I’ve written about architectural photography before - and unusually, a few folk made the effort to comment, although presumably many others went “meh”.  Having spoken about technique, this time I’d like to consider approach.  Specifically, how photography and architecture are moving in opposite directions.

Soon, there will be fewer folk training to become architects.  In other parts of Britain, the universities charge fees.  You have to work for at least two years after leaving university before you can sit your Part III exam, which means architecture is effectively an eight year course (3 + 1 + 2 + 2). 

There are many more people taking an interest in buildings; but fewer of them know about the buildings themselves.  Despite the rise of TV programmes along the lines of *Half the Dream Home for Double the Money*, the techniques we use to put buildings together are less and less accessible to the lay person.  Back in the day, anyone could have a go at knocking together timber kits, but no private individual could ever erect unitised curtain walling.

By contrast, back in the same day many had a point and click camera, some had a 35mm SLR, but only the serious-minded few had roll-film cameras capable of taking the quality of photo which is required for publication.  Fewer still would see their shots reproduced in the “mass media”.  The advent of the web changed that, irrevocably.

Today, everyone is a photographer.  The combination of camera phones with decent quality optics, such as the Iphone, and photo sharing websites such as Tumblr and Flickr, allows us all to propagate our work.  Photography is becoming easier, and exposure to photos is increasing; but architecture is becoming more exclusive, and understanding its technicalities more involved.

Now to earn my stripes as a contrarian.

Despite the democratisation of images, there is still a discernible gap between how the enthusiast and the professional work.  The previous print edition of Urban Realm features a set of photos I took in a deactivated power station.  They were shot using a digital back and processed using Capture One software.  This is a serious combination, which you’d only use if you needed to publish the results.

The next print edition of Urban Realm will features a set of photos I took somewhere derelict.  They, by contrast, were shot on transparency film.  I suppose processing transparency films was hard work, before machines did it for you: taking the shots is the creative part, and as such it’s enjoyable.  Processing hundreds of digital shots against a deadline is gruelling and unpleasant - taking them was neither of those things.

Partly as a result of that workflow, I still use film for my personal projects.   It’s entirely characteristic of the arse-for-elbow way things are, that I became interested again in film at the point when it began to disappear.  At some point along the road, maybe 2005, I decided it would be apt to make photos of derelict buildings using a technology which was similarly coming to the end of its life.

An architectural photographer once told me that smaller formats, like 120 or 35mm were useless for serious architectural photography, as they lacked sharpness.  Fine, I like a challenge, although when the lab scans 35mm film at 18MB (around 3000 pixels across) I can barely see grain on “pro” transparency film, and likewise with 120 film at 80MB (around 5000 pixels across). 

I’m well aware of the race for pixels amongst the readers of Amateur Photographer magazine and its ilk – but it’s never been an issue in anything I’ve shot for publication.  Likewise, I think the 35mm/ 120 comment stemmed from a certain froideur toward lesser photographers who didn’t use 5x4 technical cameras.  Go figure.

Comme d’habitude, I knew that things would become increasingly difficult as film stocks and processing labs reduce in number, so naturally I wanted to try it … and to master E6 film’s unforgiving latitude.  I started using Agfachrome RSX around 2005 … and Agfa stopped making it in December 2004. 

More recently, Kodak has stopped making acetate base, the stuff which “film” physically consists of, and onto which light-sensitive chemicals are coated.  Fuji is killing off its emulsions one by one – Velvia 50, Astia and Provia 400 were recently chopped. 

Nonetheless, if you look hard enough: after Agfa’s factory in Leverkeusen shut and was subsequently demolished, Fotoimpex in Berlin built a small film-coating plant using pieces of equipment from the former Agfa research dept.  Almost a pilot plant, it produced a fraction of what Efke did in Croatia, which in turn was a fraction of Agfa’s production…  SImilarly, some film is still manufactured at Mortsel in Belgium, and repackaged as Rollei. 

Film is undergoing a "craft" revival at the moment, aided by the Lomo movement.  However, it's never going to be mainstream again, and that's the problem; Agfa were geared up for the mass market, while smaller manufacturers like Efke or Rollei never expected to be more than niche players.  The archipelago of factories which Agfa relied on made economy difficult to achieve, so Agfachrome RSX in 50 and 100 ISO will never return.

However, it became a touchstone for me, because RSX renders colours in an authentic way.  Not overly vivid, nor warm or cool: the greys are neutral, because its sensitivity isn't biased in any direction - yet other colours have a richness.  The film is also lower in contrast than other makes, and its inherent crystallinity provides a nice balance between grain, acutance and fuzziness.

Agfa somehow has a more European aesthetic than other films: Kodak’s are warm and Disney-like, and the colours of Fuji’s are super-saturated, and high in contrast.  The result is that some shots I took with Agfachrome captured similar tones to Vermeer’s paintings, with rich shadows which still manage to reveal detail.  Perhaps Agfa shares Vermeer’s Low Countries sensibility?

In the same way that artists favour a particular palette, Ernst Haas favoured Agfachrome - he was one of the “Magnum” photographers who first mastered colour photography.  Robert Farber made some wonderful images using the grain of Agfachrome 1000 as an aesthetic tool.  Late in her career, Fay Godwin moved away from the monochromatic landscapes which made her name, and I believe she used Agfa RSX to portray nature morte arrangements of frozen and flooded foliage.

The choice of stock helps to define an atmosphere, although RAW converters like Capture can also do that.  However, more important than the particulars of any brand of film, is the fundamental difference between film and digital which few think about, an aesthetic sensibility which is lost with all the talk about digital sharpness, noise and resolution. 

Once you decide which chrome to use, you choose how to view the world.  It’s all down to taste in the end - transparency film, with its non-linear characteristics has different properties to digital, such as a gentler roll-off, meaning it blows out highlights in a less marked way.  Its narrow latitude means you have to nail the metering, there is no recovery if you over-expose.

However, film is not better than digital.  It's just different.

A story about photography, but with no images?  Are you mad?  If you want to see how Agfachrome RSXII-50 renders light and colour, take a look at my “Cement” post.

By Mark • Albums: memory palace