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Did Film Ever Really Disappear?

Why Film Isn't Making a Comeback - and why Film is Actually Still an Endangered Species

A pile of old Kodachrome slides
Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Film photography has ostensibly been enjoying a resurgence of popularity in recent years, especially among younger generations who are discovering the charm and challenge of shooting with analog cameras and developing their own film. Some media outlets have even declared that film is making a comeback, citing the increased sales of film cameras, film stocks, and film processing services. But is film really making a comeback, or is it just a niche hobby that is doomed to fade away eventually? In this blog post, I will argue that film photography is not really making a comeback, but is on a rather slow, terminal decline into oblivion, and that it can only be saved if we stop living in a false reality and consider the real reason for film photography to go extinct - loss of its relevance as a fine art.


 

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Film photography is not really making a comeback

The first thing to note is that film photography never really disappeared in the first place. There have always been film enthusiasts who have kept the medium alive, even when digital photography became the dominant form of capturing images. Articles proclaiming the revival, or comeback, or renaissance, of film or analog photography even quote people who state that film never disappeared in the first place:


For people like Olivia Crumm, a photographer based in Mexico City, traditional photography never went out of style. “I don’t think film ever really died,” she says. “Analog photography has been around for over a century. Digital, on the other hand, is new and is still in the process of being perfected. I also think there’s a quality to film that really cannot be matched by a digital image.”

Film photography has always had its advantages, such as the unique aesthetic, the tactile experience, the creative control, and the archival quality. Film photography also has its disadvantages, such as the high cost, the limited availability, the environmental impact, and the steep learning curve. These factors have influenced the supply and demand in the film photography marketplace over the years, with it ebbing and flowing (and mainly ebbing in latter years), but they have not eliminated it completely.


Purists would agree that film photography is tactile from start to finish. Creating prints resembles hand-crafted work and is as close to drawing and painting as photography can get. That is, in the end, the literal meaning of photography: drawing with light. How could an artist ignore such artistry?

However, the recent increase in interest and activity in film photography does not necessarily mean that film is making a comeback. It is important to look at the bigger picture and the historical context of film photography. According to a report by the Camera and Imaging Products Association (CIPA), the global production of film cameras peaked in 1997, with over 36 million units. By 2005, it had dropped to less than 5.5 million units, and by 2007, it was less than 800,000 units. Similarly, the I3A "Worldwide Imaging Market Report 2019" (page 17) shows that the global production of film rolls peaked in 2003, with over 960 million units, and that by 2019, it was less than 20 million units. These numbers show that film photography has been declining for decades, and that the recent uptick is only a fraction of what it used to be.


Film burning in a fire
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Moreover, the recent increase in interest and activity in film photography is largely driven by a few factors that are not sustainable or representative of the medium as a whole. One factor is nostalgia, which appeals to people who grew up with film photography or who want to experience something from the past. There is also the novelty factor to consider, which attracts people who are bored with digital photography or who want to try something different. Next up is the social pull of the film photography community, motivating people who want to join like-minded film enthusiasts or who want to share their film photos online. A handful of "influencers" drive an upsurge in interest until their interest wanes, and then the next fad comes along.


These factors are not inherently bad, but they are not enough to sustain film photography as a viable and vibrant medium in the long run. They are more like trends that can fade away as quickly as they emerged.

 

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Film photography is still an endangered species

The harsh reality is that film photography is still an endangered species, and that it faces many threats and challenges that could lead to its extinction. One of the biggest threats is the availability of film and film processing. Film photography depends on a complex and fragile supply chain that involves the production, distribution, and processing of film, as well as the chemistry to develop it.


Lomography themselves made an impassioned plea to not "let 120 go extinct!" on their Instagram page and reduced prices across a range of medium format films.


Film photography is about spontaneity, happy surprises and unconventional masterpieces. 120 film offers a bigger frame and more room to create, but in recent years we’ve noticed the wider analogue Community grow increasingly reserved about diving into the enchanting realm of medium format. We don’t want to see it disappear, so we’re declaring 120 film an endangered species. To inspire experimentation and make medium format more accessible, we’re reducing the prices of our 120 films. Medium format photography should be a breeze, not a budget-breaker. Let’s come together, Lomographers, to keep the spirit of 120 film alive and thriving for generations to come!

With the appearance of more and more "boutique" brands of film, the appearance is that of a thriving industry; the reality couldn't be further from the truth - in fact, nearly every boutique brand that pops up is simply re-packaging film from one of the three major producers (Eastman Kodak, Fujifilm and Ilford), or re-rolling freezer stored technical/aerial films - with very few actual producers of film whether it be black and white or colour, and only two viable actual producers of colour film - Eastman Kodak and Fujifilm. While Lomography do source colour films from a third producer, Inoviscoat, these are more experimental and have not achieved the same quality as Fujifilm or Eastman Kodak. And Harman/Ilford are also having a dabble in colour film production with their Harman Phoenix 200ISO colour negative film, though, like Orwo/Wolfen NC500 and Inoviscoat's offerings, the quality is lacking, and while the efforts are laudable, the fact is that colour film production is a tremendously difficult challenge that few, if any, companies could take on and succeed in.


The ESTAR film support manufacturing process.
The complexity of producing even the base for film is huge. Imagine the difficulty of coating upwards of 15 layers on top of it.

This supply chain is controlled by a few companies that have little incentive to invest in film photography, as it is a low-profit and high-risk business. These companies are also subject to market forces, like the supply and demand of raw materials, competition from digital photography, and environmental regulations. As a result, film photography is vulnerable to price fluctuations, constantly variable availability, quality issues, and product discontinuations.


In recent years, Fujifilm - one of only two viable surviving colour film producers - has continued to stop producing several of its popular film stocks, such as Fujfilm Pro 160NS, Pro 400H, and Neopan Acros 100 (then brought it back), due to the decline in demand and the difficulty in procuring raw materials. In 2023, Kodak Alaris announced that it would increase the prices of its film products by 15% to 30%, due to the rising costs of production and distribution (although recently reduced the price of several medium format stocks temporarily). These examples show that film photography is not a stable or reliable medium, and that it could become inaccessible or unaffordable for many film photographers in the future.


Another threat that film photography faces is the relevance of film as a fine art. Film photography has a long and rich history as a form of artistic expression, and it has produced some of the most iconic and influential images in the history of photography. Film photography has also been recognized and respected as a fine art by many institutions, such as museums, galleries, and schools. However, it is not immune to the changes and challenges of the contemporary art world, which is constantly evolving and expanding. It has to compete with other forms of photography, such as digital, computational, and mobile photography, which offer a raft of new possibilities and perspectives for creating and sharing images.


Film photography also has to adapt to the changing tastes and expectations of the audiences, who are exposed to a plethora of images from various sources and platforms. It has to prove that it is still relevant and valuable as a fine art, and that it can offer something unique and meaningful that other forms of photography cannot.


Film photography can be saved if we face the reality

The conclusion that I want to draw from this article is that film photography is really not making a comeback; in its current guise, it is in a rather slow, inexorable decline into the abyss of irrelevance. It can only be saved if we stop living in a dream world where influencers and nostalgia are enough to sustain the market, and actually consider the real reasons why it could die out - production of film becoming too costly and difficult, with the market turning its back on ever increasing prices, and becoming irrelevant as a medium for fine art.


Photograph of a neon sign with Kodak and Photo words.
Photo by Zakaria Zayane on Unsplash

This categorically does not mean that I am pessimistic or cynical about film photography, or that I want to discourage or disparage film photographers. On the contrary, I am passionate and optimistic about the entire film ecosystem, and I want to encourage and support photographers who choose to use film as their medium. However, I also want to be realistic and honest about the situation and the challenges that film faces, and I want to urge photographers to do the same. I believe that film photography can be saved, but only if we face the reality and take action.


That reality is this: film photography is not a mainstream or popular medium, it is a niche that appeals to a small but dedicated group of people who appreciate and enjoy film for film's sake. The reality is also that film is neither a superior nor an inferior medium; rather, it's a complementary medium to digital, computational and mobile photography, one that offers a different or additional way of seeing and capturing the world. Finally, film does not have to be a static or stagnant medium, rather, it can embrace change and evolve into a dynamic stage, changing and improving with the times and the trends.


We need to embrace and celebrate film photography for what it is, and not for what it was or what it could be. Celebrate the advantages and disadvantages, the diversity and variety, and the challenges and opportunities of film photography.


By embracing and celebrating film photography for what it is, we can make film photography more accessible and affordable, by supporting the existing film and film processing companies, by creating and joining film photography communities, and by sharing and educating others about film photography. By embracing and celebrating film photography for what it is, we can also make film photography more relevant and valuable, by experimenting and innovating, creating and exhibiting, and by appreciating and critiquing film photography.


So, while film photography is not really making a comeback, it isn't doomed to disappear either. It's still alive and kicking, just, but it needs our help and support to survive and thrive. An endangered species, it can be saved, but only if we face the reality and take action. And while it is still a fine art, it can be a finer art if we embrace and celebrate it for what it is.

 

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