Internet Helps Analog Photography Hold On

By PETER SVENSSON, AP Business Writer

NEW YORK – With its market eviscerated by digital photography, Eastman Kodak Co. last year stopped making black-and-white photo paper.

It was a loss most photographers could live with, except for a few who dreaded the loss of Azo, a paper with unusual characteristics that Kodak had made continuously since 1898. Other papers “just are not as beautiful,” said Michael A. Smith, a photographer who prints all of his work on Azo.

In another world, the few Azo adherents that were left might never have found each other. But through their Web site, Smith and his wife Paula Chamlee, also a photographer, pulled together almost a quarter of a million dollars from photographers and customers to finance production of an Azo-like paper at an old photographic plant in Europe.

“The place we’re having it done has one old guy who supposedly made it for Kodak in the 50s, and we were told that if he wasn’t there, it just couldn’t be done,” Smith said.

The resurrection of Azo is just one example of how the Internet is helping an old craft hang on despite the march of technology. By facilitating the exchange of information, equipment and plain old-fashioned encouragement, Web sites and mailing lists has given analog photography a second lease on life.

“The Internet certainly has enabled us to reach the community of people who use these products. Without it, it would be impossible,” Smith said.

One online haven for photographers who use silver-based materials is, home of the Analog Photography Users Group. Discussions of digital cameras and inkjet printers are forbidden from the site, except for a few circumstances where they’re an adjunct to traditional processes. Started in 2002, APUG has more than 12,000 members. Its founder, New Zealand-based Sean Ross, left an IBM Corp. job a few months ago to devote himself full-time to the site.

“I have no doubt that much more film, paper, and chemistry are sold today because of our community,” Ross said via e-mail.

A beneficiary of that trend is JandC Photo, a small company in Kansas City that specializes in importing photo products from Eastern Europe and film for old-fashioned cameras.

“There was a pent-up demand for film — especially black-and-white film — in formats that were previously unavailable,” said JandC’s John Minakais.

For example, the company reintroduced film for the classic Kodak Brownie box cameras. Kodak hasn’t made film for them in more than a decade.

Such film wouldn’t be worth the shelf space in a brick-and-mortar store, because in any given area, there are only a few users. But JandC’s Web site reaches a worldwide customer base, Minakais said.

In his Manhattan apartment, language professor and fervent APUGer David Goldfarb shows off his eBay finds, including a boxy 12-pound Graflex camera the size of a desktop computer, made in 1926 for photojournalists. Built for speed, it can take about one picture every 20 seconds (compared to eight pictures per second for today’s press photographers’ digital cameras.) “I’ve taken it to Central Park to take pictures of friends’ kids,” he said.

Before the Internet, he probably wouldn’t have thought of getting the camera, he said. Then, finding information on old cameras involved writing to manufacturers and getting old catalogs from them. Now, he can just ask aficionados eager to share their knowledge on the Web.

Goldfarb bought the Graflex a few years ago for about $750. He said it’s now worth a lot more — perhaps $1,200 — as people’s eyes have opened to the cameras via Web forums.

Another find: a huge but modern camera that cost about $13,000 new, bought on eBay for $850. Through the Web, Goldfarb hired a machinist to produce an adapter so he could attach to the camera a lens from the very earliest days of photography, 150 years ago.

One online fount of information is Rowland Mowrey, a retired Kodak researcher in Rochester, N.Y. He spends 2 to 4 hours a day online on photo sites and e-mail, sharing knowledge gathered during 32 years in the photo industry.

The discourse isn’t always to his liking. The Internet has spread a lot of myths in photographic circles and “created more acrimony than I’ve ever seen in groups face to face,” Mowrey said.

He has sometimes seen others give advice about mixing photo chemicals without mentioning potential health hazards. “And then when I try to say something, all hell breaks loose,” Mowrey complained.

But Mowrey has connected with valuable collaborators online. One sent him about 250 rolls worth of film without the coating that makes it light-sensitive. Apart from coming up with new chemical formulas, Mowrey is now planning to lead workshops that teach participants how to coat their own film and paper.

“None of that would have happened if it weren’t for the Internet,” Mowrey said.

However, Mowrey has no illusions about halting the decline of film-based photography, which he devoted most of his professional life to. The Internet may be one of the best things that ever happened to traditional photography, but it still may only amount to an additional bailing bucket on a sinking ship.

“The investment to restart any photographic (production) line is so enormous it boggles the mind,” Mowrey said.

Homemade film will only go so far, especially in terms of light sensitivity — Mowrey’s film won’t be very light sensitive compared to commercial products. Manufacturers have kept some parts of the process secret, and may take those secrets with them when they leave the film business.

“Even though the Internet is there, there is a certain level we can’t go beyond,” he said.

source – Associated Press