Fade to Black
The twilight of film photography.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006 12:01 a.m.

Weston Naef sounds almost misty-eyed when discussing Kodak Tri-X, a black-and-white 35mm film first made in the 1950s and a staple of photojournalism for decades. "It was a wonderful 400-speed film," says Mr. Naef, curator of photography for the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, referring to Tri-X's ability to capture an image in low light, known as its "speed." "And then it could be 'pushed' [chemically altered during development] to 1200, or even 2400"--meaning it could be used in even lower light.

Tri-X--along with Kodachrome, Ektachrome, Fujicolor and all those other mellifluously named films--and the Nikon, Minolta and Canon cameras long used by amateur and professional photographers alike are becoming anachronisms. According to the Photo Marketing Association, digital cameras are likely to account for 90% of all cameras sold in 2006. In January Nikon, one of the most revered names in photography, announced it was largely abandoning the film camera business. Days later Minolta (now known as Konica Minolta) followed suit. Kodak now earns more from digital photography than film, although so far it hasn't profited from that trend.

Film was magic--the process of pushing a button to open the shutter, forming an invisible image on a strip of coated plastic, then making that image visible by bathing it with chemicals and projecting it onto a sheet of paper that in turn was soaked in more chemicals and sometimes rubbed and massaged to manipulate the image.

Now, I still press a button on the Canon PowerShot I often carry. But it's a digital image that appears instantly on the camera's LCD screen, and in a few seconds I can transfer it to my Dell computer, to crop and change it in seconds with Photoshop, then email it anywhere.

The sentimentalist in me wants this to end, everyone to go back to film, and to hell with Photoshop. The practical person in me asks, where would I set up a darkroom these days? And when would I use it? Besides, notes Mark Federman, who teaches at the University of Toronto's McLuhan Program, there's no point in labeling a change such as film-to-digital as "bad" or "good." It's just a change.

Which isn't to say this particular change is without damaging impacts, despite digital's obvious win in the marketplace. Mr. Federman, who thinks often about how societies "remember," sees digital photography as a disaster for historians. People delete pictures from their cameras' memory cards. Hard drives crash. PCs end up in the dump, photos still on board. And CDs full of pictures will become unreadable when their surfaces deteriorate (you heard that right--CDs are incredibly unstable). With all that, says Mr. Federman, we're on the verge of losing billions of pictures. "We will not have a record of the individual stories that are told by families from one generation to another through pictures," Mr. Federman says. "That is a wealth of human history that will simply be lost."

Look at it another way: When survivors of Hurricane Katrina returned to their devastated homes in New Orleans or Mississippi, almost without fail they sought family photographs--that one tangible link with their past. Today we're ensuring that in the future those photographs won't even exist. True, prints made from digital photos can now last as long as their film equivalent, but that's still only a few decades compared with the hundreds of years a black-and-white negative might last.

Mr. Federman is even-handed, though, and says that while we lose something we gain something else. A decade ago, photography beyond the Instamatic or Polaroid stage was fairly complex, and merely loading film could sometimes flummox a picture-taker. Today digital photography really is point-and-shoot. So we're democratizing picture-taking, and with a digital camera (or even camera phone) and a PC just about anyone can produce a high-quality photo (technically, if not artistically) and publish it however they see fit, via an Internet blog or one of the digital photo services such as Snapfish.

As for the aesthetics, let's for now call it a wash.

Some photographers continue to insist that film yields a better result than digital. "I still think a beautifully exposed [transparency] is more beautiful than a digital image," says Lisa Quinones, a New York-based commercial photographer. "Digital always seems to be missing something--there isn't quite as much depth to it."

Mr. Naef of the Getty notes that film photography has elements of human error and accident that sometimes can result in surprisingly beautiful results not possible in the mechanically precise digital world. "Digital cameras produce a massively predictable result," he says. "And for amateur photographers, we see fewer of the 'delightful mistakes' that could yield such wonderful pictures."

Mr. Naef likes to cite, on behalf of film, a series of photographs taken in 2001 by California photographer Robert Weingarten. Every day that year, at 6:30 a.m. sharp, Mr. Weingarten took a picture from exactly the same spot, aiming in the same direction, with a Hasselblad camera loaded with color transparency film. The results, seen in a gallery show called "6:30 AM" and now in a book of the same name (Hatje Cantz Publishers, $49), are a revelation: the early morning light of Santa Monica shifting from luminous oranges and reds to muted blues and grays, clouds either etched in brilliant sunlight or suffused into formless fog.

Not only are the images beautifully captured on film in a way that digital might not achieve, says Mr. Naef, but they prove the ineffable beauty of nature. No digital manipulation here--the camera (and film) literally did not lie.

"For '6:30 AM' it was important to use film, in part because of the aspect ratio [the shape of the picture as recorded by the camera--the Hasselblad shoots geometrically neutral square images] and because, with digital, there is always a question of authenticity," Mr. Weingarten says. "And in some cases curators would ask to see the originals, just to ensure there was fidelity to the prints that were displayed." But for the photographer, who is 64 years old, "6:30 AM" was perhaps his last all-film project.

Mr. Weingarten has converted completely to digital for his new "Palette Series," which opens March 15 at the Marlborough Chelsea Gallery in New York and consists of close-ups of paint palettes of artists such as Jasper Johns and Chuck Close. For his part, Mr. Weingarten doesn't dispute Mr. Naef's assertion that film can yield results that are surprising and wonderful. He simply believes that digital has too many advantages to pass up. "My cameras were like old friends," he says. "But with digital I find the tones are better, the subtleties are more, the depth of what you can do is much deeper." He has donated his beloved Nikon F5 film camera to the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., to reside forever as a museum piece.

Film isn't dead yet--one billion rolls of the stuff will be used this year--but it's on the way out, save for the odd fine-art photographer, the technophobe, or a sentimentalist like me. But even I have to admit that my Canon PowerShot is always on my desk and ready to go; my Canon film cameras rest in a camera bag in the attic, along with boxes of old slides and negatives. All history. But maybe that, eventually, will be their salvation.

Mr. Gantenbein is a writer and photographer living in Port Townsend, Wash.