Expired films have been exciting me for quite a long time. If I stumble across some, a chain of questions is triggered in my brain. Is the film still usable? What will it look like? Will it offer me a nice vintage appeal? In this post, I’m going to show you some photographs I took on the “vivid color” (VC) type of Kodak Portra 160, which discontinued years ago. As playground for this material served me the Ihme-Zentrum, a derelict housing complex in Hannover. Expired film for expired houses, if you like.
The Ever Present Sirens of Expired Film
On a dark and cold December night, boredom forced me to browse Ebay, looking for stuff I don’t necessarily need. I found a seller who offered single rolls of Portra VC for seven Euros, seven rolls in total. Expired 13 years ago but permanently cold-stored, the seller assured. “Use it at EI 100 and you will be fine”, the description continued. It took me less than a minute to hit the “Buy it now” button. Yeah, I bought them now, and I bought all of them. “If they are okay, I have a good amount of film to work with”, I thought. “One roll I’ll use for testing, the remaining six for a comprehensive project.” But what if the rolls are crap? “Then you have screwed up 50 Euros. Annoying, but you should be able to live with that!”, I gave myself the answer.
The good ol’ stuff came in its original box, “Value Pack” as Kodak called it. That’s not your precious five-pack you get today. No, this brick originally contained 20 rolls! Back in 2007, the pros seemed to have guzzled lots of film.
When Kodak introduced their new Portra line in 1999, the 160 and 400 ISO speeds were available in two variations: vivid color (VC) and natural color (NC). Both later merged into the “New” Portra, which we can still buy today. If you are now asking yourself how the NC type looks like, check out the post recently published by Robert here on this site.
Rise and Fall of the Ihme-Zentrum
In search of an interesting environment for the expired film, the Ihme-Zentrum crossed my mind. That’s an extensive residential and business complex here in Hannover, Germany. At the time of its construction during the early 1970s, the Ihme-Zentrum had the largest concrete foundation throughout Europe – 700 meters long and 200 meters wide. Built as a city within the city: apartments, offices, malls and restaurants. If you could afford one of the three-storey maisonettes, you had made it!
The decline slowly began in the mid 80s, when many commercial tenants closed their stores and moved back to the city center. That’s just ten years after its completion! In the mid 90s, the mall was completely empty. Investors came and went, apartment owners stayed. Today, the complex appears severely run-down at many corners. In some places, it even looks like a war zone.
Today, I can faintly recall the better years. My parents used to buy our groceries there, and each time I feared I would get lost in the underground car park. Trying on shoes at “Schuh Hess”? Well, there was hardly anything more boring and tedious for the six-year-old me. As completely opposite I experienced my visits in a small shop that sold all kinds of diecast models. Once my parents had to carry me back to the car; I just didn’t stop crying and stamping the ground after my pocket money couldn’t buy me that 1:32 scale excavator.
Working in the Field
I went to the Ihme-Zentrum on the very edge of 2020. A dull and grey day between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, when most daily routines run slowly or have stopped completely – especially during the lockdown. Only a few strollers and dog walkers shared with me the pathways along the river bank.
At first, I planned some exposure bracketing to have at least one good shot of a given scene. But then I quickly changed my mind. With only 12 shots on the roll, taking two or three images of the same subject seemed like an unnecessary squandering to me. Therefore I rated the expired film at EI 100, just as the seller had suggested. Otherwise, I relied on the hope-for-the-best approach. The sky was so stingy with light on this day that I had to expose in the several-seconds range. And this was even one hour before dusk would settle in. To account for reciprocity failure, I generously spend my images some extra seconds.
With the new investor, new rules have come. For example, a security service now patrols the site. While I was standing inside the complex exposing an image, I saw two other photographers passing by. From ten meters away, I witnessed the scene of how the two photographers ran into the patrol. The security guy immediately rose to speak: “Please, take your photographs. But I would kindly ask you to not enter the construction site or break any of the fences.” – “Thanks and no, we are definitely not intending to break any fences.”, one of the fellow photographers answered. More than a hint of perplexity in his voice. Just in this moment, the security guys noticed me standing aside. “All right, all right! I won’t break any fences either.”, I yelled.
As usual, I shot wide architectural scenes – rather from the distance than up close. That’s because I mostly prefer images that provide an overview and show buildings in their entirety. However, I think I’m going to complement them with more detail-oriented ones, for example like the one with the stairs.
Final Thoughts on Expired Film
In conclusion, the old material did a great job. I’m really happy with the results! In a subtle way, the colors of the VC differ from my regular choice, the “New” Portra 160. I couldn’t notice any age-related defects. No weird color shifts, no pronounced grain and no shining through film markings. And huge kudos also to the guys from Carmencita film lab in Valencia, Spain, who developed and scanned the film!
If you now feel the urge to dive deeper into this topic, please head over to guys of Casual Photophile. In “Ghost of Portra Past”, Drew talks about how expired film let’s him set off on a journey to bygone eras. Indeed, expired film can be quite addictive. As I’m writing these lines, I remember some rolls of Portra 800 from 2004 hiding in the back of my fridge. Maybe it’s time to unfreeze them.
As for the Ihme-Zentrum: I really hope for the residents that the new investor will renovate the complex anytime soon. Until this happens, this morbid place will probably remain an exciting location to (re-)discover.
Thanks for reading!