Oh oh, trouble: I had film GAS.
In spring of 2020, a friend gave me a cooler full of GAF Versapan 4×5″ film packs. He had stored them in freezers since the 1960s. They proved to be completely viable, and I liked the results so much, I looked for other sizes of Versapan film on eBay. Amazingly, a fellow listed three rolls of 135 size Versapan with 1974 expiration, which he claimed had been frozen. Well, that was too good to resist, so I bought them. I know, I know, no self-discipline.
Up through the 1970s, GAF sold many types of film in the United States (I am not sure about foreign distribution). GAF stands for General Aniline & Film Co., an old-line film company from Binghamton, New York. The history of this company is complicated and was intertwined with ANSCO and Agfa. You can read a more detailed history on Mike Eckman’s web page where he tests various older cameras. The GAF black and white emulsions were well-regarded, and I do not know why they stopped production of consumer products in the 1970s. This was 30 years before the digital tsunami overwhelmed the film companies, so digital is not a culprit here. I never used GAF film in the 1970s and therefore had no previous experience with their products.
I loaded my first roll of Versapan in a Pentax Spotmatic II camera and used part of the roll around my home town of Vicksburg, Mississippi. I metered at EI=80. Then I exposed the second half in my Leica M2 camera. I sent the roll to Northeast Photographic in Bath, Maine, to develop in Xtol developer. Xtol is an amazingly effective developer and appears to work well with almost any black and white emulsion. The negatives displayed high base fog, which is common for old film, but plenty of density and detail. The second roll I loaded into my Voigtländer Vito BL, with its remarkable little ƒ/3.5 Color-Skopar lens, and metered at EI=64.
I scanned the negatives with a Plustek 7600i scanner. The Silverfast Ai scanning software did not have a Versapan profile (obviously), but with some experimenting, I selected the profile for Kodak BW400CN film. This was surprising because BW400CN was a chromogenic film (C-41 development like color print films), but regardless, I liked the way it handled the Versapan. But for some frames, the Kodak Plus-X profile looked better. I cleaned blemishes with the heal tool in Photoshop CS5.
Here are samples from various light conditions.
The King Davis Church once served employees and families of the Letourneau industrial complex. The woods around the church still have old paved roads, but the houses are long gone and the trees have grown up. In the late-20th century, Letourneau was best known for building jack-up drilling rigs, used for marine petroleum work around the world. The company has totally closed, and the residents who live on Glass Road work in other places.
Yokena and Port Gibson, Mississippi
Edwards and Utica, Mississippi
This was a pleasant surprise! Amazingly, this Versapan still works. This test proves that a 50-year old black and white film that has been cool-stored can be used years after its expiration date. One roll of Versapan remains in my freezer, which is on hold for a future project.
Versapan is definitely more grainy than Fuji Acros or even the modern Kodak Tri-X. Versapan looks like an old-school mid-speed film, like Plus-X. Well, no wonder, it is almost 50 years old. It gave many of my pictures a gritty press photography look, which I like for urban decay. I love the tonality in gloomy/rainy days (my favorite light) . When I look carefully at the full-size TIFF files, I can see many tiny white spots in the negatives. I think they are not bubbles from development but rather deterioration of the emulsion. Resized at 1200 pixels to show here in this article, the spots are invisible.
It is fun to experiment with old films, but you need to have some assurance on how they were stored. I posted an expanded version of this article on my blog.
Thank you for coming along on my expired film journey and thank you all for reading. Keep supporting film photography and 35MMC. Follow your passion. You can read more adventures on my blog, Urban Decay.
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