Update June 2019: Some good news! Tetenal lives to see another day (sort of)! Also, Polaroid Originals has Spectra and large format back in stock in the US. Whew!
It’s no secret that film, as a consumer product, is dead. However, despite this, the past decade has been amazing for professionals and amateur photographers who love analogue.
Impossible Project stepped up and not only brought Polaroid back, but improved and expanded on it. Fujifilm’s Instax instant film line exploded in popularity among even casual photographers. Lomography continued its weird and wild experiments. Used 35mm and medium format cameras could and still can be had for a song, with leftover gear still floating around from the days when it dominated the industry.
However, there are signs that this golden age may be ending. Storm clouds are collecting over the remnants of the industry.
Film manufacturing and development is the product of an enormously complex system. Every stage of the process requires chemicals and engineering know-how at a level beyond any individual’s ability. Because of this, film is more fragile than it might seem.
For example, the recent bankruptcy of Tetenal, a chemical company well over a century old, threatens the very industry itself. With Tetenal gone, and film no longer a dominant consumer product, there’s not much of an economic reason for a different company to step in and keep producing these chemicals. Enthusiasts might be able to save manufacturing equipment here and there, but something like chemical sources are much harder to preserve.
Down the chain, former major players, like Fujifilm and Kodak, are in danger, gone, or are actively abandoning film. Fujifilm, despite the success of its Instax film line, is well on its way to eliminating all of its legendary 35mm lines. Kodak, already a shell of a company, is putting on a brave face, but it is hardly assured they’ll be able to keep marching on.
The Impossible Project, one of the great champions of analogue, is even showing signs of strain. Joining forces with Polaroid to become Polaroid Originals looked to be incredibly promising, and the new cameras that have come from the company are great, but… there are signs that all might not be well. 8×10 film went out of stock, and remains out of stock a year later. Spectra film followed. Innovative Impossible Project products, like circle frame, have yet to reappear. Fingers crossed that the malaise infesting the shell of what was once Polaroid hasn’t spread to Polaroid Originals.
Production of film isn’t the only thing in danger. It’s already incredibly difficult to maintain and find parts for the film processors still floating around out there. High quality film scanners are breaking down, increasingly difficult to use, and impossible to fix. Personally, I use a Nikon Coolscan V, which I have to maintain an isolated Windows XP machine to run. It will only get more difficult with time to maintain this exotic, delicate equipment. We can only cross our fingers that open sourcing outdated technology might buy us more time.
I think it’s important to recognize how lucky we film shooters have been over the past few years. We need to keep supporting each other and our industry, but we also shouldn’t be surprised and demoralized when it continues to contract.
Film is never truly coming back. But we can certainly enjoy its long, slow decline. Grab a camera, a fresh pack while you can, and get out there and shoot.
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