photography as part of the arts education curriculum,” she added.

This interest in film, beyond the layman, has permeated the younger celebrity circles. The oldest of the Beckham children, Brooklyn, has published his own coffee table book — a series of photographs shot on a mix of film and digital. Earlier this year, when supermodel Kendall Jenner made an appearance on the Jimmy Fallon show, an impromptu photo shoot with her Contax T-series compact camera ensued. Film photographs have also been adopted on Instagram by her half-sister, Kim Kardashian, as part of the reality star’s reinvented aesthetic.

While millennials have previously dipped their hand into an entire repertoire of fleeting trends tied to nostalgia, the interest in film photography is likely to grow alongside advancements in digital technology. After all, there is no going forward without looking back.