Recalling the Golden Age of Photography

By Clive Gracey — A couple of weeks ago, I was looking through my bourgeoning archive of photographic negatives and slides in search of a particular image I took about 35 years ago which I intended to use to illustrate one of these articles. Needless to say, I couldn’t find it! As I searched, though, I couldn’t help but marvel at all the different types of photographic film I have used over the years. Not only were there different brands — Kodak, Ilford, Agfa and Fuji, to name but a few — but within each brand there were various film types. It’s heartbreaking that so many of those dear old friends are now deceased.
Perhaps my greatest joy back in the Golden Age of analogue photography (the 1970s and 1980s) was the wide range of films available, each just crying out to be tried. And try them I did, as many as I could lay my hands on. Once I even sent away for a legendary black and white film called AzoPan that was made in Romania, a Soviet block country back then. Oh, the excitement I felt when it finally arrived in the post. Oh, the bitter disappointment I felt once I’d shot the roll and developed it. Somewhere along the journey from Romania to Ireland, the film had been passed through a powerful X-ray machine and been hopelessly fogged.
What made film photography so exciting was that each brand and each type of film within each brand had its own photographic personality. No two types of film produced the same kind of image. Black and white films varied in terms of speed (ISO), contrast, tonal range, definition and grain, while colour films in addition varied in colour saturation and hue. After lots of experimentation, a photographer could settle on a few favourite films that matched his or her particular aesthetic tastes.
For the youthful me, black and white photography was all about capturing a different, parallel reality from the coloured visual experience that my eyes provided.
I wanted to accentuate that difference in my black and white work. For this reason, I loved grainy, high contrast photographs that tapped into the infrared spectrum and so I fell head over heels in love with a film called Kodak HIE.
This gem of a film delivered moody, infrared images with dark skies, white foliage and so much grain it was like the photograph had been taken during a snowstorm. Sadly, this film went out of production in 1996.
To me, colour photography, by its very nature, is a means of representing reality. For this reason, I preferred to make warm, high definition images with rich colours that approximate most closely the way my eyes function (I see the world through rose-tinted glasses!). My preferred colour film was and still is Fuji Velvia 50, a wonderfully sharp and vibrant medium that produces unbelievably sharp photographs.
I feel sorry for photographers who are either too young or too parsimonious ever to have tried film. Today, photography has been reduced to one-size-fits-all, namely digital.
Have you noticed how digital photographs all tend to look very similar in terms of their tonal range, contrast, colour hue and sharpness? Send ten photographers to photograph one particular subject and I guarantee that all these photographic elements will be almost identical across the ten images they produce.
The aesthetic choices that different films offered to the photographer have been but lost. Today, it is the digital sensor of the camera that dictates the various picture elements and as most camera sensors are very similar in design and manufacture, the images they produce tend to look the same. Who among us could look at five photographs taken on five different makes of camera and say which was taken on the Nikon, which on the Canon, the Fuji, the Olympus or the Sony?
For digital photographers who wish to develop their own personal photographic aesthetic, the only option is to become proficient in some kind of post-processing software, such as Photoshop, which gives control of the aesthetic elements of the photograph back to the photographer, albeit ex post facto.
If you are thinking of buying a camera for as aspirant photographer in your family, you would be doing them a great service by going onto ebay and buying them a second hand classic film camera, such as a Nikon FM and lens, for the outrageously low price of around  RO 45.
The recipient of your largess might bash you over the head with it at first, but in the long run they will come to thank you for helping them to become a skilled image maker and for saving them from the aesthetic wilderness of digital imaging. And you can spend the money you’ve saved on medical bills and long-term rehabilitation!