Film Photography as the “Long Tail” – By Frank H. Wu

A Jeff Koons sculpture on display at LACMA, shot on Street Candy 400 with a Contax G2, 45mm Planar lens, cropped but otherwise not processed.

I wonder if film photography will settle down like other avocations, sustainable in its own right, related to but distinct from its digital counterpart. In our economic era, both global and constantly subject to disruption, people look back on saddlemakers and other craftspeople of the horse and buggy era to understand what might happen to automobile manufacturers and those tied to the internal combustion engine. Film photography might seem to be headed toward its demise. Yet that has not been so.

Film photography points to an important phenomenon that the internet enables. While almost all saddlemakers went out of business, since our mode of transit is no longer equine, a handful of premium artisans persist in the bespoke trade. No matter how obsolete a product, there remains residual demand. You can still make money selling newspapers too. You simply cannot enjoy the profit margin publishers expected when department stores printed Sunday color supplements and the classified advertisements filled a regular section providing reliable income. Film is proving durable. Analog life has fans — or, more to the point, practitioners.

Film photographers constitute the “long tail.” The internet allows those of us who belong to the “long tail” to get ahold of what we like by connecting enough of us to someone who has the corresponding ambition to sell just enough of that item to make a go of it. The “long tail” refers to the demand curve tapering off. Science writer Chris Anderson’s best-selling book popularized the concept. The middle of a bell curve is tall. On either side the line gently drops off. That is how nature distributes recurring phenomenon. Anderson uses a demand curve that is half a bell curve. On the left are the “hits.” On the right are many narrowly tailored options.

The mass market depends on the median and the mean. Nikon and Canon are set up for that. They are about bulk even if the price point is set high.

Boutiques thrive at the ends. Large format field cameras, lomography, handheld light meters, and Leica will succeed or fail regardless of the averages and the norms. They are about prestige, quirkiness, or prestigious quirkiness.

Each time we order film, or purchase it at a storefront (if that is even possible), we participate in these phenomenon. We become another data point. There are two trends at once, headed in opposite directions.

I was about to load a roll of Fuji Acros Neopan 100 into my camera. I had never shot this film before. So I did what I like to do, which others do too: I looked it up on the internet. I learned immediately that this black and white emulsion, complimented and criticized for being unlike its Kodak and Ilford rivals, is being discontinued very soon. It’s forgivable. Fuji, an industrial conglomerate, does not plan to be a bit player catering to a handful of creative types and wannabes such as me. The managers for this line might not even care especially about the commodity they are assigned to move. They require volume to satisfy shareholders.

As it happens, I had just finished a roll of Street Candy ATM 400 — sent to me as a gift by my nephew, a professional photographer who won a Pulitzer Prize and probably hasn’t shot film in a decade, but who read about it and figured I’d be into it. It is a personal project of hand rolling surveillance film, a black and white emulsion on thin stock, apparently producing high contrast images. I have it ready to bring to the shop, awaiting another roll for the sake of efficiency. To reduce the transaction cost of the travel time, I always take in at least two rolls to SF Photoworks per trip unless I am passing by the place for another reason. It’s commendable. The folks bringing us Street Candy, I would bet, would not be prepared if they had to fulfill requests a magnitude greater. If for no other reason, they probably will run out of their raw material, the footage they repurpose for hobbyists. Without knowing them, I’d be surprised if they didn’t have a day job, or if they aspired to become rich on this endeavor.

There is another possibility for the future of film. Microbreweries offer the example. The renaissance of beer has encouraged the best among home brewers to turn their enthusiasm into entrepreneurship (my nephews do that too, albeit as amateurs still). A handful have done so well they have exceeded the quantity limit to be deemed “micro” for legal purposes, which has cachet in the market to command a premium. That in turn has attracted major companies to acquire the niche players, or to brand their own offerings to mimic those who seemed to be upstarts. Some of that has always happened with film. There are repackaged offerings nowadays that prompt speculation as to whether ABC funky film is in fact XYZ second label stuff marked down (or even up).

The irony is that film, a representation of reality, is its own object, and it has a simulation. Fuji has been popular in its digital line for many reasons, including image quality, upgrading of firmware, and competitive price points. Among the popular features, winning converts from other makes and film, are the film modes. Fuji stopped producing Acros analog as it started imitating itself through Acros digital. Acros film will disappear. But Acros as a setting will persist. Eventually, it is reasonable to predict, there will no longer be people who recall Acros film as film. They will not have the original benchmark to compare, rendering “Acros” a skeuomorph like the graphical leather embellishment in the original Apple iCal app, meant to call up in human memory an old-school paper diary.

Films come, films go, films come back. This market is on a scale that is at once vast — I think nothing of buying a ten-pack of film from a stranger located on the other side of the world — and yet personal — my consumption will make a difference to the livelihoods of a community catering to me. Film photography shows us past, present, and future. We have to support what we wish to to see in the world.

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9 thoughts on “Film Photography as the “Long Tail” – By Frank H. Wu”

  1. No technology has ever completely disappeared. If you look hard enough, you will find makers and users of the most esoteric items.
    Remember, when digital gained a foothold and the pundits declared film dead, they were talking about color film. B&W had become a niche market by the 1970’s. Things have settled down, supply is constant, if somewhat more expensive.
    Smart phones are cutting into a huge chunk of the didital market. But, most B&W users still work to produce B&W prints – either in their own dark rooms (me) or use specialized labs.

  2. George Appletree

    The paradox is that film use is fueled through digitalizing and screen watching.
    But the truth is chemical prints are obsolete. Pretty objects for beginners, nostalgics, eccentrics or fine art “experts”. In fact common people have no clue about what’s an analog print.

  3. Film stock is just one part of the equation. For the use of film to continue indefinitely we will also eventually need new film cameras. It would be great if Canon, Nikon, or Pentax reintroduced old models, but I fear they would be too expensive.

    However I have about 6 excellent film cameras up to 60 years old plus a fine EOS 1n (taking my new lenses) still going strong, as well as 3 dead or obsolete digital cameras. Any good old film camera is instantly updated with a new roll of film, but any digital camera starts on its way to obsolescence the day you buy it.

    Meanwhile I do enjoy the NIK collection sometimes creating a nostalgic film look in appropriate digital images.

    A lot of my photography involves air travel and air travel involves X-rays which damage film. Ever tried getting airport security to hand check rolls of film? They used to do so but grudgingly.

    One answer is to buy and process film at your destination. Maybe OK in San Francisco but not so in Fiji.

    In the past +60 years I have shot and often processed thousands of rolls of film including much cine film for TV and I hope film will long continue to be available especially so newcomers to photography can experience film.

    I was waiting at a bus stop a couple of days ago and a young university student was checking her nicely sleeved color negatives she had just collected from processing. She told me they have film photography classes. That is a good sign for the future of film.

    1. Eventually, the supply of usable film cameras will shrink enough that prices justify new production.

      I think we’re a decade or so away from that, but who knows? You can now buy new vinyl records and turntables to play them on.

  4. To Graham. My niece just finished a degree in architecture, and one of the requisite courses was photography…with a requisite film camera. (reason for hope).

    Oh, and for film, I always carry along a few ancient rolls of 3200 ISO to airports along with my ISO 100. I just ask politely for hand examination, due to the 3200 stuff. Has always worked so far. One security gal even apologized to me for taking so long to examine the rolls.

  5. Pingback: Recommended reading : Down the Road

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