Wednesday 31 January 2018

Back to the darkroom: Young fans reject digital to revive classic film camera

Photographers relish the return of 35mm film and a crowdfunded SLR camera in a medium they say has more ‘soul’ than digital, writes Robin Stummer in the Guardian. Read on: 

First it was vinyl LPs. Then more recently, it was the turn of audio cassettes. Now old-style film photography has risen from the almost-dead. Large numbers of still photographers, professional and amateur alike, are turning their backs on digital technology in favour of images with “soul”, conjured by exposing gelatin-coated strips of thin plastic to light – a process that can now seem as remote and exotic as the methods of medieval alchemy.

The first new single lens reflex film camera to be designed since the early 1990s is about to enter production, having been planned and prototyped in a small workshop in Stoke Newington, London.

The Reflex is the brainchild of a small band of young photography enthusiasts and designers from across Europe who, for the past year, have been closeted away in a corner of a Victorian industrial building, creating a brand new camera system using 35mm film.

 Kodachrome, introduced in 1935 and withdrawn in 2010, continues to exert a powerful cultural and emotional hold
The global market for film peaked in 2003, when nearly a billion rolls of film were sold. But by 2012, Kodak, the vast American corporation that had dominated photography throughout the 20th century, had filed for bankruptcy protection, felled by digital cameras and mobile phones.

But film was not doomed. Sales remain a fraction of the high point, with sales of about 20 million annually. But, as with vinyl, the market sank, stabilised, then began to rise. Ilford, the venerable British firm that specialises in black and white film, paper and chemicals, has reported a 5% growth in sales, while Kodak Alaris – the UK-based firm that rose from US Kodak’s ashes to continue producing film and paper – also reports rising sales.

In fact Kodak Alaris is resurrecting one of Kodak’s most popular films, Ektachrome – a colour reversal, or transparency, film launched in 1946 and discontinued in 2013. The firm is exploring ways of reintroducing its most famous product, Kodachrome – also a colour reversal film.

Ann Sheridan in 1941. The Kodachrome look typifies our impression of Hollywood and America in its 1930s heyday. Photograph: Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
Kodachrome, introduced in 1935 and withdrawn in 2010, continues to exert a powerful cultural and emotional hold. It was used widely during the heyday of Hollywood and during the second world war, prized for its saturated greens, blues and reds and the slightly surreal, intense feel that for many became the defining look of 20th-century America. In 1973, Paul Simon eulogised the film, singing: “Kodachrome/They give us those nice bright colors/They give us the greens of summers/Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day.” Steve McCurry’s acclaimed 1984 National Geographic cover picture Afghan Girl was shot on Kodachrome.

As the market for 35mm film crashed, so did that for film cameras: only a handful are still made, mainly by Nikon and Leica. The new Reflex camera is aimed at a generation who grew up with digital picture-taking but have fallen for film. Sold as a camera body with lenses available separately, the Reflex resembles a traditional 35mm SLR camera of the 1960s or 70s but has a removable film back, making it possible to rapidly swap films in daylight without having to wait until the end of the roll. The camera body will have the option of five lens mounts.

“For several months I worked through every single camera design out there,” says the driving force behind the Reflex, Belgian-born filmmaker and photographer Laurence Von Thomas, 39. “I wanted to ensure that there was an alternative to using second-hand cameras if you want to use 35mm film.

Elliott Brown, by photographer Rosie Matheson, was shot using a
Mamiya RZ67 camera on Kodak Portra 400 film. The image was
selected for Portrait of Britain Award 2016.
“Using film is more than just nostalgia. We had a pop-up show for the Reflex prototype in London over Christmas, and the demographic coming to look was very broad. We had children – seven-, eight-, nine-, 12-year-olds – with their parents, trying out the camera.”

Rosie Matheson is typical of the new wave of professionals who have embraced film. At the age of 22, the portrait and documentary photographer has worked for Adidas and Nike, and for Vice and i-D magazines.

“My parents had an old 35mm film camera lying around, and I picked it up around age of seven and started to use it,” she recalls. “I started shooting digital when I was a teenager but I never fell in love with it. The images looked compressed to me, [they] didn’t look authentic. The darkroom is for me almost therapeutic, going into your own world, listening to music, bringing these images to life.

Watching it all happen, a physical experience. We’re now in such an instant world, with iPhones, digital cameras. It’s good to have this slow process, ripping off the wrapper around the film, putting it in the camera.

 Film photography focuses your mind but with digital, the brain tends to wander off when you’re still taking the pictures- Laurence Von Thomas

“With digital, on a shoot you’ll have a team of anything from five to 30 people looking at your pictures on a screen, and then someone jumps in with their own point of view about your pictures, and directs you how to shoot. With film, it’s just about what you see through your viewfinder, and your subject. No one else is involved. That shows in the photographs: there’s more sense of feeling and atmosphere. People are intrigued by a slow process. It means more.”

Von Thomas agrees: “If you shoot on film, your mind focuses very differently from when you shoot digitally. Film photography focuses your mind but with digital, the brain tends to wander off when you’re still taking the pictures, and you’re thinking about adjusting the pictures digitally while you’re taking them.”

With backing secured last month from the online crowdfunding resource Kickstarter, the Reflex team aims to complete refining its prototypes by spring. Keeping this European camera affordable for the twenties and thirties target age-group has meant that it has to be manufactured in China. The Reflex will be available from the autumn, priced between £350 and £399.

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