The Neverending Film Photography ‘Resurgence’

Michael Grothaus, writing for Fast Company, has some pretty standard grievances with the increasing role of computers in photography:

As a middle-aged Gen Xer, these new camera technologies never cease to amaze me. But as someone who was also trained in analog photography — capturing images on actual strips of celluloid that I then developed in a dark room manually — these new technologies also leave me feeling that the gap between photographer and photograph is now so wide the two almost aren’t connected anymore. And as that gap broadens with additional generative AI processes, I fear that the photographer will one day become nothing more than a biological tripod for the camera. Once that happens, the capturing device becomes the creator.

This is a common fear for any technology where the behind-the-scenes processes are simplified and less intimidating. If anything, I would argue that the “gap between photographer and photograph” has narrowed, not widened. Photographers now get to shoot, edit, and publish images — often all by themselves — in a fraction of the time and with less expense as film development used to require.

Still, I am hopeful. In the past year, there’s been an upswing of professional photographers returning to analog film cameras.

This claim probably seems unlikely to you; it sure does to me. Its foundation is the flimsiest substance you can imagine — something which seems to be pretty standard for Fast Company. Look, I know I have an unhealthy obsession with the absolute nonsense from this publisher but, in fairness, they should have better stuff.

In this case, here is Grothaus’ proof of the aforementioned upswing:

But recently, there’s been a reversal. In 2023, Leica expects to sell 5,000 analog M series cameras — 10 times more than it sold nearly a decade earlier. To put that surging number into further context, Leica expects to sell around 12,000 digital M series cameras this year. The fact that analog cameras will be selling at 40% of the volume of the company’s digital cameras is staggering, especially considering that Leica is still innovating in digital photography on almost every front.

That is it: Grothaus’ sole evidence for a film photography “comeback”, as the headline puts it. The forecasts of one niche company — which caters to people that can afford its infamously pricey cameras, many of whom have a reputation of treating them as objets d’art and shelving them — surely does not speak to a broader trend. Still, Leica is expecting to sell a lot more film cameras this year compared to eight years prior, so perhaps there is a specific reason for that. And, indeed, there is: Leica re-released the M6 last year, and it is plausible lots of people would buy it. But who?

Here is the next paragraph:

As for why film photography is seeing a resurgence among professionals, each photographer probably has their own reasons. […]

Who says the primary market for this camera is among professional photographers? Not Grothaus; there is no evidence that professionals are increasingly shooting film, whether for clients or personally. There are also people with money to burn and display cabinets to fill, and I guess some hobbyists too.

[…] But I can guess at some of them, because they would be my own. Analog photography gives the photographer a connection to their photographs that digital photography does not provide. You assume a physical role in birthing the photograph through everything from selecting the film stock, to manually adjusting optical filters, to mixing the perfect solution in a warm water tub to develop the film under the red light of the dark room. There’s an intimacy in the analog process and a period of anticipation that makes seeing the final result exciting.

Speaking of assumptions unproven by the evidence, it is hard for me to believe most photographers developed their own film even at the peak of celluloid relevance. There is no obligation that one must develop their own film, even if they are a professional photographer. In fact, there is good reason to take images to a professional developer who knows exactly what they are doing and can help a photographer achieve specific effects.

But put a pin in the rest of this. I will come back to it later.

Then we get to the penultimate paragraph:

I don’t expect celluloid photography to make a mainstream comeback. Digital photography is too convenient for most people. Gen Z has really never known anything else. For Gen A, a photograph will have always been a malleable thing. It will be expected that a camera can apply any expression to a subject’s face or even entirely reposition them if needed.

This paragraph demonstrates the hollowness of the whole article. Because Grothaus is so focused on the specific sales forecast of a desirable German camera brand, he misses a really interesting story in how much younger generations are, in fact, interested in film photography. A New York Times article last year highlighted the sales growth of film cameras driven, it claimed, by younger buyers. A CBC News story from earlier this year also profiled surging interest from teenagers and young adults.

There is a fascinating narrative there — albeit, one with the side effect of increasing the cost of my own hobby over the past fifteen years thanks to those damn kids. But it is also a story which has been reported constantly; old things are new again is a well-worn trope. Specifically, you can find plenty articles proclaiming the revitalization of film photography from every year since at least 2010; here is a sampling:

  • That year, Kodak proclaimed a “very real resurgence for film” after noting strong sales of colour and black-and-white negatives.

  • In 2011, Ashlea Halpern framed it as an “analog renaissance”.

  • In 2012, Jenna Wortham wrote for the New York Times that “film photography is having another moment in the sun”.

  • In 2013, it was Bloomberg’s turn to highlight two people in the photo industry calling it a “resurgence”.

  • In 2014, Fstoppers noted renewed interest in film.

  • From 2015, Format magazine highlighted artists contributing to the “resurgence in the practice of film photography”.

  • Then, in 2016, the resurgence was framed as a question by Shutterbug.

  • In 2017, Time magazine excitedly covered the relaunch of Kodak Ektachrome and pointed to year-over-year film growth.

  • In 2018, the Guardian reported that “[l]arge numbers of still photographers, professional and amateur alike, are turning their backs on digital technology”.

  • In 2019, HP — of all companies — published a rather good exploration of how film “is making a comeback among professionals and amateurs alike”.

  • A 2020 headline at Fstoppers sounds like a threat.

  • Then, just one year later and from the exact same author, the headline became a question: “Are We Nearing the End of the Film Bubble?”

  • Finally, last year, Axios reported “hobbyists and young people are increasingly taking up the once bygone medium” causing “huge price increases”.

The thing is that all of these stories are believable; it is plausible film photography has experienced a constant increase in attention over the past thirteen years — at least. Some of these articles claim it is driven by professionals, while others credit younger buyers.

The headline of that CBC story calls it “like vinyl, but for photos”, and I think that is an apt comparison: in the U.S., L.P. album sales revenue in the 2020s is the highest it has been since the late 1980s, even accounting for inflation, but it is still a tiny fraction of spending on music. Likewise, an increased number of people shooting film is notable, but significant only in relation to how few people were using an analog camera ten or fifteen years ago and a “tumultuous” series of years for the digital camera industry thanks to smartphones and pandemic-related shortages.

In any case, I think it is fantastic any time some new generation rediscovers things considered irrelevant or obsolete. You can see this everywhere: young people update fashion of an older era with a new twist, listen to music from their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and try older technologies for the first time. I remember doing the same when I was younger; I learned how to use a microfiche reader at the library when I was a teenager, and I still think that is a fabulous piece of tech.

I want to go back to the part earlier about the reasons people may choose to shoot film instead of digital, as there is something I wish to highlight:

[…] Analog photography gives the photographer a connection to their photographs that digital photography does not provide. […]

You will recall that Grothaus then explained how exciting it is to develop your own film, which is a completely different subject. I, too, enjoyed it at one point.

But I agree that there is a difference in the photographer’s connection to the image in film and digital formats — not less, per se, just different. A film photo is inherently a little nostalgic, a little bit fuzzier, a little bit more like a memory. It requires patience and being more okay with chance.

A digital image is more like reliving a specific moment in stark detail. It encourages connection if the photographer desires to edit it in nitpicking detail, in ways which are far more complicated and difficult for film.

These are two specific mediums which can happily coexist. They can encourage different behaviour from their photographers and subjects alike. If there is some kind of film renaissance happening — and it seems that there has been for over a decade — I welcome the opportunity for more people to experience a different way of capturing light. Digital has clearly won in the sense that you are likely reading these words on a digital camera right now. But that does not mean film must ever go away. This obsession with framing it as a resurgence is, I think, unnecessary when it is far more exciting to treat it as an existing tool of many. Young photographers now have options for creative expression — including brand new ones like generative imagery — that generations from twenty or more years ago did not. That should be celebrated.