Sunday, April 04, 2021

Eaters of the Dead

When I headed downtown to drop the TacCon film off at Roberts Camera, Bobbi asked if I'd do her a favor. She said she had a roll of medium format black & white film that she wanted to get developed. When I looked at it, it turned out to be a roll of Ilford XP2.

"You're in luck!" I told her, "This is a special type of B&W that gets developed in color chemistry, and they do color processing on-site in their minilab!"

Downtown Indy, Christmas Eve 2014, Leica R4, Ilford XP2

Only when I got downtown, I learned that they couldn't process it on-site. Oh, they did C41 color processing right there, alright, but the machine they used wouldn't handle film wider than 35mm. The old machine they'd used at their Carmel store would, but when they'd relocated everything to the downtown store, they downsized the machinery.

I mentioned that I'd gotten my hopes up because the Noritsu 901's I'd used back when I worked in a minilab would process medium format rollfilm, even if we couldn't print anything from the negatives there on our machinery. "Noritsu 901's? That's the good ol' days..." was the response. And he was right; it's been thirty years since I've been on the other side of a photo lab counter.

Turns out, nobody's really making automated minilabs these days. They used to be everywhere. Every drug store, every amusement park, every big supermarket or big-box store had a machine in it, mostly made by Noritsu, that would process C41 color process film while-you-wait. They were ubiquitous. You know, like tube testers.

Now the tiny remnant of camera stores and photo labs that are left are basically cannibalizing the vast graveyards of the old "One Hour Photo Processing" industry that entirely collapsed over a decade ago.

While film has seen an explosion in popularity relative to a few years ago, those numbers are entirely relative; it will only ever be a tiny niche hobby. The thing is, the majority of film shooters don't process their film at home, especially C41 color film which requires higher temperatures and is more finicky than traditional B&W chemistry. And the number of people who do process their film at home isn't enough to prop up the manufacture of C41 chemistry. One day the last old Noritsus and their ilk are going to shudder to a stop, uneconomically repairable, and then...?

We're in a similar situation with cameras. Other than a couple semi-disposables and the Veblen goods marketed by Leica, which are priced like a good used car, there's pretty much nothing being made in the way of 35mm cameras right now. We're shooting 35mm in cameras that are, at the newest, at least a decade or more old.

While old mechanical rangefinders are, theoretically, nearly infinitely repairable, most cameras aren't. The Canon EOS-1N I was shooting with last weekend is a beast of a camera; rugged and weather-sealed and as tough as Canon could make it, the better to stand up to the rigors of use by professional photojournalists. But it's eventually going to succumb to something unrepairable, and they aren't making any more.

Oh, well. I'll enjoy it while I can.

Tennessee Tourist Shirt, Summer 2015, Canon EOS-1N, Agfapan 25

Oh, and Bobbi's film? I've got a couple rolls of slide film I'm going to need to send to The Darkroom in California, so I'll put hers in the envelope with them.