Whether it’s selfies, dinner plates or duck pouts, the world is more photographed than ever before. Digital has made us all photographers. And with the rise of digital cameras, the original film photography using nothing but silver nitrate and some complicated magic in a darkroom seemed as though it would wither and die. But just like vinyl, film’s making a comeback. And come back it will.
Dead in the water?
By the mid 2000s, film photography seemed as though it was dead in the water. As in face down and floating. Famous brands such as Kodak had even stopped making it. This is a company who in 1998 has 170,000 employees and sold 85% of all photo paper worldwide. Within years they were finished. Ironically, it was a Kodak employee who in 1975 invented the world’s first digital camera.
For several years, only Fujifilm carried on making celluloid film in any volume, but for an ever-shrinking market. They were practically on first-name terms with their customers, there were so few of them.
But slowly sales started to recover. There was still a hardcore of photographers out there (mostly working in the fashion industry) who still loved cartridges, developing their own negatives and the alchemy of developer and fixer solutions.
But why? Because they knew what countless high-fashion photographers had known before them – that film is special. It has the ability to give a warmth and depth to a picture that digital images just don’t have, no matter how many filters you run them through.
Standing on the shoulders of giants
Think about the true giants of photography. Cecil Beaton, whose pictures of Audrey Hepburn in 1955 turned her into an icon, or Vogue’s George Hoyningen-Huene, who went on to capture the spirit of the 1960s in classic monochrome shots for Harper’s Bazaar.
One of the pioneers of women’s fashion photography, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, who also made her name at Harper’s, was the first to use natural light for fashion photography rather than relying on the harsher artificial light of a studio. All of them are known for a natural softness and 3D juxtaposition of shadow and highlights that were perfectly captured on – yep, you guessed it – photographic film.
Fast forward to the modern Vogue images of the Noughties, and you’ll see a conveyer belt of replications of the classic poses immortalised by Beaton and Dahl-Wolfe, but without that softness that gives the originals their warmth, depth and ‘personality’. They’re gorgeous pictures, without any doubt but they lack a certain something.
That’s why esteemed modern photographers like Steven Meisel, Mario Sorrenti and Roxanne Lowit are rediscovering a love of film. Simply because they believe it gives better results.
Different… or better?
Digital is bold, sharp and defined. It’s a fantastic, highly versatile technology that puts good results within reach of even the most ham-fisted selfie aficionado. Plus, there’s an extraordinary level of control, the ability to manipulate images more easily and the sheer ease of working with digital. And let’s not forget, it’s considerably cheaper.
However, the reason film is on the rise once again in fashion studios across the world is because many people think it’s the better tool for the job. Softer, more three-dimensional, with greater depth and warmth.
Digital has its place. But if you want truly breath-taking shots that are good enough to write fashion history, become billboard legends, or find their rightful places in museums of contemporary art and photography, then there’s no comparison.
Long live film!