The Short Life of Tri-X Man – by Frank H. Wu

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.

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7 thoughts on “The Short Life of Tri-X Man – by Frank H. Wu”

  1. Douglas Gottlieb

    I loved this post. I still want to be that guy. But also the other guys. Acros guy. 50 guy. And j LOVE Delta 3200. I rate it at 1000 and dev normal. But also love the grain when pushed. Even with Medium Format. But don’t tell the moderator. My C330 and Pentax 67 are far from compact. Good thing these films shoot great in a iiic and and XA2. Would not want to get banned. 🙂

  2. Interesting if strange article Mr Wu. I do like the idea that you aspired to be the moody Tri-X guy but ended up as yourself. I did wonder how it would go. I have a Contax G2 and while I love it, it’s the last camera I’d chose to shoot in low light, low contrast situations. Thew autofocus is fantastic in all conditions other than that one.
    I hope you come back with more pictures and commentary as I really enjoyed this brief account.

  3. I’m a 400 speed guy…I’ve used HP-5 & ID-11 for years (decades.)
    But, I also love the knife-edged contrast of a city lit at night. Deep blacks w/a slice of light. A few years ago my wife & I celebrated our combined retirements by flying to Florence, Italy. At night, after supper, we’d wander about the city. I loaded my CL w/3200 Delta. Set the meter to 1000, and shot random snaps as we made our way back to our hotel. Getting the film through customs (no lead pouch) was a minor miracle. Back home, I developed it as if it was 3200. Many of the shots were butt ugly & unusable, but a few worked: street musicians playing an impromptu concert, people in outdoor cafes, dark streets lit by a single lamp. Man, that was fun – no expectations, but happy surprises.

  4. I thought to be a Leica guy but I am not. And that makes me very happy.
    In the film times I loved slow films, Agfapan 25 was my favorite, even I shot a few Kodak Technical pans.
    Now Ilford panf 50 makes the job, but it doesn’t come out so easily pretty developed as their bigger brothers FP4 and HP5. 3200 is too lack of detail for me.
    About lomography and quality, perhaps they’re making big efforts but they always loved plastic.

  5. With the recent price cut of Kodak bulk rolls, we can all aspire to be tri-x guy lol. I’d really love to be Neopan1600 guy though……

  6. Randle P. McMurphy

    The moment I felt in love with photography was when I discovered a old book about photo journalism in my fathers bookcase
    These pictures blow me away and I wanted to be able to create something like this too
    You all know how such things go right ? You start digg yourselft in questions of gear and technic
    This addiction can be dangerous for creativity and go on for years like in my case
    You forgot why you take pictures and it gets more important with what you take them

    Kill your Gods and get rid of stuff you dont need
    Focus on the things happen in the viewfinder and not the camera
    Klick with people not with cameras

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