Saturday, October 25, 2008

Decline and Fall

CW’s post on the history of technology got me to thinking about the decline of one piece of technology that I’ve personally witnessed – film cameras.

Up until WWII, the camera world spoke German. Leica, Hassleblad, Rollei – names like those were on the lips of every serious photographer in the pre-war years, but Kodak would do for the budget conscious. The Japanese started making these cheapy-cheap cameras in the 50s as part of their recovery effort, because even before the War, photography was a national pastime. I remember my father reminiscing about the post-war cameras and how they’d laugh at the “clink” of the mechanisms.

But those cameras sold well to kids and budget-conscious novices. The Japanese are fanatical about attention to detail, and as they brought in revenue from those cheap cameras, their quality got better and better. Names such as Cannon, Mamiya and Pentax suddenly started appearing on the lips of serious photographers, and the medium format camera of the real pros was no longer a wholly German province anymore.

For fast results, of course, Polaroid ruled the roost (and still do for official documents), but those consumer Polaroid photographs degrade to a green blur over time. Still, for applications that required a fast print, Polaroid was the way to go. Today’s kids miss out on the smell of that paper as you peeled it away from the print – always a thrill to a little kid seeing his image slowly come into focus on the film.

Of course, in high school and college I knew nothing of medium and large format cameras - I was never much of a photographer, but my wife is an avid one. In graduate school, through her, I began to discover the world of the 35mm SLR and began to understand the lust for medium format that resided in every serious photographer’s heart.

In 1997, I entered business school. One of my teachers was an actual venture capitalist, and he had invested in a company that was promoting a new technology – digital cameras. Even in 1997 digital cameras were usually bulky and hard to use, with low resolution, But one set of early adopters drove the market – real estate agents. Instead of taking a Polaroid and making a photocopy, a digital image could be emailed to a prospective agent or buyer instantly. This was an instant hit with everyone who had been using Polaroids for similar applications. My teacher made a lot of money at it.

But still, for serious, high resolution work, film ruled the day. The photography world was split over Fuji and Kodak film. The subject of choosing a film type for a given application took up a lot of space in photography magazines. It was generally accepted that Kodak had the better resolution and Fuji had the better color balance, but there was a bewildering array of film types for the professional and serious amateur. Kodak had dominated the American market until they let the chemists get in charge. Those technically-trained senior officers concentrated on further and further technical refinements in resolution that no one but a pro, and even then, only a pro blowing up to poster size, would appreciate. Fuji understood that for most 4 or 5 inch prints, and to most people snapping pictures of their kids, it’s the color that matters. And they had marketers in charge who understood the power of advertising. Fuji scooped Kodak for sponsorship of the 1984 Olympic Games, gaining huge share in the American market. After that, Kodak was playing catch-up, right on into the digital age. If there is ever an argument against the common technical worker’s whine that they do the real work and marketing adds no value, Kodak is it.

Film was still the serious medium of choice in 1999 when my wife and I moved to Tokyo. We were living in photography Mecca. In the US, we had to drive over an hour to find a photography store with a so-so collection of film. In Japan, I worked not far from Yodobashi Camera, the headquarters of the largest retail camera chain in Japan. My wife thought she’d died and gone to heaven. Any type of film she would read about in a book, magazine, or internet post could be found in the film department in the basement of the main store (Yodobashi has about 5 buildings in Shinjuku, all specializing in different things, there’s even a narrow, 6 story building dedicated only to watches).

My wife had a pretty good SLR in Japan (a Cannon), and I had a little Olympus digital for snapshots. I think we went through 2 or 3 of those Olympus cameras as the resolution kept getting better.

But film was still king. We’d go up to the 4th floor of the camera store to let my wife salivate over the huge selection of Hassleblad, Leica, Mamiya, and Pentax medium and large formats. Then she’d go get a sample of Kodak or Fuji’s latest and greatest film.

In the basement of the building where I worked, Pentax had a showroom, half of which was used as an art gallery. Famous Japanese photographers would get a Pentax camera for free and then go out to someplace exotic and take exquisite photographs that were shown in the gallery in large poster format. The camera and lenses used to take the pictures would always be center stage. The show rotated every 2 weeks, so my wife and I would go to lunch together, then peruse the gallery on my lunch break. Good times.

My wife took photography classes and perfected her craft. She took thousands upon thousands of pictures. In July and August, there are fireworks festivals pretty much every weekend somewhere in Tokyo or its environs. She took wonderful pictures of the fireworks on her film camera, while around us in the crowded venues thousands of Japanese were doing the same thing. We’d go early so she could pick our spot. We’d get a box of chicken strips from the KFC in our train station, grab a bunch of drinks from the convenience store, and head out to the park. Once there we had hours to kill, me reading and snacking on that perennial Japanese festival food, grilled squid on a stick, and she snacking on chicken and fiddling with her camera. She even bought a heavy-duty 35 mm SLR EOS system which could take multiple shots per second and had a 45 point focusing system that would track which object your eye was looking at in the field of view and focus on that.

When the pictures of the fireworks, or the castle, or the volcano (we’ve climbed Mt. Fuji twice) were done, we’d bring them back to Yodobashi for developing. Out in front of the main store, on the opposite side from the cameras, in front of the printers, Yodobashi had a kiosk for dropping off film (the kiosks are on the lower right in that photograph, you can't make them out, though). My wife was having none of that for her precious pictures, I was often sent to work with a couple of dozen rolls of film, so that I could climb to the top of the camera building to where the real photo developing center was, and drop off the film on my lunch break. The film drop-off counter only took up about a third of the floor space on that floor, the rest was dedicated to photo albums and their detritus – photo corners and various mounts.

The girls and ladies at the counter grew to recognize me. When I first arrived in Japan, they gave me a lot of the “上手ですね” (you're very skilled, aren't you?) that Japanese often give to foreigners who fill out forms in Kanji instead of English or Kana. Gradually I became just the American dude with all the film. Many of the ladies knew me by name, and Yamada-san always greeted me as soon as I cleared the last step and walked onto their floor.

We left Japan in 2001, but I go back two or three times a year. My wife kept a supply of film from Yodobashi in the freezer for the longest time. For the really good film types, she didn’t trust American developers, and would send me on my biannual pilgrimages with a couple of dozen new rolls for Yodobashi to develop. Even two years after we moved back to America, Yamada-san still knew my name.

Gradually, however, we switched over to digital. The resolution nearly caught up to film, my wife’s SLR came out in a really nice digital version, and developing that many pictures for one or two good shots on the roll is expensive. I was no longer sent to Japan to bring back film for the stash in the freezer.

Three years ago, I was in for a shock – the Pentax Forum was gone! A little piece of my personal history, and a big piece of the history of technology, was gone. Medium format film cameras no longer drew shoppers into the Pentax store, and they switched to selling over the internet. The store and gallery next door, however, was still going strong – a showroom and showcase for Epson printers.

I hadn’t been back to Yodobashi’s camera store in over two years when I went back just a few weeks ago. I’d told my friend Eric that I’d check out the tripods when I was there, and even though I think he already got a nice Slik from B&H, I thought I’d check to see if what I’d told him was still true – that while even Japanese cameras are more expensive in Japan than in the US, the accessories are often cheaper. Turns out that’s sort of still true, but you now have to be careful. Asia is not the bargain it once was (if Japan ever was).

But the prices on the tripods were not the big shock. I made a beeline for the camera section in the main store. There were the digital cameras on the first floor like they used to be. But I headed up the stairs for the film camera section. It was gone! There were plasma flatscreens for sale where the film counter used to be! There were printers in the basement where the film cases used to be, the refrigerated counters like an open dairy case of roll after roll of high grade film. No tripods either. I asked a clerk where the tripods were. He pointed me to a narrow building across the street that used to house digital camera accessories, not quite as small as the watch building, but pretty close.

And there I found the film cameras. A few tiny floors. One example each of film medium formats (some with digital backs) in a sad little 3 shelf display case on the third floor, along with some used medium format cameras, which Yodobashi never used to carry - they left the used market to Camera Doi across the road. Camera Doi is now completely gone from Shinjuku, I think.

The tripods took up one floor, making the camera selection on the other floors even tinier. And no film. No refrigerated cases. And saddest of all for me, no Yamada-san. The top floor had a tiny selection of photo albums, but no film drop off counter. I guess they do most of their film selling and developing through the internet now. Not enough people buy it in a store to make a big display economically feasible. There I was in the camera store that always débuted the best new Japanese cameras of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and now film cameras were an afterthought. The kiosk by the main store that used to have racks and racks of envelopes for you to drop your film into for developing still has kiosks. But they are photo printers that take smart media cards and give you a print on the spot.

This was made all the more surreal by the fact that the Yodobashi jingle was still playing over the outside loudspeakers, a jingle I suspect has not changed in 35 years, the one set to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic": 新宿駅西口の前 (Shinkjuku eki nishi guchi no ma-ei).

So in less than a decade, I can paint a picture of the demise of a technology, in the very country and the very city where it was popularized, from its dominant prime to a curiosity for hobbyists and old fogies who are having none of this digital revolution.

Most technologies die a much slower death. A number of farmers still plowed with horses up until the 1940s, including my own grandfather. Tractors and horses fed America side by side for decades. But the advantages of high-resolution digital were just too great. Instant gratification combined with resolutions that rival or even beat film, killed the old technology. At the moment, I don’t see anything replacing CCDs in the near term. And even then, the future will still be digital.

I wonder where Yamada-san landed. This being Japan, I pretty sure she’s working for Yodobashi in some capacity. I had a touch of nostalgia that night working my way back in a slightly inebriated fashion to the hotel though the electronics stores and izakayas of Nishi Shinjuku’s back alleys. But I’m not particularly sad about the decline of film. It was me, after all, who lugged all that film to the developer. ;-)


Anonymous said...

You definitely hit on a hot topic for me... I was a very serious film photographer at one time, with ambitions of being a professional photojournalist. I was a big student of the history of photography, and collected and used a variety of antique cameras. I had Leica 35mm's from the 1930s, and even some Rollei 220s from the 1920s. I still have several mint-condition Olympus and Nikon 35mm cameras in the closet that haven't been used in years.

When I started you could still get Kodachrome I, which had an ASA rating of about 12. I did a lot of work with Kodachrome II, which became Kodachrome 25, and the final version, Kodachrome 64. Digital color (or any other kind of color for that matter) cannot compare to Kodachrome. Whatever else Kodak did, they produced the best color ever.

I have watched with horror how everything to do with film - any film - has been disappearing. While there's no doubt that digital is now capable of some great images, it just isn't the same. It isn't an art form in the same way that film was.

(Althought I just looked it up and allegedly Kodak is still producing 35mm Kodachrome 64 - I didn't know you could still get it. There is one, count'em one, lab in the world that still processes Kodachrome, and it is not owned by Kodak.)

We knew years ago that digital would displace film, but we hoped film would continue at some level - sort of like how you can still get oil paints and canvas to paint pictures. It is uncertain how much this is true, and it is depressing.

Random Michelle K said...

Sorry, but I'm delighted by the ride of digital. I've always found photography interesting, but with the cost of film and developing, it was a hobby mostly beyond my means.

But with digital cameras, once you buy the camera everything from there on out is free. What happens then is I am no longer afraid to "waste" film, and will instead take multiple shots in the hopes that something that looks kinda interesting will turn out. (I admit I'm no longer in this category, but I still *feel* that way. Digital cameras let me take risks.)

But what I think is even better is the fact that it is so easy to share using this medium.

My cousin snaps pictures of his twins and puts them on his facebook page. Michael brought up facebook on his computer, and Grandmom got to look at all kinds of pictures of her great-grandkids who are across the country. Meanwhile, I printed off two pictures for her. (And one for myself--I'm staring at another absolutely adorable picture of two incredibly cute one year olds)

If I remember correctly, digital cameras are also taking a medium that was previous inaccessible to poor kids, and allows them to take pictures and learn about photography (I apologize, I can't find the program I remember hearing about, but I remember it being similar to youth radio.)

Anyway, my point is that making photography accessible is to me a Very Good Thing. And a technology that allows people to instantaneously upload their images--especially if they live in a place of political or civil unrest--that's even better.

And John, I went far afield here, and this really didn't have anything to do with your fond memories of the camera store. :)

mattw said...

I don't have much to add, but when I was working retail people would come and look at the mid-range digital cameras we carried and there were very few people that would be considering film at the same time. Those that did complained about the lag time between pressing the shutter button and the camera taking the shot on digital. As time went on you heard less and less from people that were on the fence between digital and film. But then, being OfficeMax, I doubt we ever had any serious photographers come into the store.

What gets me is when Brandi's grandma fills up the card on the digital we got her a couple years ago and she's still not sure about getting them on her computer she switches over to disposable Kodaks.

Jim Wright said...

Somewhere in my closet upstairs, is my old photo-bag. Four Pentax 35mm SLR bodies, a dozen lenses (from a 12mm fisheye to 500mm telephoto), there's a full array of gel filters, my old handheld light meter, and a couple of lead film bags for going through x-ray at the airport.

I'd have to go look, but there might even be a couple of rolls of Kodochrome 64 in there, I know there's at least a roll or two of Ektachrome and some old Fujifilm rolls).

I lugged that damned ugly bag all over the world. In addition to the Pentaxes, I used to carry a Polaroid - see, you take a half dozen quick polaroids of the kids, pass them around, and while they're all watching 'em develop you can get the shot you really want without the kids jumping in the photo and making silly faces. This worked extremely well in Africa and Spain (for some reason Spaniards were just goofy over having their picture taken).

Haven't touched wet film in years though. Nowadays I use a high end Sony digital. I wish to hell all those old Pentax lens would fit on it though, man I hate the thought of all that money moldering away up there in the closet, next to my buggy whip and the dinosaur saddles. Damn.

Anonymous said...

Don't get me wrong: I love digital and carry a medium-cheap pocket digital camera everywhere and use it for all the 'snapshots' for which I used to use a small 35mm.

Originally I had a 126 "pocket camera", which was a piece of junk. I replaced that with a Kodak 110 which was also a piece of junk. When I got serious about photography, I got a fairly compact Pentax rangefinder. There were a lot of _really_ nice small rangefinders on the market in the 1970s. Later I one of the "flip-front" Minox 35mms, which were a big breakthrough in size and convenience when they came out, and that was replaced by an Olympus XA, which was a very nice camera in a very small package.

But the inconvenience of processing the 35mm film was a big limitation for ordinary snapshots. Towards the end of the "pre-digital era", the labs started putting the 35mm images on CD's, which was a Very Good Thing.

When digital started to become affordable, I eagerly swapped my small 35mm for a digital camera, and the latest version takes absolutely beautiful pictures.

It isn't that I'm not highly in favor of digital, it's that I hope that film will continue to be available for purists and artists, because as beautiful as digital can be, it's just _different_ - just as color is different from black and white and photography is different from engraving (which it replaced).

John the Scientist said...

I'm with you there, CW, but the weak link in this one is the processing, specifically the chemicals. You can feed horses any old grass, you don't need to buy horse feed. So, the horse stayed on until everyone got the wherewithal to buy a tractor - no one was forced to upgrade because the declining market in horses caused a decline in demand for horse feed until it became economically unviable to produce horse feed, shutting down the whole market due to the flip side of diminishing returns.

Color photography, with its dependence on developing chemicals and equipment is like horses that only eat horse feed.

When a viable fuel cell or other electric car technology comes along, watch how fast IC cars die out - the expense of refining gasoline for a dwindling and limited number of vehicles will kill that technology just as fast as printing from smart cards killed color processing - it's the need for an enabling technology that requires constant resource inputs that kills some technologies faster than others.