When color film was becoming more and more popular during the 1950s it was dismissed by many professionals of the time. Color was something for the amateur’s holiday shot, whereas serious photography had to be black and white. Several of today’s highly esteemed photographers, who took the chrome path like Saul Leiter or Fred Herzog were flying under the radar for a long time not only because of their belittled choice of color but also because putting their transparencies on display was not so easy. Sure, you could put them in a projector and get blown away by their vibrant colors, but printing them for exhibitions or producing books was difficult for a long time without losing a lot of their color palette. When magazines started printing color Kodachrome became the synonym of professional color photography. Even the classic magazine reportage, which was the fortress of black and white, eventually became colorful strikingly demonstrated by the iconic National Geographic cover image The Afghan girl by Steve McCurry.
Due to an ever growing popularity of digital cameras and the subsequent death of Kodachrome and many other film stock color photography on film almost vanished during the last two decades leaving only a small market mainly based on professionals shooting medium and large format film and transparencies. However, there were still enough people using their old equipment or simple point-and-shoot toys that even the cheap drugstore brands such as Kodacolor and (re-branded) Agfacolor survived in the shelves. When Polaroid went bust and after some time instant film re-appeared through the Impossible project (now Polaroid Professionals) film photography became more and more popular again. What was the ordinary photographic process for ages, suddenly developed into a life style object for the urban hipster and the lomography community started its famous growth. Along these lines, film photography for some people became an expression of a mindset sometimes haplessly used to argue against the digital mainstream – a totally misleading debate. There is definitely enough room for both digital and analog techniques with pros and cons on both sides. The speed with which news are spread through digital media today requires equally fast equipment for capturing images and footage. Analog gear simply cannot deliver this. On the other hand the ultra-sharp high resolution images of modern digital cameras with 40+ megapixel sensors at least to my eye sometimes look too clean, almost artificial – an effect well-known from watching older movies on a modern HD flat screen television.
In the end – as often in photography and other creative endeavours – the whole discussion boils down to personal taste. Do I prefer the technical possibilities of modern digital cameras and the zillion creative options of post processing or am I going for the restricted options of a certain film stock in combination with older often mechanical cameras and the haptic experience of film handling, development and printing? Does it make sense to buy a cheap analog camera and spend the money on film and paper or is it better to spend a fortune for a new DSLR (or mirrorless) and shoot thousands of images for nothing? I could go on with this … you get the message. The new popularity of analog photography is definitely something no one would have expected a decade ago. And it already had effects on the film industry: currently available film stock seems protected from mass extinction (fingers crossed that Fuji keeps Velvia alive – I am not 100% sure about it!) and even discontinued film such as Ektachrome starts a second life on the consumer market. My first rolls of this re-invented all-time favourite transparency film are still in refrigerated sleep mode – I simply did not have the time to test them since their delivery in early December.
To wrap this up, I come back to my initial question. Color photography on film? Yes, sure! I will certainly shoot color film in the future, but this may not have anything to do with your preferences. You will have to decide for yourself.
Note added in proof: If you’re interested in a very thoughtful hands-on comparison between digital and analog color photography using Leica’s M8 and M6 (with the new Ektachrome) visit Paul C. Smith’s Youtube channel here.