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 briefly about technique, this time I’d like to consider the aesthetic attitude and specifically, how photography and architecture are moving in opposite directions in terms of accessibility to the medium.

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).

Many people take an interest in buildings; thanks to the rise of TV programmes like *Half the Dream Home for Double the Money*, but fewer of them really understand buildings. Back in the day, anyone could have a go at knocking together timber kits, but no private individual could ever erect unitised curtain walling. The techniques we use to put buildings together are becoming less and less accessible to the lay person.
By contrast, back in the same day many of us had a “point and click” compact camera, some enthusiasts 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, if you accept the premise that automatic metering, focussing, and even aperture control will improve the quality of the average photo – but architecture is becoming more exclusive, and understanding its technicalities more involved.

Despite the democratisation of image-making, 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, then processed using Capture One software. This is a powerful combination, which you’d only use if you needed to publish the results. Processing hundreds of digital shots against a deadline can become gruelling and unpleasant, although taking them was neither of those things.

The next print edition of Urban Realm will features a set of photos I took somewhere derelict. By contrast, they were shot on transparency film using a 35mm camera. Taking the shots is the creative part, and as such it’s enjoyable whereas I suppose processing transparency films was hard work, before machines did it for you. Nowadays, I just send them off to the lab in a postage-paid jiffy bag.

Partly as a result of that simple 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.

Comme d’habitude, I knew that things would become difficult as film stocks and processing labs reduced 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 quickly discovered that Agfa had stopped making it in December 2004. The best film you could find was RSX II with a “use by” date of 2007 or 2008, although if it’s stored somewhere cool, the film should still be OK to use several years later.

My experience (for what it’s worth…) is that ISO 50 or 100 Agfachrome is still fine at say 10 years after its expiry date, although it sometimes has a slight tinge of pink or red. Fuji Velvia 50 tends to have a purple bias as it ages. Slow film seems to stand up better and when I’ve bought expired film which people say has been frozen or kept in a fridge, it’s usually like new. On the other hand, I’ve also shot a few rolls of very expired slide film from the 90’s, at least 20 or 25 years old, and it seems to become very grainy, the colours shift unpredictably and contrast goes. Fine if you like that effect, but it does tend to look like a cheap Instagram filter.

More recently (I wrote this at the start of 2013), 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, film isn’t dead: 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. Similarly, some film is still manufactured by the remaining part of Agfa, 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 II in 50 and 100 ISO will never return in their former guise, sadly.

However, it became a touchstone for me, because RSX II 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, which improves the rendering of detail in shadow areas and the retention of highlight details, and its inherent crystallinity provides a nice balance between grain and acutance.

The dynamic range of films varies from five or six stops for Fuji Velvia 50 slide film, to ten or eleven stops for Kodak Ektar negative film. Agfachrome is somewhere in the middle. Likewise each emulsion has a unique toe and shoulder signature, in other words it deals with shadow and highlight tones in its own fashion.

In more subjective terms, Agfachrome has a more European aesthetic than other films. Kodak’s film stocks are warm and Disney-like, and the colours of most of Fuji’s products are super-saturated, and high in contrast. The result is that some shots I take with Agfachrome capture similar tones to Vermeer’s paintings, with earthy tones and rich shadows which hint at detail. Fresh Agfachrome film’s “curves”, how it renders a range of tones from the lightest to the darkest, show smooth gradations rather than clipping. Perhaps Agfa shares Vermeer’s Low Countries sensibility?

In the same way that traditional artists favour a particular palette, Ernst Haas favoured Agfachrome - he was one of the “Magnum” photographers who first mastered fine art colour photography, and the contemporary of Saul Leiter who I quoted in the previous article. Robert Farber made some wonderful images using Agfachrome 1000 as an aesthetic tool, where the grain of the high speed film drew an almost pointillist image. 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 film stock helps to define an approach and capture an atmosphere, although RAW converters like Capture One 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 versus hipster notions of authenticity and reversion to the analogue.

Once you select which chrome film to use, you decide 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, because there is no recovery if you over-expose, yet early morning light can glow with a pink or golden halo emerging around a point source of light.

Some day, in the next few years, it will likely be very difficult to buy fresh colour transparency film. It’s more difficult to make, and to process, than colour print film. As a result, it’s getting more and more expensive. Monochrome film is simpler than either type of colour film – a silver-rich emulsion which you can even develop in a coffee solution – so it’s likely to stick around for good. Meantime, enjoy colour reversal photography while you can – especially the moment when your slides come back from lab, and you hold them up to the window, or switch on the light-box, and see them glow like jewels.

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, please take a look at my “Cement” post.

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