Nostalgia: Old School Photography When Film Was The Medium

First published February 2017. Last updated August 2020.

Old School Photography when Film was the Medium

From Muybridge to Cartier-Bresson to Kodachrome and Facebook

The earliest known surviving image from a camera, was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 or 1827.

Old school “film” is a sheet of plastic or acetate covered with a gelatin layer. The gelatin is embedded with light sensitive particles. As with it’s predecessors, like glass sheets or tin-types, film is almost a distant memory now.

It’s hard to imagine that a generation ago, “One Hour” photo booths used to be more common than Starbucks are now–or so it seems. Every Walgreens had a photo shop. Even parking lots in urban areas had small stand along photo processing booths. As an artist who was traditionally trained in black and white photography, I built a darkroom. Life is not the same with film following floppy disks, paper maps, or for the average family photo or selfie advocate, almost any camera-that-is-not-in-a-phone.

A few years ago, I went to the Cartier-Bresson exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. For me, black and white photography, like no other medium, is capable of creating a sense of intimacy with the aura of place and time. Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke of “the decisive moment,” that fleeting space between the past and what is to come.

From the website of the Art Institute of Chicago
From the website of the Art Institute of Chicago, announcing the exhibition: Henri Cartier-Bresson. Juvisy, France, 1938. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the photographer. © 2010 Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos, courtesy Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris.

He intuitively and masterfully captured that pregnant instant in his viewfinder and on his film. I’m a knee-buckled fan of his work.

A couple of articles have caused me to rethink photography.

Steve McCurry, the brilliant photographer who shot the iconic green-eyed Afghan girl published as a cover image in National Geographic, was given the last roll of Kodachrome film a few years ago.

Kodachrome was the first commercially viable color film, “extolled since the Great Depression for its sharpness, archival durability and vibrant yet realistic hues.” Paul Simon wrote a song about it. (Hum “Kodachrome…” and you’ll remember the song.) I ran uncountable rolls through my 35mm Nikon without ever thinking, “this is a finite resource: soon it will be gone.”

He too loaded the film and shot it. He knew it was the last. “McCurry feels the tug of nostalgia even as he loads Eastman Kodak Co.’s last manufactured roll into his Nikon F6, just as he’s done ‘so many tens of thousands of times.’”

Then he had it processed at Dwayne’s. It may be shocking to learn, (as I did about several years ago when my son, was looking to have his Kodachrome processed), that the last photo-lab in the world to process “the elaborately crafted color-reversal film” was in Parsons, Kansas. Really. It was Dwayne’s Photo. Dwayne’s stopped accepting rolls of Kodachrome on December 30, 2010. They processed as many rolls as they could until they ran out of developing chemicals the following month

A roll of Kodachrome film
A roll of Kodachrome film
Photo credit: Dnalor_01
Released under the license (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Albeit a quiet milestone, discontinuance of this once technological wonder in color photography, caused me to think about some earlier photographers and their impact on the field. For example, Eadweard Muybridge.

Basically he was challenged to settle a bet regarding whether a galloping horse was ever at a point at which it had all four feet off the ground at once.

One photo isn’t enough to capture that potential bet-winning image, so Muybridge devised this system of using a series of cameras that would shoot sequential images of the action. It is brilliant, and is a precursor to motion pictures.

A wonderful presentation of his animated black and white still images is on the Minneapolis Institute of Art website as Animal Locomotion, and he is, as they call him, “The Grandfather of the Motion Picture.”

What is it about photography that is so important to us? In a recent article about Facebook, more than 350 million photos are uploaded and shared on Facebook every day. Yikes. The population of the US is about 325 million, so it’s equivalent to about every woman/man/child/baby adding a photo to Facebook every day.

It also means that rather than using Kodachrome film (obviously) we are changing how we “shoot” photographs, process and share them. We still want to have these immortalized images to share, but we want it faster, easier, cheaper, more portable. (Justin R. Levy. Facebook Marketing: Designing Your Next Marketing Campaign. Indianapolis: Pearson Education, 2010. Print. 31).

There are trade-offs in the move to fast, cheap, portable, i.e. digital.

But bottom line, I think the whole evolution underscore how important photographs are to us as human beings. One of the first cognitive abilities an infant has is the capability to identify faces. Photos are our “relics” of human relationships. We want to capture and have these touchstones with us to reconnect with important moments in our lives.

I realized my interest in photography as a child. As an emerging artist, I created my own darkroom in my basement when I was about 13 years old. It seems so prehistoric now: I went to the library and studied all the books about chemicals, and enlargers, techniques such as dodging, and burning. I used my hard-earned babysitting money and bought subscriptions to (it seems) dozens of photography and camera magazines (yes–they actually we used to have dozens of photography magazines). they featured bold and busy ads for camera shops in New York—it all seemed exotic to a teen from Omaha, NE.

An early photograph of mine of some farm kids and their new puppies.
An early photograph of mine of some farm kids and their new puppies. Pretty classic, don’t you think?
© Jane M. Mason

I worked as a student photographer in high school and as the sideline photographer for the University of Nebraska football team. Just so you know, from the sideline, the players are even bigger than they appear on TV. You feel the ground shake and you hear the shoulder pads squeaking and crunching as they thunder toward you. You of course concentrate of keeping a steady eye; a steady position as you imagine the impact.

I studied photography in college. I had a photograph win a national contest and had it published in a national magazine as an 18 year old, thanks to the encouragement of my photography teacher at the time, Jim Alinder.

In school and after graduating, I taught photography, used photography in my art, and cherished the art form. And, as we know, the whole field of black and white photography–and film– is almost a relic now. It is challenging to find a lab to process black and white film. Although, Dwayne’s in Parsons, Kansas, still has it listed on it’s website as of December, 2017.

For everyone who has loved the absolute magic of standing in a darkroom watching an image appear on the sheet of photography paper, it is a loss to not have film easily available. Just as it’s a complicated emotional transition to see the world changing from movie film to digital.

I’d be interested in your thoughts on the topic. I hope something else comes along that will have some of the same magic as the astonishing vision of an image emerging on paper from nothing.

And, I have to again pay homage to the pioneers of photography such as Nicéphore Niépce, Eadweard Muybridge, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Cartier-Bresson, and Ansel Adams. Also, I have to acknowledge Steve McCurry with the last roll of Kodachrome.

To see a documentary video about how he used the last roll, watch “The End of An Era.”

And, on another note of changes in the industry, the iconic photography firm, Nikon was having trouble with financial losses, and announced in February 14, 2017.

On the GOOD NEWS from Kodak. There is a resurgence of interest in “heritage products”...

Kodachrome Might Make a Comeback, And You Could Help
Adam Ottke, January 11, 2017

“On the heels of Kodak’s announcement earlier this week that they are bringing back Ektachrome (the last variety of which was phased out by the end of 2013) in 35mm and Super 8 formats, Overman was asked about the likelihood of Kodachrome coming back as well. While he didn’t announce Kodak will be reintroducing it, he did say that Kodak is looking into what it would take to bring the iconic film back to market.

We get asked all the time… by filmmakers and photographers alike, ‘are you gonna bring back some of these iconic film stocks like Kodachrome, Ektachrome…’ I will say, we are investigating Kodachrome, looking at what it would take to bring that back […] Ektachrome is a lot easier and faster to bring back to market… People love Kodak’s heritage products and I feel, personally, that we have a responsibility to deliver on that love.

Kodachrome was notoriously difficult and complicated to process – a fact that led to rising prices that ultimately resulted in the film’s demise. But the way the film reacted to light was unmatched by any process – film or digital – and remains so to this day. And today, we have hope that this film might come back.”

A great blog post “Power of Photography: Origin and Impact” by Yiran Sun, gives a great history of photography with historic photos. It is part of the curriculum for a 2013 Seminar, Media Theory and Digital Culture by Martin Irvine.

Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Washington
More photos of this family available on the Library of Congress website shown here. It is absolutely worth visiting the site to immerse yourself in the haunting desperation of this family.
Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division
Digital ID: fsa 8b29516

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    • Lover of Photographs

      Thanks for reminding us of the historical importance of photography! Your discussion motivated me to look up some of the the Pulitzer Prize winning photos:

      and thanks for the musical reminder of Simon and Garfunkel’s Kodachrome:

      “Kodachrome, they give us those nice bright colours
      They give us the greens of summers
      Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, oh yeah
      I got a Nikon camera, I love to take a photograph
      So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away”

    • kickupthearts

      Yes, paintings can create a sense of place and time as well as feelings and emotions. Only photography can capture moments, instances, fleeting experiences. It was of course once thought painting was dead once photography had arrived, but people like Steiglitz, Steichen etc soon showed that it was different. I recently met with a key London art consultant and he tipped these old masters as relatively cheap and worth investing in.

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