I am not the person I thought I was. When I got back into film photography, shooting a Contax G2, I envisioned myself loading it with roll upon roll of Kodak Tri-X black and white film, in order to make images of moody, smoke-filled, dimly-lit, vaguely disreputable jazz clubs. The pictures would be all the better for being grainy. That artifact of the film emulsion would establish my street credibility, if the compositions did not, and viewers would respect that I had been there in the moment, as if I had stepped into a scene more hip than any reality.
Perhaps each of us has the private fantasy life we lead inside our own heads, which, when described in detail, is revealed to be about as ridiculous as my imagined role in such a noir reverie. But the most significant aspect of my make believe moment need not be a delusion. I can purchase, still, Tri-X, and I can create situations with its definitive look. There could be the musicians, sweating as they put on the show; the patrons enjoying the sounds, with empty bottles and full ashtrays in front of them. I would document the birth of the cool.
Except I am not that guy. I do not even aspire to be that guy. I sort of do. Yet I’d like to be at least two other guys as well.
The first guy I have discovered myself to be is a copy of Tri-X man. I am shooting ISO 400 black and white film, pushed to a couple of stops. I am not, however, shooting five packs of Tri-X. It’s too pricey for my budget. Instead, I bought a bunch of Fomapan, and I also ordered even more frugal alternatives. I’m satisfied. Thanks to the lomography movement, what previously appeared to be lesser quality is now accepted as distinctive. Softer, less contrasty emulsions have their own virtues, and thank goodness there is no mandated standard.
What I do is load a roll and manually set the ISO. My second-hand Contax came to me in as about as mint condition as I could have hoped for, but I believe the automatic DX code reader has a problem. The other possibility, always important to bear in mind, is user error. Regardless, I have been dialing the ISO for myself, marking the canister with permanent ink. The shop I use, Photoworks, charges a bit more to push the film in development. That is fair given the extra trouble.
Then I carry around a neutral density filter during the brightest hours. A fraction of the results, those that should have been at box speed, turn out grainer than necessary. Since I regard grain as integral, I am fine with that. I wouldn’t add grain artificially as a digital enhancement, since that feels somehow wrong or as if it must be an effort to cover up technical defects. The grain that is there naturally is earned, if not elegant.
I am willing to be more extreme than that though. I also am shooting Ilford Delta 3200. That is said to be the fastest commercially available stock. The lead pouch for travel, to protect against the airport X-Ray scanner, is no conceit. With this film, I can prowl around at night in the city, confident that I can capture the happenings. If the “auto” mode suggests a shutter speed that will be a problem, I can switch to 1/60 of a second, which I can handhold, barely, accepting slightly underexposed frames.
I’m surprised by the realization I enjoy the opposite though. I tried Ilford Pan F 50. That is among the slowest readily found film. It was love at first sight. The inkiness justifies the cliche, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” The grain is so fine it is not discernible. I know it has to be there, but it is invisible for practical purposes. The best word for it is “smooth.” It must be as mathematically pure a continuous function as possible.
Ilford Delta 3200 and Ilford Pan F 50 are specialized. It might feel inappropriate to put them into general use, not only wasteful economically but maybe even wrong aesthetically? At noon, the Ilford Delta 3200 would require filters verging on opaque or stopping down to a pinhole. Before sunrise or after sunset, or even approaching either, the Ilford Pan F 50 would require a tripod. As soon as I express that, I am challenged. The truth is I might experiment with these conditions.