Thursday, September 5, 2013

Riding the Imaging Revolution, Part 1

Fayette, MI. 2001 -- from 4x5 transparency film

What's past is prologue...

That's from Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'. Both the quote & the title of the play seem particularly apt when considering my photographic career, which of late I've had ample cause to do.

Though I'd occasionally used a Brownie camera as a kid, I began my professional relationship with film in 1975. A robust era in the film business, today reduced to a half-remembered Age of Dinosaurs who embraced their own extinction.

In '75, Chicago was a global center for commercial & industrial motion pictures, nearly all of it shot on 16mm film. I found a job in a film lab close to home then a couple years later at a facility downtown, which was by volume among the top ten 16mm labs in the world.

Taking advantage of the free processing and workprint that came with the job, I bought a used Bolex outfit and figured my career path for set. There were plenty of ways to make a living, provided you could put film in the can on time, on budget and to spec.

In 1982, Sony introduced its Betacam Video Format. Kodak quickly discontinued the film stock I favored for the Bolex. I picked up a Nikon F from a co-worker and transitioned from motion to still photography, grudgingly. Not so long after, the lab I'd worked for closed, it's owners unable to adapt to changing technology.

I took a job at a commercial photo lab, the newest version of a nearly 80 year old operation and a regional powerhouse. The lab had evolved from Kaufman & Fabray, who'd served as Official Photographers of Chicago's fabled 1933 World's Fair, called A Century of Progress.

A library of original Kaufman & Fabray large format negatives (complete with catalogue prints), was faithfully kept in the 3rd floor office suites. Employees enjoyed access to the collection. It was in that cloistered space where I received my first deep exposure to the wonders of large format film, especially as applied to architectural photography.

Generations of professional experience and craft informed the operation. Each and every day my knowledge of film, both in theory and in practice, grew.

All in all, it was a good gig.

In 1990, Kodak's Premier Image Enhancement System hit the market and the digital revolution in commercial photography was upon us.

By the time Cymbolic Science introduced its LightJet 2000 digital photographic printer at PMA 1995, Beta Unit 2 was already up and running where I worked. The boss invited a cadre of other lab owners over for a special demonstration. That day a new way of doing old things was greeted with great enthusiasm, fueled at least as much by free liquor as by any informed optimism over the future of the industry, I should think.

All along the way, few demonstrated any understanding of the threat to their livelihood wrought by radical technological change. Maybe they were blinded by all the spiffy new toys, I dunno. But having seen firsthand what video did to an entire industry built on 16mm film and in so short a time, I lobbied hard to join the 'Electronic Imaging Department' and did.

Then early in '96 I bought a used Linhof along with a great Zeiss lens, knowing full well that the camera was already obsolete in effect, if not actual fact. With free processing still a job perk and by printing for myself after hours, I learned how best to use it.

Spietz, Switzerland 1996 -- from 4x5 transparency film

That powerhouse of a commercial lab closed in 2000, victim to an imaging revolution it'd been quick to embrace. I was the last tech standing.

For a few years I contracted with a smaller lab in Milwaukee, mostly as a freelance Lenticular designer. Lenticular was then a high-end graphics product and hellaciously difficult to master. For a bit, I was among the best in the Midwest. At least until mediocre product came flooding in for pennies on the dollar from across the Eastern Rim, after which my expertise didn't count for beans.

I kept shooting and retired the Nikon altogether, to work exclusively with 4x5 transparency.

Then, the morning I was scheduled to press the flesh at an imaging convention, I sat riveted instead in front of my TV as the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed into history. Downtown Chicago was mostly evacuated and that day's convention was cancelled. The following day I trudged to McCormick Place, which massive space was crammed to the rafters with the latest digital gizmos.

I didn't know it at the time, but 9/11 marked the end of my commercial career.

Despite the President's admonition that we all keep spending, marketing money dried right up. Contracts already negotiated went unsigned. When the lab in Milwaukee went under, I bought their only lightly used IqSmart 2 scanner and kept right on shooting 4x5 transparency, crafting fine art giclĂ©e prints from high res scans.

Of course, I'd hoped all along that when the inevitable end came, there'd be some few years yet when large format image capture on film would benefit from a boutique status it so richly deserved, while craftsmen and aesthetes and other interested parties could properly lay the old lady down proud.

But, alas.

Which brings us to the original purpose of this Search for Perfect Light...

Upson, WI. 2012 -- from 4x5 transparency film

To be continued...


  1. Replies
    1. Me too, as I don't quite know yet where it's headed...

  2. How beautiful and inspiring are these photographs of my favorite things, windows yearning to be peered into. Lovely. thank you, F. Hutton.

    1. Besides their visual interest, windows are often rich in metaphorical content too. I love 'em. There's so much going on in 'Solarius' (including flowered wallpaper on the facing interior wall), that I was near to jumping out of my shoes during the set up, worried that I'd lose the light. Thank-you, for your kind words.

  3. This is fascinating, Frank. I know very little about the world you worked in for so long, but I appreciate your splendid photos, your expertise and even more than your technique, your compositions and your choices.

    1. Thank-you, Nonnie. For the longest time there hung a sign outside one of the darkroom doors that read: "One of life's greatest pleasures takes place in a dark room". I had a good run during a particularly tumultuous time in what was then a mature industry but which today is mostly no more.

      Must be time for yet another reinvention, eh? Luckily, I've considerable experience with that, too...