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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12 thoughts on “GAF Versapan (135) – Another Expired Film Treasure – by Andrew Morang”
Amazing, dear Andrew. Film GAS is not so Bad, and yours came up with great results. Plus I love the plastic red film cans the GAF Versapan comes in.
I must confess that many of the black-and-white stocks look alike to my eye. Versapan is no exception here – I guess I would easily confuse it with Acros. What I do recognize is your characteristic imagery! I especially love the silos – with regard to their shiny hulls, the deviation from your usual dull/rainy weather is very much appreciated in this case! 🙂
As I’m now inspired to shoot some decay myself, I will probably head out this afternoon. Just read that my hometown’s most famous whorehouse, located in a creepy dark “Gründerzeit” mansion, has recently closed for good…
Well, that will be interesting. But maybe it would have been better when it was a going concern!
Amazing results Andrew, considering the age! Especially suits your subject matter too. I guess you’re blessed to have access to do much urban decay, photographically speaking. Cheers, Rock
Andrew, I’m drawn to this post not for the technical information therein, but for ambiguity of the wonderfully Americana images here. Like ‘found’ photographs, the viewer is left to join the dots. For instance, why was King Davis Church left to crumble? why was the tractor just driven to that spot in Alexander Road and just left to rust in peace? and why have the family or friends of the owners of the cottage in Ferry Road not come to its rescue? We’ll never know or even care, but what a great imaginary journey. Thanks.
The King Davis church once served a community based on employees at the Letourneau industrial company. I will add a short note to the article. As for the abandoned tractor and cottage, you see a lot of this type of detritus in the USA South. It is part of the hollowing out of rural USA. Thank you for taking the time to comment.
Great article! The pictures look wonderful. I have never been out of North America and urban decay is something that to me is normal. It’s beautiful and haunting but normal. I spent a long time learning photography in a factory that was affectionately branded as “the graffiti factory”. This was a place where you could return to every week and some of the graffiti would have changed it, making it always worth the trip. Sadly it was torn down a decade ago when I was shooting digital. I’m sure that you would have taken wonderful shots there. I’m excited to see your next project!
Growing up in the Binghamton area in the 60s and 70s, I shot lots of GAF film. Thanks for taking me down memory lane!
That is great. For unknown reasons, I never used GAF film in the 1960s or 1970s. I knew about their color slide films but always used Kodachrome. I took some black and white in the 1970s but became serious about B&W in the 1980s. Then, I alternated between Agfa and Kodak products, but unfortunately, GAF was gone.
My dad shot a lot of GAF color slide stock in the early 1960’s. He had an Argus ‘brick.” Since we grew up in a household that had little excess $$, I’m sure he bought the film because it was less expensive than Kodachrome. These impressions on a young child stay forever. I still shoot judiciously, even though I can easily afford lots of film.
We grew up next to my grandparents abandoned farm. When I began my photo adventure, I had unlimited access to machinery that was decaying in place (some pieces since the 1930’s!) great subjects to photograph, but you need to watch out for angry wasps and both rattlesnakes and copperheads. I’ve encountered all three. Connecticut does have venomous snakes. You can avoid being bitten by the snakes, but it’s hard to outrun mad yellow jackets with your camera gear slowing you down.
Venomous snakes? Bwaahaahaa! Come join me for some summer photographing here in Mississippi. We also have the minor issue of alligators near the water (but most are pretty mellow).
I hear they taste like chicken!